A film about Jools Holland stirred memories of a beautifully unusual childhood for Sam Wonfor. Warning: Contains name dropping bombs.
ONE of my first real memories features my lovely mum, dad and their friend from work sitting around the dining table in our three-bedroomed semi in Chapel House, Newcastle.
As all children will testify, conversations between grown ups are almost always terminally dull and forgettable, but this one stuck in my six-year-old mind. They were deciding what to call a new music TV programme. Now this kind of chat wasn’t unusual in our house.
My parents – Andrea and Geoff Wonfor – had been involved in making TV shows like Razzmatazz, Check It Out, Briefing and Alright Now long before I could remember. But maybe I had a sixth sense the one they were talking about with producer Malcolm Gerrie was going to make a groundbreaking mark.
By the end of the chat, they’d decided on The Tube (opting to sidestep my dad’s suggestion of calling it The New Blue Toot Exam – in cheeky homage to The Old Grey Whistle Test), and so began a pretty eventful few years of my childhood.
Don’t get me wrong, it had always been good fun to go and watch things being filmed and what have you (although I was always more excited to have free rein on the electric typewriters if I’m honest).
But by the time The Tube hit the screen at the end of 1982, I was approaching the age when I could get properly excited about hanging around at the studios and seeing the likes of The Police, Wham! or Michael Hutchence standing in line at the staff canteen.
Of course The Tube became legendary for its anarchic style and swearing slip-ups, but when you look at the list of superstar talent it welcomed on to its Studio Five stages on City Road, it is pretty mind boggling. Tina Turner, The Jam, The Police, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, Dire Straits, Duran Duran, INXS, Meat Loaf, R.E.M, Wham!, Whitney Houston, Tom Waits, The Smiths, The Stranglers, Iggy Pop, U2, ZZ Top and Thin Lizzy were among the crowds of bands who entertained the Channel Four-watching nation, live from Tyneside of a Friday teatime. And I was lucky enough to have an access all areas pass.
Truth be told, I used it more to get unlimited orange juice and crisps from the green room than to star-spot in the early days, but it still offered some memorable moments.
Like the time Paul McCartney gave me a pink rose when I was nine. It was immediately pressed, framed and accompanied by a terribly written poem which I won’t recount here.
It stayed on my wall for five years... until I needed the frame for a photo of the Bros brothers. I’ve never been allowed to forget that.
As well as bringing legends to Newcastle, The Tube was also credited with discovering new talent.
I remember Dad, who directed lots of the on-location films for the show, returning home from an eventful shoot in Liverpool with the then unsigned Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It had involved some outgoing ladies and rather a lot of leather as I recall. A couple of weeks later, the band had a record deal and were belting out the anthem Relax on live telly.
The time he went to film a young unknown Scottish band is also welded in memory. He’d had to take the lead singer for a pep-talking walk along the beach before filming could start. Who’d have thought Marti Pellow, of Wet Wet Wet, was shy?
From the very beginning the show’s fresh-faced and feisty presenters, Jools Holland and Paula Yates, quickly became part of our family. Over the show’s five years, they offered me lovely lodgings when I was on location with my Dad, as well as style advice, trips to Chanel and hand-me-downs (in the case of Paula) and the ability to play a boogie-woogie piano left hand (that would be Jools).
My times staying with Paula, who tragically died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2000, offer a catalogue of moments to hold on to. Like the time I opted to stay in the basement with popcorn and a Disney VHS rather than pop upstairs to have some takeaway with ‘Mick and Jerry’. The only Jerry I knew of was Tom’s mousey nemesis. How was I to know there was a Rolling Stone and Texan goddess in the lounge?
Or the time she took me shopping to Harrods for my school Christmas party dress... only to be chastised by my dad for spending £75 on an outfit for a nine-year-old... until George Harrison – who had popped in for a cuppa – advised him it was Christmas – so stop whinging about it!
Now while Jools never took me shopping, he did offer to take me home to his Blackheath pad on the back of a classic motorbike once... only to be accosted at the gates to the school where we’d been filming by my panicky dad, who’d had a change of heart. He also gave me more than one Casio keyboard over the years. I’m still waiting to be taught that boogie woogie right hand mind you.
I’ve been thinking about those times a lot recently – prompted by a BBC2 documentary which Dad has made about Jools’ life.
It’s going to be broadcast on Saturday night and offers a thoroughly lovely once around Jools’ long-running career – from his childhood in Greenwich and early career with Squeeze, to his now national treasure status as the host of the UK’s longest-running music show, Later... and the master of a stomping Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, who are keeping their usual festive double date with Newcastle City Hall on December 21 and 22.
Chatting with Jools, I wonder how he remembers me, when I was four foot tall.
“Well, utterly charming and smiley and agreeable,” he says kindly. “Very cheerful and very positive.
“One of the things about Tyne Tees at the time was that it was like a big family, with your mum in charge of it,” he continues.
“I remember one day one of the security guards saying to me (imagine Jools doing Geordie accent here): ‘Have you seen Geoff? His mam has sent some Spam fritters down.’
“Then there was Jimmy who ran the pub over the road (the Rose and Crown). He was so gloomy, but if you knew Geordies, you realised that was his sense of humour. One night we walked in there with Miles Davis – maybe the greatest living jazz trumpeter – who had his trumpet under his arm. As soon as we walked in, Jimmy said: ‘He’s not playing that in here, like’.
“That was the kind of atmosphere we enjoyed. It was a lovely time. We didn’t realise how lucky we were to have that kind of freedom to make television which ended up inventing a new way of doing things. It’s been lovely to revisit the memories.”
:: Jools Holland: My Life in Music airs on BBC2 this Saturday at 10pm. Jools Holland and His Rhythm and Blues Orchestra play Newcastle City Hall on December 21 and 22. Call 0191 277 8030 to book.