FLASHBACK: ‘I did the follow spot for Michael Jackson’


Lighthouse opened as Poole Arts Centre on 1 April 1978 – three days after Ratchet Theatre director Jeremy Holloway started working here, the start of a great adventure...

I started work at Poole Arts Centre three days before it opened on 1 April 1978. I was working at Barclays at the time but wanted to earn some extra money so took a job as a commissionaire tearing tickets at the new arts centre – it was the biggest outside of London and a big deal for Poole.

It was run by Anthony Covell and the Front of House manager was John Slaney who was a lovely chap – he never got ruffled by anything or anyone, no matter how loudly someone complained. Barry Newman was stage manager, and I think there was another called Roger. His deputy was Alan and I remember a flyman called Patrick, but what struck me most about it was that everyone wanted Poole Arts Centre to succeed and would do anything to help it do so.

We were a very close team and we all looked out for each other – if one person worked late, we all pitched in to help if we could. It wasn’t long before I started helping out backstage and on the tech team for a bit of extra cash as well. That was how I came to follow spot Michael Jackson.

I was only vaguely aware of The Jacksons from their TV appearances on the Andy Williams Show and shows like that, but I didn’t know much about their music. That night it was my job to follow the lead singer, who was Michael of course. Years later when I was teaching I would tell my students that I’d worked Michael Jackson and they’d always ask what he was like – and I had to say I have no idea!

The Jacksons had this underlit perspex floor that was too big for the Wessex Hall stage so they couldn’t use it, but they did have a fibre optic peacock as part of the stage set – that was pretty impressive.

I met Tina Turner as well, although at the time I didn’t actually know it was her. She played Poole as a warm-up date for a very short tour and liked it so much she came back for another show a couple of weeks later. I was backstage when this short lady with straight air came up to me and asked if she could order a few things for the interval. A lot of them wanted a drink, but she asked for fresh fruit and fruit juice. She was very sweet, a lovely lady.

I only knew it was her when one of the dancers called out to her by name as she walked away. That was an amazing show; she was electric, an incredible performer.

It was my job to set up the front of house rooms for exhibitions and functions and what have you, like the Under 18s disco. There was the Seldown Gallery downstairs and the Canford Room on the second floor and another rehearsal room on the first floor.

They used to have life drawing classes there that were taken by a quite well-known artist called Sam Rabin who was about 80, but very well respected. They needed a model for the first class and asked for volunteers – we got paid so I said I’d do it.

That was how I became the first life model at Poole Arts Centre, but after that we all used to have a go on rotation.”

I only spent a year at Poole Arts Centre, but it came to define my life. I didn’t grow up with any particular interest in the theatre or music and had no idea of the kinds of jobs you could do in the theatre. I was dyslexic and left school with only one O level and one CSE, so I got a job in banking in Berkshire then moved to Poole to work at Barclays International. It wasn’t very well paid so I only went to the arts centre in search of extra cash but found I loved the work so much I never wanted a night off.

I knew pretty soon that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and applied for a one-year stage management course at Bristol Old Vic – 2000 applicants for 14 places – and got in. I then went on tour for ten years, then taught at South Devon College and finally did a degree at the age of 49 at Dartington College of Arts, then my MA.

Today, I run my own theatre company, Ratchet, and write, produce and direct plays. I’m 66 now and should be about to retire, so my whole adult life has been in theatre, but I wouldn’t have done any of it had it not been for that incredible year at Poole Arts Centre.

We had Leslie Crowther in the first summer season and the first Christmas show was Follow the Star, by the same writer who went on to write Wicked, with Harry H Corbett. He was a lovely man, he would sign anything for anyone and take time to talk to them as well. The next year was Derek Griffiths with Brian Cant and Dickie Murdoch from The Navy Lark who was the star, another great company.

I keep remembering other shows as well. We had Roy Barraclough in Staircase in the Towngate Theatre and I remember taking Showaddywaddy along to GiGi’s night club in Bournemouth after their gig.

I was on the second floor when The Queen came to open the arts centre. I remember our cleaners were very upset as they’d not been allowed to clean for Her Majesty, it had to be contract cleaners and they really went to town.

Kent Opera had this double revolve with mist so that the actors could come out of the mist and star singing on one side of the stage then disappear as more came out on the other side. Another show had this 40-foot high balloon as a backdrop, ingenious design, but it was really heavy when it was blown up so it was held in place with counterweights and we had to hold on to it with hemps as well.

The first time I ever appeared on stage was as a walk-on in a play called The Relapse, Or Virtue In Danger by John Vanbrugh. It was a Restoration job as I recall and starred Louise Jameson who was Leela in Doctor Who and was also in Tenko, with a then little-known actor called David Jason – wonder what happened to him?

I also remember doing the Climax Blues Band and the support band that opened for them on tour was Dire Straits. Isaac Hayes was incredible and I remember Randy Edelman was the first person to play the Arts Centre’s Steinway in public.

Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards appeared in Big Bad Mouse – the two of them corpsing throughout. Brilliant. Eric did a ten minute solo spot with a telephone that would bounce back each time he hit it, and Jimmy was drunk the whole time onstage and off, but an amazing show. Lionel Blair in comedy, and Colin Baker, and London Contemporary Dance, it was an incredibly busy year.

I have an enormous amount to thank Poole Arts Centre for – I found my calling there and I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without it.

Poole Arts Centre 1978 showing the outside of the building, the Wessex Hall, the bar and Towngate Theatre
Michael Jackson on stage during The Jacksons' 1979 tour that included Poole Arts Centre
A press ad for Tina Turner's 1979 tour that included two shows at Poole Arts Centre
The poster for Big Bad Mouse starring Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards
The 1978 tour programme for Cambridge Theatre 's production of Vanbrugh's Relapse, featuring David Jason
Tour poster for Climax Blues Band supported by Dire Straits