A Geordie cultural peak
Newcastle in the '70s and '80s was somewhat rich in local culture. Not just Eric and those he worked with, below, but local references abounded in the folk-tinged guitar rock of Lindisfarne, Dire Straits were namechecking Whitley Bay's Spanish City and Sunderland's Toy Dolls' manic punk littered with local in-jokes having more in common with Eric's lyrics than either would like to admit. The region was also famous for heavy rock, indeed many of Eric's recordings were produced at Impulse Studios in Wallsend by Dave Wood, a legendary birthplace of metal of the era (and also the place where Sting made his recording debut). And then there were The High Level Ranters (the first folk band to revive the Northumbrian small pipes, and still going strong today) and more stand up comedians than you could throw a stotty cake at.
Why was it such a fertile time? Maybe the high regional content of local TV and radio back then helped - both BBC Newcastle and Tyne Tees had regional opt-out programmes from the BBC and ITV networks and in radio both BBC and ILR had far more specialist music shows than today. Arts funding was much more generous too - the annual Newcastle Festival, which led to both Geordierama and Katie Mulholland, has long since disappeared under a tide of arts cuts, and the story is same throughout the country. But there were also simply a lot of talented writers and performers around, and ones who were proud of their roots.
It's not all doom and gloom though. In the 2010s folk-influenced pop has a presence in the charts which it didn't in the '80s or '90s: Katie Melua, Mumford & Sons, Ed Sheeran and Ryton's own Unthanks. And the pub folk club scene continues, with 'Women and Beer' and 'But It's Mine' taking their place along side the traditional songs of a century earlier like 'Blaydon Races', 'Lambton Worm' and 'Cushy Butterfield'. But for the sake of posterity here are some of the household names of those times, at least in the vicinity of the Rivers Tyne, Wear or Tees. Further information gratefully received.
In his twin guises as demobbed slacker Private Bobby and the cloth-capped hen-pecked Little Waster, Bobby Thompson (1911-1988) was the diminutive colossus of local comedy for decades. A former miner from Penshaw, Bobby's "gallows humour" derived from the hard times he'd experienced, not least debt. "I'm in debt up to heor," he would say, hand to temple. "Ah wish ah wez taller". Fortunately various CDs and videos exist of his stand up as well as the three songs Eric wrote for him and Bobby is still fondly recalled in the area.
Gateshead's Ted Scott Dobson (1918-1986) produced numerous books, pamphlets and memorabilia about the Geordie 'language' and customs which often advocated, perhaps not entirely jokingly, home rule for the North East, Mike Neville naturally to be crowned king. Like Bobby, no topic was off-limits and the ubiquitous outside netty never far away. His best known book Larn Yersel Geordie became a BBC Radio Newcastle series in the late 1960s and he later wrote most of the Geordierama scripts. A distinctive figure in his peaked cap and bright waistcoats, tourist information centres and bookshops still stock Scott Dobson merchandise, whether English-Geordie dictionaries or Geordie passports (all of which are numberered fowerty fower). The Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group has more about Scott and his books.
To generations of locals Mike Neville (1936-2017) was synonymous with teatime as he presented the regional TV news bulletin for almost half a century. The unflappable Mike and his wry on screen banter with co-hosts George House, Tom Kilgour and weatherman Bob Johnson started and ended his reign at Tyne Tees Television with a not insignificant 32 years at the helm of BBC Look North in the middle. He and George were the perfect comperes of Geordierama and spoof news bulletins written for them by Scott Dobson and Roger Burgess were part of the shows. Mike was so famous around the region that he was represented as a four metre high puppet (along side similar effigies of Bobby Thompson and Catherine Cookson) in a millennium night hundred drum parade around Newcastle. There's an excellent biography of him at transdiffusion.org.
Washington New Town, its utilitarian concrete architecture and impenetrable road network are celebrated in Eric's 'Ghost of Geordie Washington', the first President of the USA becoming disorientated by one sign too many to "Districts 3, 4, 7 and 2". The song was based on a real event as Eric and singer Ralph Hawkes indeed became lost one day while negotiating the sprawling highways and roundabouts. Despite Ralph actually living there (in District 2). A grocer by day and soaring tenor by night, Ralph was the most prolific contemporary performer of Eric's songs and made 'But It's Mine', 'You'll Have To Settle Down' (with Marian Aitchison) and 'Jenny Was There' his own. He was also a quarter of the Shiremoor Marras who sang traditional songs in mining gear, which led to the anomaly of his being caricatured twice on the sleeve of Left To Right). Ralph's wife Doris Hawkes meanwhile was multiple times local clog-dancing champion. Ralph died suddenly in the early 1980s when only in his fifties greatly upsetting Eric who would often praise his unique, yet untutored, rich vocal. Fortunately many recordings survive.
Low Fell soprano, singing teacher and former choir leader Marian is very well respected in the region. She was one of Eric's closest friends for many decades after auditioning for one of the Geordierama shows and several songs were written with her in mind. She is particularly associated with 'Everything Changes', 'Ower Young To Be Married Yet' and 'I Waited On The North Dock'. The latter was on one occasion performed live on Tyne Tees Television, possibly on Northern Life, with atmospheric sea fog provided by a smoke machine with an overenthusiastic operator. Marion was soon completely obscured by the fog and Tyne Tees TV has never been the same since, really. Eric didn't write too many songs specifically for women but there are plenty of recordings of Marian, often duets with Ralph Hawkes or Joe Ging. Marian also sang Katie's part for the Katie Mulholland demo recordings.
County Durham resident Michael Hunt was the first to sing 'I've Got A Little Whippet' but as a cursory search on YouTube will show far from the last. He utilised a ventriloquist dummy style toy whippet with movable head (rather in the manner of Rod Hull's Emu) to add pathos to the song, as if more were needed. Several other singers followed this tradition and at one point there were three whippets in circulation, replete with Newcastle United scarves and big, forlorn eyes. The other song associated with Michael is 'With Me Pit Claes On'. He's the one with the whippet on the sleeve of Left To Write. Michael died in the mid 2000s.
Chislett Ging, commonly known as Joe, worked tirelessly to maintain the Victorian and Edwardian cultural history of the North East. Variously the director of Newcastle's Joicey Museum, curator of the Northern Music Hall Museum, author of local history books, singer and raconteur, Joe was one of Sounds of Tyne & Wear with Eric and Marian in the 1980s. He was an actor as well and often had parts in Tyne Tees dramas when not performing with local theatre companies. He died in 1995. There's a mention of Joe's thespian exploits and indeed a clip of him singing Eric's 'You'll Have To Settle Down' with Marian Aitchison at Ron Drew's Theatre Page.
As a producer then Head of Arts at Tyne Tees Heather made numerous local television programmes including 1978's What Fettle! (see elsewhere on the site) and local editions of ITV's Sounds Of Britain, bringing Eric's local material to larger audiences.
Roger wrote with Eric on multiple occasions, from the Geordierama scripts to the first version of Katie Mulholland. A regional producer for BBC television, he has many drama and documentary credits to his name.
Hebburn born Frank (1930-2014) was a BBC Radio Newcastle presenter for 40 years and interviewed Eric several times, on one occasion on Christmas Day. His immensely varied programmes featured music from the early part of the 20th century through to gospel through to Eric's nonsense about whippets. Also a singer and a minister, Frank compered the final Geordierama with Bill Steel of Tyne Tees' Northern Life and continuity fame.
Graeme (b 1962) represents the next generation but this shouldn't understate his role in the DMLD story. A native of Ponteland, he is Principal Bass of English National Opera and has sung opera all over the world. He has been a staunch supporter of Eric's songs since the early 2000s, and most if not all of Eric's later songs were written for Graeme. Indeed the singer has made more recordings that remain available today of Eric's songs than anyone else, several being duets with his wife, Scottish soprano Valerie Reid. Graeme is currently a Professor in the Performing Arts department of University of Cumbria.