To begin at the very beginning (a very good place to start)

A birth certificate has 10 numbered columns for information, the unnumbered column on the left is a filing number. 

A birth certificate is often the first document to launch you onto that journey into your family’s history.

The document provides a birth date (column 1) and sometimes even a time. The timing on a Scottish certificate is normal but if it is on a certificate issued outside Scotland can indicate a possible multiple birth (twins, triplets etc).

The place of birth is also given, in small communities this might only give the name of the village but normally it will be a home address or a hospital or nursing home.

Next (column 2) will be the given name or names of the child, although this might at times be left blank, especially in the 19th and early 20th century. This often happened if the father was away at the time the birth was registered, possibly a sailor on a long voyage or a soldier posted abroad. In the mid to late 19th century this could have been because of the Crimean War or the Boer War and, of course, in the first half of the 20th century foreign posting during the two world wars.

A birth had to be registered within a statutory period and in many cases the mother would wait for her husband to come home so that they could choose an appropriate name between them.

The sex of the child is also given (column 3). This is not as silly as it might sound because a name might not always be a clue as to sex, The real name of the 20th century wrestler Big Daddy was Shirley Crabtree which might remind you of the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” but in the 19th century Shirley was exclusively a boy’s name. In the 17th and 18th centuries Valentine could be a girl’s name or a boy’s name.

Unless there is a doubt about the paternity the names of both parents will be given (columns 4 and 5) and the surname of the mother before marriage. The previous name might be given as nee Xxxxxx, which normally indicates a first marriage, whereas formerly Xxxxxx, indicates a previous marriage while also known as Xxxxxx, indicates doubts as to whether or not the parents were married.

In the 19th century a woman could give the name of the man she claimed to be the father but by the 20th century this section would be left blank unless the father admitted paternity. When the father is named his occupation (column 6) will also be given which is helpful when the name you are looking for is quite common. The occupation could make all the difference.

The name of the person registering a birth (column 7) is quite often the mother as the father would probably be at work and taking time out to register a birth in the 19th and early 20th centuries would be highly unlikely. The date of registration (column 8) is also given.

The final two columns (9 and 10) are for the name and position of the person taking the registration followed by a blank in case a name is given after registration.

The certificate shown above is a typewritten copy of the original and the copyist has actually filled in the error on the certificate and included what would have been a handwritten note.

Actually tracking down births is not as easy as you might think. You cannot just wade through thousands and thousands of birth indexes which means you have to have an approximate year of birth at least.

This could come from baptismal records, a note in a Bible or even a marriage date – just remember that although the parents are probably married the birth of the first child might not be nine months or more later. Mum could easily have been using her bouquet to cover a bump.

Unlike marriages and deaths you will not necessarily find births in newspaper columns.

In the 19th century often only the well-to-do could afford to put an announcement of a family event in the newspaper, and even then information on births was very sparse, offering little more thana date and the name of the proud father (it appears the mother was not worth the cost of the extra words).

The real boom in newspaper birth announcements did not really come until the middle of the last century. Most birth dates from then on are normally known within the family.

Newspapers can be helpful at times, even now, especially if someone had moved away from the area and vanished from other records.

A classic example of such a case appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, on 7 July, 1927:

RIX: July 4, at Englefield, Williamstown, South Australia, to Mr and Mrs Rix (nee Chrystabel Newton) a son.

Someone, somewhere could have been missing Miss Newton and at least this puts them on the right track.

Great Aunt Fanny could tell you a tale or two about the olden days

Although family history is based on provable facts it does not mean you should ignore individual memories or family stories which have been handed down orally over generations. A senior member of a family, a grandparent born in the 1930s or 40s could give you a direct link to someone alive during the reign of Queen Victoria.

My father, now long dead, was born in 1915 and his parents were both born in the 19th century, one the son of a Welsh minister who had started life as a weaver in Machynlleth, the other the daughter of a businessman whose father had been a box maker in the mid-19th century who built a business bottling mineral water and other drinks in Worcester.

I had long talks with my mother over the years uncovering our family history

My mother was born in 1920 in Liverpool from a family, named Lloyd, which had originated in North Wales. On her mother’s side the family had strong ties to Scotland, her grandfather, surnamed Craig, was born in Ayrshire in the mid-19th century.

Both had many tales to tell, some which had come straight from the horse’s mouth while others had originated further back in the 19th century, or even the 18th century.

Talking to these older family members can provide a grand store of family stories which might appear to have grown over the decades but can provide solid clues of where to look and, surprisingly, some of these old stories have a solid foundation of proof.

An example of this was a story my mother had been told about an ancestor who had been born in a Cornish fishing village and join the Royal Navy only to have been invalided out after an accident on board ship.

I later traced the Climo name from Liverpool back to Devon and then back to Polruan in Cornwall. This is where Thomas Climo was born and raised until he joined the Navy. On one of his voyages the vessel he was on was wrecked on a small reef near Bermuda.

Later censuses listed him as a Greenwich pensioner, although he was now sailing in merchant vessels. The pension, paid as an out pensioner (which meant he did not reside at the Greenwich Royal Naval Hospital but had been injured enough to make him no longer fit for service in the Royal Navy) thus confirmed the main facts of the story and gave me enough clues to fill out his life.

My father told me the family story about his grandfather’s family and the ghost of a soldier who allegedly came back to see his old mother as she lay dying. Years later I found an old notebook written by my great grandfather, the Welsh minister, in which he gave details of an event at which he had been present as a child. According to him the family had been seated around the kitchen fire while his grandmother was in the bedroom above, understood to be at death’s door.

He wrote that they all heard the sound of a soldier’s boots on the cobbles outside and that the sound came through the door, across the stone-flagged kitchen floor and up to the bedroom above.

When they finally recovered from the shock the old woman’s son went upstairs and found his mother to be dead in her bed but with a peaceful smile on her face.

The moral behind this is that you should never dismiss stories from elderly relatives because there might be a sliver of truth even in the most unbelievable family tale.

When you do interview an elderly family member you should let the memories come out naturally. Don’t begin with: “Is it true that great grandfather Thomas was hanged for murder?” Instead start with: “Was your grandfather alive when you were born and did you ever meet him.”

As your relative picks at his or her memories old stories will come to the surface. Elderly people can often have a great recall of facts from their early years even if they have forgotten what they had for teas two days earlier.

If your relative does agree to an interview then you should plan carefully.

Make a list of questions which might nudge the interviewee towards certain family members. As I said let them set the pace. This doesn’t mean you can’t nudge them in the right direction.

For instance they might not have known that her grandfather’s name was Thomas, they might have known him as Pops or Grandpa, or Taid, but you could ask if other family members had called him by a certain name.

Your interviewee might then recall that great-aunt Norah had called her brother by a strange nickname when she was teasing him but called him Thomas when she was being serious.

You need to lead in to the stories you are looking for and should start with the3 basics to set your relative at ease.

Here is a list of possible questions:

1. “When were you born?” You could then ask “where” if the first answer is fairly positive.

2. “What was your father called and did he have a nickname?”

3. “What was your mother’s name and do you know her surname before she was married? Do you know where your parents were married?”

4. “What work did your father do? Did you ever visit him at work?”

5. “Did your mother go out to work and did she ever take you with her?”

6. “Did either of your parents serve in the armed forces, Army, Navy or Air Force, and if so did they have any medals?”

7. “Do you have any old pictures of your family, your parents or grandparents for instance?”

8. “Did your parents ever talk about their childhood. Did they have any brothers or sisters?”

9. “Did you have any brothers or sisters?”

10. “When did your parents die and where are they buried?”

11. “Did they leave a will, if so do you have it, or do you have any other old documents from the family?”

12. “Where was your family home when you were a child?”

13. “Which school did you go to and did the family go toi church, if so, which one?”

14. “Do you remember any relatives visiting when you were a child, or did you visit older relatives when you were young? If so where?”

15. “Do you remember any big family get-togethers, weddings, Christmases or when an elderly relative died?”

You don’t have to stick rigidly to these questions, you might think of others or decide to follow a particular track after an interesting answer.

The important thing to remember is to be gentle with your elderly relative and if a particular question seems to touch a nerve don’t push it. Go in another direction and see if later they are prepared to talk about it.

Don’t make the interview too formal. It might be possible to video it, although older people might not be happy about a camera. Even a tape recorder might be offputting. A pen and paper might be the best answer for making notes. Don’t try to write it all down verbatim, just occasional notes as an aide memoir.

If you want to get ahead get a hat, or two, or four, or even more

Who among you has never collected things – from cigarette cards to Pokemon cards; postage stamps to old coins; autographs to train numbers?

You may even have become a collector by accident, or by just not throwing things away when other tastes change.

There are even unconscious collectors.

You buy a book and because you enjoyed reading it you buy other books by the same author. Before long you have a full bookshelf and you have discovered another author who writes on the same subject but with a different angle and you have to buy all those books as well.

Now it is not just a full bookshelf it is a full set of bookshelves with other books on your bedside table and the window ledge.

You could just as easily have borrowed the books from your local library. Mind you libraries limit the time you can keep that book. In some cases it doesn’t matter because you would read the book the same day, or over three days. Some books, however, take longer; and what about when you want to be sure you have the next book in the series in case you finish the current one at midnight and you still aren’t ready to sleep.

As some of you know I collect books. I can actually remember when I did not have enough books to fill a bookcase; nowadays I have more than enough to fill a room lined with bookcases and I would still have to store some of them in the loft.

It was only on our last move that I realised I had another collection – hats.

I don’t know how it started.

As a baby I wore a sun bonnet, I know this because I have seen the pictures. As I grew up I probably had a cowboy hat, I know when I was six I had a Red Indian (sorry native American) outfit with fringed trousers and tabard and a head-dress which had feathers and went half way down my back.

My next piece of headwear was a Cub Scout cap with a green peak and crown decorated with yellow braid, similar to the sporting caps awarded to cricketers or rugby players or similar sporting types, but without the tassel.

Then cap wearing became compulsory when at the age of 11 I went to the local grammar school. Now if there is one thing I object to it is being told I must wear something, or carry something or do something simply because someone with greater authority tells me I have to.

Many was the time I left home and as soon as was out of sight would take the hated cap off my head and roll it up then stuff it in my blazer pocket. If there was a crowd arriving for school at the same time one uncapped boy amid others could get away with it; unfortunately one day there were not enough others to conceal me from the eagle eyes of the headmaster.

My subsequent punishment, six whacks (what idiot calls them strokes when each one came down harder than the others) of the cane, rather than bringing me into line tended to increase my rebellious attitude.

Not all hats were out of bounds. A fellow member of the yacht club, a sailor with the Merchant Marine, had given me one of his old naval caps which I used to wear when manning the club’s rescue boat. I removed its white plastic cover as the limper blue material, over the darker headband and with the black peak looked far more like something Humphry Bogart, or other actors of that period, would have worn.

In the main, however, I shunned hats at work, after all I had a good head of hair to keep my head warm and only in the coldest winter did I actually wear a hat and even then that was only when I was manning a picket line.

Corduroy trilby and dark glasses on the picket line in 1979

That all changed when I went to live in Australia, not just any part of Australia, mind you, but North Queensland where you could fry eggs on the pavement in the summer and where the winter was more like a decent summer in the UK.

Hats out in the hot sun were a necessity and they came in all shapes and sizes. There was the smart settler hat with a wide brim for smart wear; a straw hat when it came to barbecues and days down at the beach; a floppy brimmed camouflage hat for those with an even more casual air; and even a wider brimmed, hard stetson style hat for riding.

The riding hat and my fawn settler hat came back with me to the UK, not that the black stetson saw much wear. The settler hat was closer to a trilby than a cowboy hat and became my normal headwear to keep my head warm in the winter rather than cool. I soon switched to a Panama in the summer.

Back home in Wales but still got the Aussie hat

My hat collection did not end there, however, and over the next decade or so I added a black trilby and a brown one for semi-formal wear.

By the year 2000 my settler hat was becoming somewhat the worse for wear and had to be retired from ‘going out’ use and assigned to gardening duties only.

A couple of years later I visited Russia and had bought a thick, warm, knitted hat to combat the first blast of the Russian winter. I quickly bought a fur hat, sable, of the type often seen on Soviet soldiers where the flaps could be brought down to protect the ears and a back flap kept the neck warm. My wife has not let me wear it in public since I got back from Russia.

There are markets in Moscow and St Petersburg which sold militaria and Soviet badges, flags and other souvenirs, including army and naval headwear and I couldn’t resist buying a former Soviet sailor’s hat with the long black ribbons and an officer’s peaked cap with the high front and broad top. Although original Red Army caps, the grey ones with red piping as seen in Dr Zhivago, are not readily available for sale a reproduction one, made with exactly the same material and in exactly the same way, was cheap enough to tempt me.

Then, about 14 years ago, we returned to Australia for a holiday and to visit family and I took advantage to replace my old Akubra settler’s hat with another, almost identical one which, on return to the UK, became an everyday hat once again.

Man in black, as editor of a family history magazine checking out gravestones

As so often happens constant wear takes its toll on headgear and towards the end of last year I came to the decision that my settler’s hat needed to go into retirement, its predecessor had by now given up the ghost even for gardening, but I would need a replacement.

Fortunately some rather hefty hints meant a brand-new black fedora, with a narrow tan headband, has taken its place with other hats in the hall and Akubra MkII is now a winter gardening hat, the summer hat for the garden is an old straw hat my father had bought in Australia when my parents visited us in the early 1980s.

Altogether it makes quite a collection and does not include a variety of keffiyahs which are normal worn in this country as a scarf but in Arabic countries are really headwear, with or without a black braided cord put on over them to hold them in place.

So I say farewell for now and doff one of my many hats to you.

Who’s book began like that?

I hope you enjoyed the book quiz.

Here are the answers:


The boy with the fair hair . . .” was the opening of Lord of the Flies, the masterpiece about how quickly we could return to savagery, written by William Golding.

Following a plane crash, a group of schoolboys find themselves on a desert island. Led by Ralph and Piggy, the boys attempt to form a democratic society, but this soon fails. Under the leadership of the dictator Jack, savagery rules, complete with primitive rites and ritual murder. Only with the arrival of a shocked rescue officer does the mask of civilisation return.


“I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them.” This brief sentence opens the sci-fi classic I, Robot by the doyen of the genre Isaac Asimov.

In 2057, aged 75 and retiring from from US Robots, Dr Susan Calvin gave an interview to a reporter from the Interplanetary Press. She talked about her life as a robopsychologist, during which time mere ‘calculating machines’ had been replaced by “spongy globes of plantinumiridium about the size of a human brain”, giving rise to independent, sensible and rational robots. It was her belief that these robots were more human than people and were what stood between mankind and destruction. I, Robot is a record of that interview and the stories about robots Susan Calvin had to tell.


“Cedric himself knew nothing whatever about it.” is the opening line of Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Born in New York, Cedric has lived a simple life with his beautiful, gentle mother since his father died. Now seven and greatly loved by his neighbourhood friends, Cedric is told that he has inherited the title of Lord Fauntleroy and the Earl, his grandfather, wishes him to come and live in England. The book recounts the story of how Cedric wins over his bad-tempered grandfather and takes up the position of man English aristocrat without losing any of his natural charm.


“The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.” begins the tale of Jude the Obscure, by Thomas |Hardy.

This was Hardy’s last work of fiction, a tragic story of ‘a deadly war waged between flesh and spirit’. It focuses on Jude Fawley, a young Wessex villager who, encouraged by his schoolmaster, dreams of studying at Christminster (Oxford). However, he becomes entangled with a barmaid who deserts him after bearing a son. He then falls in love with his cousin and lives with her in poverty and social disapproval. They have two children who are hanged by Jude’s first son and the novel ends with Jude returning to his barmaid and dying wretchedly before he reaches 30.


“Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.” lead us into Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, which is set in West Africa during WW2 and centres on the Roman Catholic (a common theme in much of Greene’s work) deputy commissioner of police, Scobie; his unstable wife, Louise. Scobie becomes a victim of his own compassion for others and ends up planning to commit suicide which he attempts to conceal from his wife by fabricating a diary.

First and last in new book quiz

Sorry about the absence for a couple of days.

I’m adding something new to the mix. A little literary quiz based on well-known books and their first and last lines. See if you know the book each one is from and the name of the author.

It’s just for fun but if you want to give your answers below I will tell you whether they are right or wrong on Sunday, 5th February.


First line: The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.

Last line: He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.


First line: I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them.

Last line: She died last month at the age of eighty-two.


First line: Cedric himself knew nothing whatever about it.

Last line: “There’s not an aunt-sister among ’em -nor a earl!’


First line: The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.

Last line: ‘She’s never found peace since she left his arms, and never will again till she’s as he is now.’


First line: Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.

Last line: ‘And you may be the in the right of it there, too,’ Father Rank replied.

Getting off on the wrong foot as my cinematic world turns upside down

The first day at a new job, or even, when I was a lot younger, a new school, never bothered me. Even interviews were not a problem because I always took the attitude that if I didn’t get this job then there’d be another one coming along soon.

Mind you my first day as an assistant career manager at the Romford Odeon might just as easily have been my last when I looked in on a screening of Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman.

The day began well ease when I met my new boss, Tony Portsche, manager of the Odeon cinema in Romford. He was tall, that I do remember almost 50 years later, and smartly dressed in a light grey lounge suit which I felt had cost far more than the one I was wearing.

We began with a chat in his office, accessed through a long narrow office which had two desks and a load of filing cabinets along with a large metal two-door cupboard.

The manager’s inner office was not quite so crammed. It contained a large desk, with a leather-padded swivel chair on one side and two simple chairs opposite, a two-seater settee and a couple of armchairs at the far end and two glass display cabinets with various trophies in them and photographs on top of Tony with various film stars.

After a general ‘getting to know you’ chat Tony took me on a guided tour of the cinema complex, it was a three screen Odeon adapted from the original single auditorium with the former circle being the largest unit, with two smaller areas on the ground floor.

Like all the old 1930s art deco Odeons it still retained that look of grandeur when the normal auditorium lighting was on but in the full glare of the lights used during cleaning the signs of shabbiness were clear.

As well as the three screens he also showed me the ticket desk and confectionery counter, the stock room and the general store room and staff areas for the ushers and usherettes.

When we returned to Tony’s office there was a young woman, about my own age, at one of the desks in the outer office and Tony introduced her as the local assistant manager. Unfortunately I can’t remember her name but I know we got along during my time there.

The difference between a local assistant and a career assistant was that the local would always be an assistant manager whereas I, as a career assistant, would move on to managing my own cinema.

Once the cinema was open for the day Tony suggested I take a walk around by myself and I began in the two smaller screen areas, at Screen Two, which was showing the Western Little Big Man, a film I had not seen previously (as previously mentioned the only film we had a chance to watch on tour was Deadly Weapons).

I opened the outer door and closed it behind me before pushing the curtain to one side. As I looked up at the screen I saw, to my horror, that the image was upside down. I was about to go straight out and go to the projection room to find out what was happening.

Fortunately I waited a moment and before my eyes the image righted itself. The topsy turvey image was done from the perspective of a 19th century photographer focusing an old-fashioned plate camera from underneath a hood. As the image righted itself you could see it was a group of men.

I can only imagine that if I had dashed into the projection room demanding the film be rethreaded (like a junior reporter in a film shouting “Hold the front page” and bringing the presses to a juddering halt) then the story would have followed me round for the rest of my time with Rank, if I had got past day one that is..

I continued my tour and then went back to Tony’s office to report back. I decided NOT to mention the incident in Screen Two.

Nothing like a goode booke as long as it all makes complete sense

By now you must know how much I like (like? LOVE) books and hopefully understand why my Christmas and birthday lists always have at least one (most times many more) request for a book.

It could be a classic, a thriller, poetry, or more.

For Christmas I listed a book I have been meaning to read for decades and I put it on the Christmas list along with a complete works of WB Yeats, a fedora, and various other items.

Yeats will be appearing on my March birthday list.

Meanwhile to the book I did get, courtesy of teacher daughter: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

I am not saying I have never read any of Chaucer’s Tales but only in anthologies and in translation at that.

In this case the translation is not from French to English, or Latin, or Greek.

Instead of a Modern English translation (capitalising the first letter of the descriptive term should give you a clue) I requested the book to be in the original Middle English, as Chaucer wrote it.

Dear daughter duly wrapped up the requested title and added the tag To Dad with love from Jacqueline before putting it under the tree.

My reason for weighing up the original against a modern translation was based on how the story would flow in the original and whether a translation would flow as well. It’s a bit like Shakespeare shorn of the trimmings and presented in modern day language.

Everything I had read up to then about Chaucer and his poetic prose had suggested that trying to read Middle English without a good translation to hand would be very difficult.

Now this is certainly true of Old English, which is what the Anglo Saxon spoke after they, along with the Jutes, invaded Britain driving the Celts into the West.

You try reading Anglo Saxon and you might just as well be looking at Scandiwegian script relating to the Viking raiders or even in Greek, Hebrew or Latin.

Anglo Saxon is as far from Middle English as Russian is from Gaelic.

The point is as soon as I started reading Chaucer’s Tales I was able to follow with just the odd check to the footnotes for words.

Middle English, with the language from Shakespeare’s time being considered Late Middle English before we settled down to what we now call Modern English, or to simplify – English, is far closer to the language we speak now than it is to Anglo Saxon or the hybrid language that developed after the Norman invasion – what Willy and his boys did to the language is another story altogether.

Suffice it to say that although some of Chaucer’s words might need translation it does not really impede the understanding and enjoyment of his poetry.

When he writes ye we know it is the just as we know Ye Olde Shoppe is not Yee Oldee Shoppee it is simply The Old Shop.

Old English drew a lot on Nordic runes which were letters not in the Middle English “dictionary” and the runes became stylised and the rune known as thorn came to look like a lowercase y but still had a th sound.


Walking into a lion’s den and out again with a smile on my face

The blue plaque on a building in South Street, Mayfair, which was once the headquarters of the Rank Organisation.

It was a delight to pick my old Morris Minor up and it didn’t take me long to drive from Colchester to Basildon where I was greeted by the three young ladies in my life.

Sarah, who was two and a half years old now, was a little chatterbox while her baby sister Jacqueline, barely a year old, was just starting to toddle.

That weekend we spent time together just getting to know one another again. In the evenings, with the children in bed, Marion and I discussed the future and the most important thing was for me to find a job so that I could help support our little household.

I made it clear that at the moment I did not want to return to journalism.

We talked on and off, in between me playing with the children so that Marion could get on with her household routine, and all of us going out for a walk. Then out of nowhere, literally nowhere, the cinema raised its head.

Despite my casual dress during the tour I had always been proud of myself in a two or three-piece-suit with a smart tie and well-polished shoes or boots. Marion had once been an usherette at a local cinema before working in London. We both had an impression of a cinema manager looking smart in a lounge suit during the day and black tie and dinner suit in the evening.

At that moment I determined that instead of waiting to be told what jobs were available I would head into London the following morning and first of all try my luck with the Rank Organisation who operated the Odeon cinemas.

If that failed I could always go to the local ABC cinema in Basildon.

I had got on well with the manager of the Odeon in Rhyl when I was working there on the Journal and had always been able to get a couple of seats with no charge and invites to midnight presentations of some of the big newly-released films. I remember just such a showing of Doctor Zhivago when the guests as well as the manager were in evening wear.

At that time with no internet and no home phone I had no way of ascertaining where to go but just took the chance that once in London I could easily get an address from the phone book.

Which is precisely what I did.

On arriving at Fenchurch Street station in London I went to a phone box and looked up the Rank Organisation. The address was in South Street in Mayfair, right across London from where I was.

I needed to be careful with the pennies but I wasn’t prepared to walk that distance in a city I did not really know. I decided to take the Underground instead, it involved a bit of walking to get to the right station but overall it took me about 40 minutes.

Just as when I had travelled to Basildon for my interview in 1972 I was smartly dressed, two-piece suit, collar and tie, nothing too flashy but colours that worked together.

Outside the grand offices I took out my comb and ran it through my hair, straightened my cuffs (enough to show off a smart set of gold cufflinks my father had given me) and made my way into the building and presented myself at the reception desk.

I had no appointment and I had no idea who I needed to talk to but I think my confident air when I asked to see whoever was responsible for hiring managerial staff at Odeon cinemas impressed the receptionist.

She asked for my name and then called up a number on her switchboard.

At the best I hoped I might be given an appointment to see someone later in the week. At worst they might just tell me they weren’t holding interviews.

Instead the receptionist said that I should wait and someone would come down to meet me and take me to the appropriate department.

Even then I thought they might just take me to the personnel department where I would be asked to provide my details before being told they would write and let me know if any vacancies arose.

Maybe I should have been as confident in my mind as I was in my outward appearance because the young lady who came down to collect me took my straight to a very impressive office where a very impressive man in a dark blue pinstripe three piece suit, a crisp white shirt and a maroon tie sat behind a very large impressive desk.

He stood up, reached across to shake my hand and gestured me to a wooden chair with a padded seat on my side of the desk.

His opening question was: “Why do you want to join the Odeon management team?”

No problem there.

“I am keen on current films and period films, I am at ease with people and like to see them enjoying themselves, which they would do watching a film in the surroundings of an Odeon cinema, and cinema these days is on an equal footing with a stage show.”

It seemed the last comment was the one that caught his attention and he asked what experience I had regarding the stage as a source of entertainment.

“I have been involved in amateur dramatics for the past 12 years, not just as an actor but also as a stage hand, stage manager, lighting and sound technician and working front of house from ticket office to confectionery and ice cream sales.

“Oh, and for the last eight months I have been touring as assistant stage manager, sound technician and carrying out general duties for Harry Corbett, Sooty and Sweep.”

That got his attention.

“Sooty? THE Sooty?”


At first he was like a child again reunited with his favourite TV star.

He was now hooked.

There were a few more questions about my previous work and he found it interesting that I was trained as a journalist and also that I had helped my father, the pharmacist, with stocktaking and general cashing up.

He finally asked me where I was living and how far was I prepared to travel.

The second part was, of course, any distance within reason.

Once I said Essex he immediately said that the Essex area came under a district manager based in Southend and asked if I was prepared to go there immediately to meet him.

Without hesitation I said yes.

What did surprise me was that he then said his secretary would issue me with a travel warrant from London to Southend and from Southend to Basildon as well as reimbursing my fare from Basildon to London.

I could hardly believe that my audacity in just fronting up at the offices had gained me an interview with a senior executive let alone a further interview with the district manager who decided who to take on in a managerial role.

I travelled back across London to Fenchurch Street on a cloud but came down far enough to get myself a cheese and tomato roll and a coffee to provide sustenance in advance of the next interview.

This time I was expected and once again I was presented with a smartly-dressed man behind a large desk.

He had clearly been briefed on my background so, apart from mentioning the touring show (“Did you really work for Sooty?”), he moved straight on to checking on my education before I became a journalist.

This is where I still had a bit of ammunition left in that my college course had been commerce and office practice which included the basics of general book-keeping and how to handle rosters and draw up timetables etc.

Eventually he asked me how soon I could start work if I was offered a managerial position.


That was a little bit too quick apparently as they had to make certain arrangements and go through certain hoops before I could actually take up my new position which was to be – career assistant manager at the Romford Odeon (told you Romford would feature in my life again) and I should report to the manager, Tony Portsche, at 9am the following Monday.

Romford Odeon in the 1970s

I travelled home on Cloud 9 to tell Marion the good news.

The next day I went to the Basildon Labour Exchange/JobCentre to sign off.

A brief break in my old haunts then home again, home again, jiggity jig

After the tour it was a change to have a good Sunday roast with my parents and a very comfortable bed to sleep in that night, but no rest for the wicked, as they say, not that I consider myself wicked of course.

Bright and early Monday morning, well not long after 9am, I went into Rhyl to find the Labour Exchange or Jobcentre, or whatever they called it in those days. It was the first time in 10 years of working that I had actually been unemployed.

Although I would be going back to Basildon I wasn’t ready to go back to journalism. If I had contacted either of my North Wales editors, Peter Leaney or Brian Barratt, I am sure there would have been a job for me.

The same applied to Tony Blandford, if they were recruiting for the Basildon Standard Recorder I felt sure he would have taken me back.

That was not my plan, however. Maybe I would return to the fold in my own good time but at that moment the world of newspapers was still on the back burner, and the flame was turned to simmer.

When I filled in all the forms they only needed my last job and reason for leaving it. That was no problem because Harry had said if I needed a reference he would give me a glowing one.

Again, when asked for what sort of work I was seeking I simply said theatrical with the stress on technical rather than acting. I still had the possibility of contacting the company which had a number of rep companies out on tour.

Having signed on I had a good look around the town which had been my home for so many years. Although it wasn’t even three years since I left I could see the changes and for the first time I no longer felt that this was my home. That is not to disparage Rhyl, which will always have a place in my heart, but I had spread my wings and felt there were still places to find.

Over the next few days I visited family and friends and took in more of the wider area around my parents new home in Dyserth, as well as heading for some of my old haunts with my good friend Roger and downing a pint or seven.

By the end of the week I had had enough of my old stamping ground and was intent on heading down to Basildon where I knew a warm welcome awaited me, not just with My Muse but from two little girls as well.

Our correspondence had been wonderful, as I have said previously it was like an old-fashioned courtship with a couple of visits along the way.

I had checked with the garage in Colchester and arranged to pick my car up on the Friday afternoon. I would then drive down to Basildon and be able to join my three lovely girls once more.

No more Izzy Wizzy it’s time for me to say ‘bye bye everybody, bye bye’

The time had finally come when The Sooty Show turned its back on the South and East and headed North – which for Harry and Sooty was really going home because Harry was a Yorkshireman to his boots, despite his time down in the West Country.

We had six venues left on the tour but only three really stuck in my mind.

The first of these memorable theatres was in York, the Theatre Royal, a beautiful structure from the 18th century. It was a pleasure to play in such a building with so much history in the dramatic arts.

We shared the venue with a touring production of The Threepenny Opera. The lead role of Mack the Knife had gone to a 50s/60s pop star and actor who had appeared in another, more modern musical in Basildon the previous year – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

I had heard from stage crew at Basildon that the star was considered to have an air of self-importance and some of the cast thought he needed to be taken down a peg or two. There was a scene where he had to throw himself on a woman lying on a bed. One night, as he threw himself at the bed, the woman raised her knee with somewhat painful consequences.

Whether or not the story was true it certainly seemed the star had changed his attitude as it was clear the stage crew and cast in York considered him a “proper actor” rather than a “jumped-up pop star”.

The theatre manager found a spare seat for me one night and I must admit it was an excellent production of Brecht’s interpretation of the 18th century The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, a fine example of the satirical works prevalent at the time.

The second theatre was on the seafront at Southport next door to one of the town’s biggest venues which attracted top stars.

At the time we were doing The Sooty Show at the smaller theatre my showbiz idols, Morecambe and Wise, were playing at the larger venue next door.

It was not unknown for stage crew to work at more than one venue if necessary and that was how I came to be standing in the wings watching Eric and Ernie keeping their audience in stitches.

I was wearing my stage blacks except that instead of a plain black T-shirt I was wearing one which read THE SOOTY SHOW in large white letters.

At one point Ernie Wise was holding forth and Eric, who was supposed to be looking at his partner, was looking over his shoulder into the wings and saw my TV shirt.

At that he almost corpsed but his professionalism shone through as he held up the index finger, thumb and middle finger of his right hand and said: “Who’s that?” Ernie fell back to his role as straight man and said: “I don’t know, who is that?”

The response was quick and witty: “Sooty in the nude.”

The audience were in stitches.

The third and final venue on my list, and the last venue of the tour, was at Saint Helen’s, Lancashire, another Theatre Royal. which was the last date on our tour and at the end of the week I would be saying goodbye to my companions of the last seven months.

Once again we were sharing the venue this time with a touring repertory company, and I had met some of the actors previously. Not, as you might think, in Basildon but in a previous life in Rhyl when they had been in a company doing a season at The Little Theatre, when I had helped with the lighting, including doing a full lighting plot for one of the plays.

It was fun spending the week doing our final shows and spending some leisure time with my old friends from the theatre company.

I had no plans as to my future once the week at Saint Helen’s ended but a couple of members of the rep company did suggest that there might be a technical/managerial with one of the companies in their group.

I took the details of the company head office and both my friends said they would put in a word for me.

After our final performance we cleared the stage of all our gear and got it all in the scenery dock before cleaning ourselves up and having our final weekly meal at a restaurant courtesy of Harry.

These meals had become an end-of-the-week ritual over the tour and Harry, despite the reputation people of Yorkshire have, was a generous host, telling us to order whatever we like.

At the end of the meal he would always order coffee and liqueurs all round, my poison of choice in those days was a creme-de-menthe frappe. Harry would always have a brandy with his coffee but this was when his Yorkshire roots came to the fore.

He always told the waiter: “I don’t want a fancy Napoleon or Courvoisier, a cooking brandy is all I need because it’ll be going straight into the coffee.”

That final meal was sad but happy at the same time, especially for myself and Howard because we would be going our separate ways while Lawrence was staying with Harry and Toabs as stage manager when they went to do their TV Sooty shows.

I stayed in the caravan that night and Lawrence and I were up early to complete our final getout before I header for the railway station to make my way to Rhyl where my father would pick me up and take me to their new home in Dyserth where I would be staying for a few days while I decided on my next move.