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Beatles Anthology director shares his memories

Geoff Wonfor, director of The Beatles Anthology, to share his memories at Whitley Bay Film Festival

Geoff Wonfor Grammy winner
Geoff Wonfor Grammy winner

Beginning at the very beginning, Geoff Wonfor tells me: “I was born at 237 Monday Street in the West End of Newcastle.”

The house is no longer there but the memories of a young Geordie school-leaver and his aspirations are still pretty crisp.

“I wanted to be a motor mechanic but I was on the milk round. I was fired on the second day, before I even delivered a pint of milk.”

It was Geoff’s mother, apparently. Didn’t like the idea of her lad out on the cold streets in the early hours.

There followed a spell working for a print wholesaler, John B Bowes, at the bottom of Westgate Road but that also proved a false start in the employment stakes.

“My dad thought I might become an apprentice printer but they had me pushing a barrow round the streets. My mates used to queue up to get into the dances at the Mayfair and I couldn’t go past them pushing a barrow.”

Television it was, then.

“My father, who was chief security officer at Tyne Tees, said there was a job coming up as a vaults boy in the film library, putting films away. I got the job.”

Just as we began at the beginning, Geoff began at the very bottom of an industry which suited him very well – as the shiny Grammy award sitting between us on the table at Newcastle’s Bonbar illustrates very clearly.

Looking back in 2014 over 50 years in television, Geoff Wonfor can muster memories of umpteen encounters with the world’s biggest music stars and any number of glittering awards ceremonies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Grammy – “best music video, long form” – was presented in 1996 for The Beatles Anthology, a monster mini-series which took five years and two months from conception to completion and was, Geoff concedes, “a ballbreaker” of a job which nevertheless brought its awards.

Members of the McCartney clan are close friends, as are others at the top of the music business. Many, such as Jools Holland, were involved in The Tube, which re-wrote the rules of music programming on TV.

Geoff’s wife Andrea, then a powerhouse ideas woman at Tyne Tees, dreamt up the series with Malcolm Gerrie for the infant Channel 4.

It brought stars such as Elton John, Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder to the City Road studios where student lets are now the going concern.

“Everybody came,” says Geoff, who directed many of the shoots outside the studio. “They were the established stars but then there were the ones we discovered... Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Paul Young, The Fine Young Cannibals.”

Jools was one of the raw young presenters along with the ill-fated but madly unconventional Paula Yates. Geoff comes over a bit misty-eyed: “Paula broke the mould. She was my little gorgeous darling.”

Geoff had cut his teeth as a director of music films when he was at the BBC, with a piece showing Lindisfarne performing Run For Home on a rooftop overlooking St James’ Park. “I had them in suits with dickie bows. It got me my first credit, from Mike Neville, who said, ‘Eat your heart out, Top of the Pops!’”

Geoff Wonfor Grammy winner
Geoff Wonfor Grammy winner

But back to those Tyne Tees vaults where Geoff’s job was to root out film commercials for the likes of Cadbury and Colgate and deliver them, in their cans, to the right recipient – and then put them away again.

It doesn’t sound glamorous. It certainly wasn’t something Geoff was about to boast about. “All my friends in the West End used to say, ‘TV is all ****ing poofs, cravates and aftershave’.”

This was a different age, ripe for political correctness. TV, remembers Geoff, was full of film types who had worked for the likes of Pathé News. “They were 35mm men. They smoked pipes and wore bow ties with spots on and funny-coloured trousers.

“They couldn’t believe they’d ever be working in television, most of them, because it was so far down the ladder.”

Geoff looked, listened and learned. He also sang. “I used to sing a lot. I couldn’t write, still can’t do joined up writing, but I did sing.”

He worked for a bit for a chap called Charlie who spoke in a whisper. “Geoff,” Charlies would hiss. “Yes?” Geoff would inquire. “Shut up,” Charlie would say.

In this bygone era when film-makers rather than accountants ruled the roost, big personalities abounded. One, in particular, caught the Wonfor eye. “There was this guy wearing a battered sheepskin and with a viewfinder round his neck,” recalls Geoff. “I thought I wanted to be like him. He looked like a blond Oliver Reed.”

Which is to imply he had a touch of the hellraiser about him. This was Peter Dunbar.

“He’d started his career on the first Moby Dick, the one with Gregory Peck as Ahab. I remember someone saying in the pub, ‘Wasn’t that the one with the boom shadow on the whale?’ He kicked the table over, glasses and all, and walked out.

“Everyone hated him but I loved him. He was the most incredible director and he taught me everything I know.”

Dunbar took the young Geoff under his wing, supervising his ascension from vaults boy to clapper loader in a film unit and beyond.

Geoff remembers getting an earful when he wrote ‘sink’ instead of ‘synch’ on the clapperboard but he still got to ride in the director’s Jag rather than the bumpy Land Rover where most minions had to travel.

An ability to strike up unlikely friendships seems to have been a feature of Geoff’s career. Casting his mind back to The Beatles Anthology – as he will do at the Whitley Bay Film Festival – he explains how it all came about through Paul McCartney’s late wife, Linda.

He went to London to film an exhibition of her photographs with warnings ringing in his ears. “Everyone said she was an awful woman, really stern. But she said, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I said I’d love one.”

When Geoff’s film of the exhibition went out on The Tube, Linda was thrilled. “She wrote and said I was the first man who had ever made her sound like a woman. She also wrote a PS: ‘Have you ever fancied doing ‘The Man’?”

This was McCartney. Andrea wrote back and said they’d been trying to get him on The Tube for years. Linda replied: “You’ll get him.”

And they did. Geoff, a lifelong Beatles fan, recalls his trepidation on first meeting McCartney, entering the room when he was on the phone and retreating apologetically... only to be waved back in. “He put the phone down and said, ‘Hello, I’m Paul McCartney. I know who you are. You did the missus’.”

A cast iron friendship was forged. Geoff says he was at his dad’s home when the phone rang one day and it was McCartney asking him to direct The Beatles Anthology.

“I nearly dropped the phone. I thought he wanted me to do one year, ’62 or ’63, but he said, ‘Don’t be a tw*t, Geoffrey. We want you to do it all’.”

And so he did, flying hither and thither and negotiating with great artists and giant egos before receiving the deserved award of a Grammy to go with other glittering prizes.

Life has brought sadness. Andrea died of cancer 10 years ago. Linda had succumbed to the same disease in 1998, causing Geoff to embrace his Beatle hero. “It was unbelievable that she had died. I put my arms around him and said, ‘I loved her so much’. He said, ‘I know. She loved you too’.”

Both women left a fine legacy. Both also enriched Geoff’s already golden store of anecdotes and memories. He tells me he’s writing a book. It’ll be a good read.

In the meantime, you can hear some of the anecdotes at the Avalon Bar, South Parade, Whitley Bay, at 7.30pm on Thursday where Geoff will be in conversation with old Lindisfarne pal Ray Laidlaw. The event is called City Road to Abbey Road.

Meanwhile, if you pop into the Avalon Bar from 1pm on Wednesday they are showing The Beatles Anthology. Whitley Bay Film Festival ticket details can be found on www.whitleybayfilmfestival.co.uk


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