ACCLAIMED documentary maker Geoff Wonfor is having a laugh with his friends, work colleagues and fellow members of the ‘Newcastle 6’, Ray Laidlaw and Billy Mitchell.
The Newcastle 6 – a group whose nickname the three have seemingly just come up with – are musicians and creative types seeking to maintain and preserve the folk traditions of the region they proudly come from.
Which brings us to ‘Big River Big Songs – The Tyne’ and why they’re gathered in the Clock Tower Cafe in Hoult’s Yard. In a nutshell it is a DVD of 31 songs used to follow the history of the River Tyne, narrated by respected broadcaster Eric Robson and Emmerdale actress and local lass Charlie Hardwick.
“The biggest compilation ever on a DVD of Tyneside songs,” said Ray.
It was an ambitious project for which Geoff directed, Ray produced and Billy performed as well as arranging a number of the songs used, some of which date back 150 years. The list of those taking part is as impressive as it gets for regional talent. There’s Sting, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson and Mark Knopfler from the world of music legends. Then there’s Tim Healy, Kevin Whately and Jimmy Nail from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, a TV show which is like a category in itself in North East folklore.
The opera world is represented by Graeme Danby, Claire Rutter and Sir Thomas Allen. TV stars Charlie, her Emmerdale co-star Chelsea Halfpenny, Chelsea’s aunt Jill Halfpenny and Denise Welch are also on it. So are The Bill’s Angie Lonsdale and Alun Armstrong. Then there’s singer/songwriters Judy Dinning, Pete Scott and Johnny Handle. And the line-up is completed by X Factor winner Joe McElderry.
Diverse though the talent is, they have one thing in common – their North East roots. And alongside these stars of music and TV is a further impressive collection of stars. The songs themselves. The idea for it came from Brian Mawson, a local music stalwart from the 1960s whose first job was working the door at the old New Orleans Jazz Club on Forth Banks, Newcastle, now home to Sachins Indian restaurant, before going on to manage Windows’ music shop and launch perhaps the city’s first record label, Rubber Records.
He now owns and runs Mawson & Wareham (Music) Ltd which is heavily involved with the Northumbria Anthology project, a Not-for-Profit company supported by a Heritage Lottery grant sourcing music and poems from the region between North Yorkshire and the Scottish borders.
The research done for it by Johnny Handle proved invaluable for the Big River project.
Ray said: “For years now Brian has been searching out the region’s traditional songs . . . ”
“. . . To make money out of them,” quipped Geoff, and the three laughed.
“No,” added Ray. “He should be here talking but he’s a modest and assuming man. The work he and his wife Helen have done is incredible.
“The original idea of the Northumbria Anthology was to get all the songs collected in a 10 CD box set. I think they’re up to about 25 now. Around 2002 he said there should be a visual version of all this.”
So the germ of an idea was born and since then, working between other projects – Geoff, Ray, Billy and MWM are the people behind Sunday for Sammy and ‘A Knight to Remember’ about the late, great Sir Bobby Robson made for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation – they began filming and collecting archive footage. At that time it was a case of getting stuff in the can without knowing exactly what to do with it,” said Ray.
As a result they ended up lots of material, which caused one or two problems. “We had Denise Welch doing ‘Hev Ye Seen Wor Jimmy’ and we lost it for six or nine months,” said Ray. “I went through boxes and boxes of stuff and then it suddenly turned up. We’ve had some luck but we’ve made that luck for the effort we’ve put with things falling into place.”
Skill, as well as luck, helps too. For example they had two versions of ‘The Hexhamshire Lass’, one performed by Sir Thomas Allen with the Northumbria Concert Orchestra at Durham Cathedral and another by Graeme Danby with the Brown Ale Brass Band.
Geoff, who worked for years on the Tube as well as making the critically acclaimed ‘The Beatles Anthology’, came up with the idea to splice the two, the effect being Sir Thomas singing one verse and then cutting to Graeme singing another. The result is seamless.
Around a year ago they produced a version of the DVD and handed it over to Brian. “He wanted it to be more informative and we went back to the drawing board,” said Ray. “We decided to base it on songs involving the River Tyne and writing a background to those songs. We ditched quite a few tunes and found some more.”
Geoff added: “It was a great thing to do to follow the river as it weaves its way to the sea at Tynemouth. It gives it a shape and form to look at the songs.”
Charlie Hardwick and Eric Robson were brought in to narrate it and vintage footage was found, thanks to the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums department and the Northern Region Film & Television Archive, including film of the Tyne Bridge being built.
Geoff added: “Funnily enough there doesn’t seem to have been one song written about the Tyne Bridge.”
The DVD boasts a series of high points including Healy, Nail and Whately’s version of Blaydon Races with the added verse dedicated to Sir Bobby penned by Billy Mitchell. Brian Johnson and Billy again doing an amusing of Wor Geordie’s Lost His Liggie complete with ‘posh’ translation, a moving rendition of Canny Tyneside by Nail and his sister Val McLane, Healy and Armstrong in drag singing The Row upon The Stairs and Geoff Wonfor himself in front of the camera for a change singing The Toon Improvement Bill with Billy. However this is not to downplay the rest which includes archive footage of Ray’s band Lindisfarne singing Fog on the Tyne and meet Me On The Corner, not to mention Joe McElderry’s version of Jimmy Nail’s song Big River.
Ray said: “That was one of the last to be done. He had five to choose from and he specifically asked to do Big River.”
Geoff added: “From the first take to the fifth you can see him grow into it. He’s singing with absolute feeling and heart – yet in some ways he didn’t know what he was singing about. He really came up with the goods. We were flabbergasted.”
Geoff and Ray are quick to point out the work done by Billy Mitchell and his arrangements of the songs. “They’re second to none bringing a style of their own,” said Geoff.
Billy modestly shrugs and adds: “The young singers really brought something special to it. Chelsea (Halfpenny) was the surprise package.”
Finally, the name. Geordie Anthems and Northumbria Anthems were two considered but did not quite hit the mark.
Geoff takes up the story: “We were in the Cluny about six weeks ago standing out on the balcony. Ray said ‘Big River Big Songs’ and I said yes and walked away from him. Then I walked back and said we don’t need to look any further.”
And so the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place.
Big River Big Songs – The Tyne costs £16.99 and is now available at all HMV shops and Windows stores.
75% of the profits from the DVD will be donated to the following Not for Profit company and Charities: the Northumbria Anthology, the Sunday for Sammy, the Bobby Robson Foundation and the Rainforest Foundation.
Track listing for big river big songs
WATER OF TYNE: Sting and Jimmy Nail
FOG ON THE TYNE: Lindisfarne
HUGHIE THE GRAEME: Judy Dinning
CHEVVY CHASE: Johnny Handle
STILL I LOVE HIM: Chelsea Halfpenny
DOON THE WAGON WAY: Claire Rutter with the English Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Haslam
Why Aye Man: Billy Mitchell
EASTERN ALLEN RUNS: Terry Conway
THE HEXHAMSHIRE LASS: Sir Thomas Allen with the Northumbria Concert Orchestra conducted by David Haslam and Graeme Danby with the Brown Ale Brass Band
THE SHOE MAKER: Charlie Hardwick and Chelsea Halfpenny
DERWENTWATER: Judy Dinning
BLAYDON RACES: Tim Healy, Jimmy Nail and Kevin Whately
KEEP YOUR FEET STILL GEORDIE HINNY: Sir Thomas Allen, Graeme Danby and Claire Rutter with the English Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Haslam
MALLY DIDN’T COME: Pete Scott
GALLOWGATE LAD: Judy Dinning
NE WORK: Pete Scott and Charlie Hardwick
THE ROW UPON THE STAIRS: Alun Armstrong and Tim Healy
SANDGATE DANDLING SONG: Charlie Hardwick and Lucy Hoile
THE PITMAN AND THE BLACKIN’: Billy Mitchell
GUARD YER MAN WEEL: Bob Fox with the English Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Haslam
WOR GEORDIE’S LOST HIS LIGGIE: Brian Johnson and Billy Mitchell
HEV YE SEEN WOR JIMMY: Denise Welch with Northern Sinfonia conducted by David Haslam
THE TOON IMPROVEMENT BILL: Geoff Wonfor and Billy Mitchell
CANNY TYNESIDE: Jimmy Nail and Val McLane
CULLERCOATS FISH LASS: Angie Lonsdale
MEET ME ON THE CORNER: Lindisfarne
BLOW THE WIND SOUTHERLY: Jill Halfpenny with the English Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Haslam
DANCE TI TH DADDY: Alex Glasgow with members of Northern Sinfonia
BIG RIVER: Joe McElderry
GOING HOME: Theme from ‘Local Hero’, Mark Knopfler