The QT

Thursday 23 May 2024

Ray’s stepping down in South Shields… Oh yes he is!

At the end of March Ray Spencer hands over the reins of The Customs House. He looked back over 25 years with David Whetstone
Ray on stage at his beloved Customs House

They’re putting on a performance for Ray Spencer at The Customs House. Two, actually. No, wait… they’ve added a third.

Correction: they’re putting on three performances of Celeb-RAY-tion at The Customs House this weekend, celebrating Ray’s 25 years at the helm of the riverside arts centre he has steered through often choppy waters.

Naturally, they’re fundraisers. When the fundraising stops at The Customs House, that will be the day the metal grilles go up over the windows and the cheerful posters come down. The ‘deficit’, as Ray calls it, is part of the furniture.

Over a morning coffee in the empty café, he remembers telling his dad: “I know you’re disappointed but one day I’ll make you proud.” 

Celeb-RAY-tion, about which Ray says he’s supposed to know nothing, is billed as ‘a night of nostalgia, appreciation and joy, bringing together esteemed guests, community members and well-known performers to honour his (Ray’s) extraordinary contributions’.

The words might have flabbergasted Ken Spencer, a shipyard worker for more than 40 years before accumulated occupational disabilities finally did for him before he was 62.

“What do you mean, it’s not for you?” he’d told his 15-year-old son after offering him the chance of a start in the yards.

“It doesn’t interest me,” explained Ray at home on the Biddick Hall estate.

Unlike his brothers, one of whom became a fitter and the other an electrician at Swan Hunter, Ray embarked on the road to becoming an accountant, joining the treasurer’s department at the local hospital.

When he decided that didn’t interest him much either, apoplexy could have been added to Ken Spencer’s woes. Ray saying he fancied becoming an actor only threw fuel on the fire.

“He went (expletive deleted) mad,” remembers Ray.

“He said, ‘I tell you what’ll happen to you. In six months’ time you’ll be in some dingy flat with your feet sticking to the floor, with drugs being taken and men dancing with men and women dancing with women. And when you’re finished you’ll be on the dole.’”

Funnily enough, says Ray, about six months’ later he was living in Heaton in a dingy flat…

He was unemployed for a time, he says, but the young man who’d appeared in his first panto for the amateur Westovians Theatre Society at 17 (the Chorus of Sleeping Beauty 50 years ago — another anniversary) had found his calling.

Panto’s something Ray won’t be relinquishing when he steps down at the end of the month.

“I love doing panto and it’s very important to the organisation,” he says.

“I’ll still be dame. Ten years as dame now. I love doing dame. I remember the first panto I was in when I came here, 9,700 people came. The year we’ve just done was 31,000.

“It’s grown and this is what I love about it. We had Rachel Unthank in the other day and I said ‘It’s lovely to have you back’. And she said ‘We come every year. Your panto is the Unthank family panto’.

“People in the business make an effort to come here for the pantomime. I think it’s just because we’re honest and true to ourselves.”

At the Theatre Royal across the river, Opera North were hailing the return of Anne-Marie Owens to the company just last week. A mezzo-soprano who has performed all over the world, she has a big reputation — but she’s from South Shields and in 2015 dressed up to play Queen of Hearts in Ray’s panto.

“Plucked out of secondary school because she had a great voice,” he muses.

Many others have been able to make best use of their talents because of the Customs House.

Jason Cook’s Comedy Club remains a regular attraction at The Customs House

Comedians Jason Cook, Sarah Millican and Chris Ramsey, singers Joe McElderry and Jade Thirlwall of Little Mix, along with many actors, directors and writers, continue to support the venue that supported them.

Ray says Rosie Ramsey, who has just co-hosted Comic Relief and is a celebrated podcaster with husband Chris, had planned to become a midwife before Ray persuaded her to give panto one last try.

(Sounds of Ken Spencer shifting restlessly in his grave — another respectable career ruined!)

Ray’s not too modest to mention daughter Natasha who also cut her teeth as a Customs House panto performer but is currently in a directorial role at the National Theatre.

On the ceiling in The Customs House café are rows of certificates with a heart motif.

Ray says the only time in 25 years when he thought he might have to hand The Customs House keys back to the council was when the pandemic struck.

Ray Spencer at The Customs House

“We were already struggling and now we couldn’t trade. The council was facing huge challenges and I said the (Customs House) Trust had to consider if we should wrap up.

“But they advanced part of the next year’s loan to tide us over. Then these donations came in and people like Joe and Jade stepped up.

“These (indicating the heart certificates) represent £140,000 and that, to me, absolutely said, ‘We value you, we love you, we don’t want you to stop what you do’.”

Ray first performed at The Customs House in 1995 but landed — or was handed — the top job four years later when the venue was in financial difficulties and bosses and interim bosses had come and gone.

“I finished pantomime and then sat at the desk as executive director and the first thing in front of me was a strategic stocktake report that had been commissioned by the Arts Council. 

“I’d never run an arts centre but I had trained to be an accountant.”

They were tough times. The Customs House had been developed to fill a gap in cinema provision in the town but a 10-screen multiplex had recently been opened. Ray recalls that the view of the Arts Council was that the venue had neither national nor regional significance.

Ray’s time in The Customs House’s hot seat is almost up

Asked to sum up in one minute what he’d do with the Customs House, he’d promised (boldly) that it would be a place of national significance one day. Now look at the careers it has nurtured.

“I’ll absolutely say I had nothing to do with their talent or the development of their talent,” insists Ray of The Customs House’s starry alumni.

“What we’ve always offered is an opportunity for people in their home town to come and work on a live stage.”

Bustling youth theatre groups are testament to that with youngsters from less affluent backgrounds able to attend free, paid for by The Customs House whose role as a conduit for talent has long been acknowledged.

Early in his tenure, says Ray, the cinema attendance was about 54,000 with some 25,000 attending live events. 

“We flipped that so now more than 100,000 come to see theatre and about 25,000 to cinema. What I really wanted to do was tell stories about the place written by people of the place and performed by them.

“That’s what I’ve always tried to do. Some of them have been very straightforward stories but we’ve had very complex stories sometimes.”

Among all the stories, Ray’s own isn’t bad.

By accident he became Tommy the Trumpeter, a kind of South Tyneside mascot, when he should have been Tommy the Tuba (a story too long to tell here) and he has been the embodiment of that old adage, the show must go on — first when he learned backstage in 1998 that his mother had died and then in 2022, just before curtain up on panto opening night, when he found out his brother, recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, had also passed away.

“The audience was in and I had to go on.”

His father predeceased them both but their relationship had mellowed. 

Ray reflects: “He didn’t see me in everything but I used to do a double act with Bob Stott and he came to that. He stayed on at the end and said, ‘You’re a canny turn, son’. That was massive. I was really pleased.”

Now, conscious of time’s passing, Ray plans to do a bit of travelling with Trish, his partner of many years and, since quite recently, his wife. He will return, of course, to get into his make-up and falsies come panto time.

The Customs House marking its 30th anniversary

And for those taking over the reins as joint chief executives, Fiona Martin and Kelly Anders — both, he notes approvingly, born in South Tyneside — he has words that might sound ominous to some.

“So many times you see organisations change because the person running them changes and sometimes that might be for the better.

“What I didn’t want was for The Customs House to become a stepping stone. That isn’t what it is. I said to Kelly and Fiona before the board decided to appoint them, ‘Don’t think this is a job. This is a vocation’.

“You don’t clock off at 5 o’clock. It’s not nine to five, Monday to Friday. People own you because they own The Customs House.”

The new brooms at least know what they have let themselves in for. Ray can look back at a job well done.

Find details of the Celeb-RAY-tion performances on The Customs House website at


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