The QT

Friday 14 June 2024
14/06/2024

Time travelling on The Tube

A childhood spent in TV studios, cutting rooms and the odd Soho snooker hall offers Sam Wonfor a pretty special back catalogue of memories, which she’ll be mining each week on The QT. First stop (and we’ll be here for a while) is iconic eighties music show, The Tube.

In October 2022, me and my Dad were sitting in a hospital waiting room at the Freeman in Newcastle.

We’d spent a lot of time in those places during the few months before and were becoming pretty adept at passing the time rather than wasting it.

He’d want me to say he got canny good at knocking a sudoku out of the park, but mostly we just found ourselves looking back on excellent memories with laughter and tears (often both together) while getting rinsed by Costa.

Classic family holiday moments and recollections of Christmas chaos blended with top drawer anecdotes featuring some of the biggest stars on the planet.

I should have said. My Mum and Dad, Andrea and Geoff Wonfor, were in the telly business.

They met at Tyne Tees TV on City Road in Newcastle in the early seventies and spent much of the next 15 years at the epicentre of what you’d have to consider as its golden era.

That period saw TTTV pump out series for both regional and network TV like it was going out of fashion.

Tyne Tees Television on City Road in Newcastle

If you’re of a certain age, prepare to get wistful.

Check It Out, Alright Now, Razzmatazz, Supergran, Saturday Shakeup, Highway and The Roxy all made their mark – even in 2024, no shocking TV moment roundup is complete without Chris Cowey and Lyn Spencer’s Sex Pistols interview from a 1979 episode of Check It Out.

And then there was The Tube.

Launched at teatime on November 5, 1982 – at the end of Channel Four’s first week of broadcasting – the groundbreaking music show fronted by bright young things Jools Holland and Paula Yates soon took on unmissable status.

Sitting in the centre of a Venn diagram which featured music legends, unsigned acts, alternative comedy, live broadcast, high jinx, hairspray galore and a liberal dash of anarchy, for 26 weeks a year, The Tube made sure Friday nights in your living room – or in Studio Five if you had the stamina to queue for a ticket – could be unforgettable.

You might see Tina Turner launching what would become her meteoric comeback. Or Elton John. Or Paul McCartney. Or U2. Or The Jam.

Jools and Paula in the tunnel entrance to Tyne Tees, which helped name The Tube

You might see new music outfits searching for a big break – and getting one – like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Fine Young Cannibals, Terence Trent D’Arby, Wet Wet Wet and The Proclaimers.

You might see the characters from Spitting Image or the cast of The Comic Strip – apparently Stephen Fry was known to come up just to ‘watch the turns’ – hanging out at the Egypt Cottage pub aka the show’s unofficial green room.

It really was a unique melting pot, which hit boiling point right on the spot where brilliance meets chaos.

But back to that hospital waiting room.

On this particular day, I was musing the possibility of doing some sort of feature in light of the upcoming 40th anniversary of The Tube on bonfire night.*

*At this point, professional pride compels me to say I wasn’t looking to cause any seismic journalistic shifts with my idea.

“Maybe I could do a Top 40 Moments from The Tube round up,” I said. “We could start a list now.”

Fast forward to a few months ago, I was searching my Notes app for a ‘Good Dog Names’ list I’d started (presumably when I was leaning towards tiddly)* and I came across the Tube collection I’d started with my Dad.

We’d got to number 34 before his name was called. 

The events of the weeks that followed meant we never got to finish it… although we did have another Tube-soaked reminiscence therapy session on the anniversary itself, prompted by an Instagram gallery Jools – who remained one of Dad’s ‘very bestest’ friends – had posted.

Jools’ Instragram post to mark The Tube’s 40th anniversary – Dad in the centre with Jools and Paula. They were quite the trio.

A fortnight later, the world said goodbye to Geoff Wonfor. Nineteen years after it had bid farewell to my Mum who – as Tyne Tees’ director of programmes – was one of the driving forces behind The Tube and a huge slice of its other award-winning output.

Finding the list we made together also coincided with some lovely news.

Newcastle City Council had decided to put up a plaque on the site (or thereabouts, in perfect Tube style) from where the show had been broadcast, live to the nation on Friday nights from 1982 to 1987.

And wouldn’t you know, there’s a couple of Wonfors smack in the middle of it.

The Tube plaque on the former Tyne Tees Television site at City Road, Newcastle

A proud day for the family archives – and one which spawned the idea for this column.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be diving into The Tube’s history, recounting personal memories, sharing classic clips and talking to the people who made it, the people who loved watching it and the stars who took centre stage.

So what to start with?

Given the origins of this column, it feels only right that the first selection goes to my Dad, who looked after the on-location films for The Tube (the late and also brilliant Gavin Taylor took care of the live studio shenanigans).

One of the first moments he added to our (almost) top 40 rundown was an incredible clip from feature-length Tube special, Walking to New Orleans, which he directed and which was first broadcast in 1985.

Walking to New Orleans was a feature-length Tube special in 1985

Shot on location in its title city – as well as London as we’ll hear more of later – the award-winning film featured a who’s who of New Orleans music legends including Dr John, the Neville Brothers (not Phil and Gary), Lee Dorsey (who sold Jools his DIY convertible at the beginning of the road trip) Johnnie Allan, Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino.

And that’s to say nothing of Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane, Paula (Yates) and a tunnel busker bearing a striking resemblance to Sting, who all also appeared.

There are countless memorable moments – one of my favourites as a kid was the The Gospel Soul Children Choir of New Orleans who were game enough to let Jools ‘tune in’ to their music on his car stereo… only to find them singing on the side of the road as he drove past.

I thought that was such a lovely thing … and watching the clip on youtube while writing this, I can safely report that 10-year-old me had good instincts for what made a good bit of telly.

It’d have been quite the embarrassment for the parents if I didn’t, I suppose.

Dad with ‘Working in a Coal Mine’ legend, Lee Dorsey in New Orleans

But as far as my Dad was concerned, one moment stood above all the others on a blueberry hill all of its own.

“Fats and Jools… if you’d dreamed it you’d have woken up and apologised,” he said.

He was referring to a five-or-so minute scene which saw Jools – a mere boogie woogie baby at the time – meeting his hero. 

And then playing with him.

Dad loved how openly bewildered with joy Jools was in front of camera… and how he and his beloved crew managed to capture the magic in the room as the four-hander duet of I’m Ready hit its stride.

Weirdly, when I was starting to write this, Jools – clearly loving the Instagram – shared the clip.

“It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my life, meeting Fats Domino – and more to the point, playing with him,” he said when I called him for a chat about it.

“We were captured together in his dressing room at the Royal Festival Hall… we were pretending it was his house, because we’d filmed an exterior of me outside it in New Orleans, but the Festival Hall was where it was actually filmed,” he adds, offering a bonus peek into the telly magic box.

The joyful clip of Jools meeting his hero, Fats Domino in The Tube feature special, Walking to New Orleans

“We had a natural connection. I worshipped him and he was really kind to me and cuddled me, and brought me in because he knew that I loved and played his music.

“Uniquely for a piece of film anywhere, it really captures the spontaneity of the moment – which is often something that is the hardest thing to capture – of the pupil and the master, both enjoying each other’s company. 

“For me, it’s one of the best moments in my career, and I’m so pleased it was captured by your Dad.”

*We called the dog, Baux

Have you got memories of The Tube? I’m collecting them to help me get our Top 40 list over the line! Email me at [email protected] to get amongst it.

@samwonfor

The 90th anniversary of the Pitmen Painters, the famous amateur artists of Ashington, is being celebrated at Woodhorn Museum where their works are on display

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