The QT

Wednesday 19 June 2024

When The Tube served up some Fine Young Cannibals

A childhood spent in TV studios, cutting rooms and the odd Soho snooker hall offers Sam Wonfor a pretty special back catalogue of memories. This week she talks to Roland Gift about a couple of seminal Wonfor moments in his career

When it comes to enduring stories about The Tube, the bands which got their big break on a Friday teatime via Channel Four’s groundbreaking music show are among the most retold.

They certainly pepper the list I made with my Dad, (Geoff Wonfor, who directed most of The Tube’s location films) when we were rounding up 40 memorable moments in a hospital waiting room as the series’ 40th anniversary approached towards the end of 2022.

It wasn’t long before fellow waiting patients were being treated to a retelling of his experience making a film with the then unknown band, the Fine Young Cannibals in Birmingham at the end of 1984/beginning of 1985.

And yes, some tribute-band-style singing was involved (it won’t surprise anyone who knew father Wonfor that it wasn’t me doing the singing).

A few weeks later, the lead singer of that band, Roland Gift, was calling me from Newcastle City Hall to say how sorry he was to hear my incredible Dad had died. 

Singer, actor and former Fine Young Cannibal, Roland Gift. Credit: @ShootJMoore

They had stayed in touch throughout the four decades which had passed since The Tube crew captured the iconic track Johnny Come Home — often bumping into each other backstage at gigs, usually involving Jools Holland, who presented the show with Paula Yates from 1982-87.

Fittingly, Roland was special guesting on Jools’ tour date in Newcastle when he called me… and when I contacted him recently to see if he was up for a chat about his memories of The Tube, he continued his reputation in our house for being an all-round smashing fella and said he’d love to talk.

First, a slice of background.

It felt like something had happened. Like we’d done something that’s gonna create a ripple.

Roland Gift

Having supported The Beat when he was in ska outfit The Akrylykz in Hull, Roland was living in London when he got a call to get involved with a new project The Beat bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox were getting together.

“We were at the point of going around to record companies when The Tube was in the area, looking to film new and unsigned bands,” remembers Roland, speaking from his London home about the formation of Fine Young Cannibals

“There was a guy on the team who was familiar with Birmingham.” 

When the Fine Young Cannibals were young

It doesn’t take long for us to agree this had to be the late Tube researcher/producer and proud Brummie, Chris Phipps who went on to become a much-respected music historian and chief cheerleader for The Tube’s legacy.

“I don’t know why we were chosen, but it was a pretty big deal,” he adds.

The Tube was like Crackerjack when you were younger. It was the show that we all used to watch. You’d go out on Friday night and everybody would talk about what had been on that week’s show.

“From a band’s point of view, you probably wanted to be on The Tube more than Top of the Pops because although TOTP was great, The Tube was a bit more orientated towards our age at that time and shared our sensibilities.

“You’d see stuff on there that you wouldn’t see elsewhere and it was exciting.” 

Back to mid-80s Birmingham.

“We did your Dad’s film in this place called Zella’s Studios where we had done a couple of showcases for record companies — one for London Records and one for CBS,” explains Roland.

“It was the old studio where they used to record The Archers and I remember it was near to Christmas — one side or the other.”

While legend has it that it was the Cannibals’ appearance on The Tube which got them signed, Roland reckons that timeline may have been slightly skewed over the years.

“In all truth, it was possible by then that we’d already been signed… but it’s absolutely true to say that certainly nobody knew of us at that point… and we hadn’t done anything on film before.”

Fine Young Cannibals debut album and single

Sounds like it was quite the baptism.

“I remember that day really strongly,” says Roland. “I can remember being in the room. I can remember them loading everything in. And then we went through the song. Two or three times, I think.

“The only thing we’d really worked out was that little thing where we all drop to our knees… the crew came, they shot and left, all within two hours.

“Then after they’d gone, I was walking outside with my girlfriend and it was snowing a bit. It felt like something had happened. Like we’d done something that’s gonna create a ripple.

“That film was what we used as our video for the song. That was the film which went all around the world.”

And so it is that if you search for Fine Young Cannibals and Johnny on Google — or even Bing — what comes up first is the video which The Tube crew shot inside 120 minutes one snowy afternoon in Birmingham.

Revisiting it, if I hadn’t known it was a Geoff Wonfor production, it wouldn’t have taken me long to guess. 

It’s absolutely dripping in the handheld, fast-cutting and distinct style he developed and perfected with editor Andy Matthews* during their five years working together on The Tube and the 20 which followed that.

*Look out for an inevitable chapter on the unforgettable Andy in this series at some point.

I do wonder though, that in a decade where lavish music videos were the order of the charts, why the Fine Young Cannibals opted to use The Tube’s take on their debut single.

“We loved it,” says Roland simply, revealing that the band saw it for the first time alongside TV viewers who had tuned into that week’s live episode.

The Tube was like Crackerjack when you were younger. It was the show that we all used to watch.

Roland Gift

“There was just such an energy to it and it kind of mimicked what we did with the single — we released the demo.”

While the record company had sent them into the studio with a producer to record a polished version of the track, the results didn’t make the cut as far as the band was concerned.

“It just wasn’t what the demo was,” says Roland. 

“There was a real punk energy and attitude to the single, and we got that same feeling when we saw the video.

“It was the first impression that many people got after hearing the song. It was the first moving image. It’s really something. It’s a landmark for the band. It was special and captured something real…  it’s great that it’s well woven into the tapestry.”

At this point, I thought we’d pretty much covered most of the ground when it came to the Wonfors and the Fine Young Cannibals.

But as it turns out, Roland is the Gift that keeps on giving.

While chatting about how much he and my Dad always enjoyed catching up over the years, my lovely Mum (Andrea) made a surprise appearance in the conversation.

“I did a gig with Jools at the Manchester Festival, in the mid-90s. Your Dad was there and I met your Mum too.”

For context, at this point in her telly career, which had first hit its stride at Tyne Tees and included creating The Tube with Malcolm Gerrie, Mum was director of programmes at Granada TV.

Gaffa Boy, written and directed by Roland Gift

“She was with a guy called Colin Bell who did a regional show called North Western Arts. Anyway, she okayed some money so I could make a short film I’d written — Gaffa Boy — and it was broadcast on that show.”

Having acted in a number of projects over the years including films Scandal and Tin Men and TV series Highlander and Painted Lady, Roland tells me he’s in the midst of a return to directing for the first time since Gaffa Boy, making a documentary about his old band, The Akrylykz.

“I’ve written more over the years, but haven’t directed since Gaffa Boy and I’ve always felt kind of guilty for not doing more, because it got a nice reaction. I’ll always be grateful to your Mum for helping me do that.

“So really, you could say I’ve got both your parents to thank for some big moments in my life.”

Me too, Roland. Me too.


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