The Signal for a new era in broadcasting locally

Signal Radio DJ, the late Mel Scholes.

Signal Radio DJ, the late Mel Scholes.

As someone who grew up with the BBC Radio Stoke on in the background, September 5, 1983 was quite a momentous day.

That’s the date that a new commercial radio station took to the air and, for the first time, gave the people of North Staffordshire and South Cheshire a choice.

DJ John Evington uttered the first words around 6am and chose Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise as the station’s first track.

Signal Radio was named after newspaper The Signal in the novels of Potteries author Arnold Bennett which, of course, was based on the then Evening Sentinel.

I well recall the early days of Signal, 30 years old this year, because – as an 11-year-old it provided a more ‘trendy’ alternative to the BBC station I had listened to every morning before school for years.

Radio Stoke was where I always hoped to find out at 8am that my school was closed because the boiler wasn’t working and there had been a couple of inches of snow.

Signal Radio, however, was different. In fact, I remember listening one Saturday morning and entering a trivia quiz against a bloke from Alsager.

I managed to win and the DJ promised to send me a single!

I waited for several days, the excitement building, until at last the parcel arrived.

I ripped it open to discover I’d been sent a copy of We’ve Got A Good Fire Goin’ by Don Williams.

I could have cried. I didn’t even know who he was.

Despite the crushing disappointment for me personally, Signal Radio’s appeal continued to grow.

The station, based in Stoke Road, Shelton, was one of the last in the country to split its frequencies.

It initially broadcast on 104.3 and 1170 – changing to 102.6 FM later.

Like any commercial station, in the early days it didn’t have the greatest budget but the dedication and enthusiasm of its staff and a bit of creative thinking more than made up for that.

In 1986, for example, it secured the UK’s first Restrictive Service Licence to cover the National Garden Festival in Etruria.

The station – now broadcasting as Signal 1 and Signal 2 – has been instrumental in staging many shows including the Battle of the Bands, a Young DJ contest and the annual Live in the City pop concert – as well as raising tens of thousands of pounds for various charities.

Over the years a number of stars who have gone on to make household names for themselves gained invaluable experience presenting shows or working for Signal.

They include comedienne Caroline Aherne, DJ Chris Moyles (formerly of Radio One), BBC NorthWest Tonight’s Annabel Tiffin, the late Potteries entertainment legend Mel Scholes, of Jollees nightclub fame, and even a certain Robbie Williams.

Showbiz sisters Anthea Turner and Wendy Turner-Webster also cut their teeth at the station.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

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Our New Vic is the legacy of a pair of great theatre pioneers

Peter Cheeseman at the New Vic Theatre.

Peter Cheeseman at the New Vic Theatre.


It is three decades since an appeal was launched to raise funds for a new theatre in North Staffordshire.

Donations locally amounted to more than £1m and three years later, in August 1986, the £3.1m New Vic Theatre opened its doors.

Markedly different from its competitors, as one of the few ‘producing’ theatres it has always prided itself on nurturing local talent and telling stories of life here in the Potteries.

The New Vic as we know it now may have opened in the Eighties but it actually traces its roots beyond North Staffordshire and back to the late 1950s when the Victoria Theatre Company, the brainchild of director, actor, designer, lecturer and writer Stephen Joseph, became the first in the UK to perform permanently ‘in the round’.

In other words, the audience surrounded the area on which actors would perform.

Originally based in Scarborough, the company toured the country and took its 250-seater ‘theatre’ with it.

One of its regular haunts was Newcastle-under-Lyme which led to the planning of a permanent home in North Staffordshire.

On October 9, 1962 the Victoria Theatre opened its doors in a converted cinema on the corner of Victoria Street and Hartshill Road, Hartshill.

Under the guidance of founder and director Peter Cheeseman, the Vic earned an international reputation by creating musical documentaries.

These included productions such as The Knotty (1966) Fight For Shelton Bar! (1974), Miner Dig the Coal (1981) and Nice Girls (1993).

These documentaries tapped into the experiences and recollections of people across North Staffordshire because, as the late Mr Cheeseman was oft heard to say, ‘in the local is the universal’.

In The Knotty, for example – a play charting the history of the North Staffordshire Railway – the voices of former railwaymen from the age of steam were recorded and used in the production and some were actually in attendance on its opening night.

Around 280 productions were staged in Hartshill before the New Vic’s purpose-built theatre was unveiled to the public and during those years actors such as Ben Kingsley, Bob Hoskins and Roy Barraclough graced the stage.

Suddenly theatre critics from national newspapers were visiting Stoke-on-Trent of all places. Who would have believed it?

After a terrific fund-raising campaign locally and the successful bidding for grant aid, the move to the new venue almost doubled seating capacity to around 600.

Potteries-born actor Freddie Jones and Robert Powell, who cut his teeth as an actor at the former Victoria Theatre, were among the guests of honour on the opening night – August 13, 1986.

Peter Cheeseman, who was awarded a CBE in 1998 for his dedication to theatres, produced 393 plays, directing 147 of them himself and remained a passionate advocate of theatre-in-the-round. He died in 2010.

The New Vic Theatre is his and Stephen Joseph’s great legacy and these days more than 100,000 people watch the nine productions each year at the renowned theatre in Basford.

These include work by the New Vic Borderlines team which works with some of the most disadvantaged communities in our area such as young people at risk of offending and adults with learning difficulties.

One of my favourite New Vic productions was the Hound of the Baskervilles in 1997 in which this unique theatre setting was somehow transformed into the bleak, eerie moors of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Thirty years after the initial fund-raising campaign, the New Vic continues to inspire and draw admiration and rightly so.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

City MP’s take on the most divisive of Prime Ministers

Stoke-on-Trent North MP Joan Walley.

Stoke-on-Trent North MP Joan Walley.

Few figures are as inextricably linked to the 1980s as the former Prime Minister who passed away this week at the age of 87.

Her tenure covered the entire decade – beginning in 1979 when she inherited a country paralysed by industrial unrest and ending with the bitter Poll Tax riots and a Conservative party revolt which saw her forced from office.

In recent days millions of column inches have been written about this woman as those to the left and right, and those who were helped or hindered by her policies, seek to write her epitaph.

‘Divisive’ is the word most media outlets have settled for as commentators express admiration and condemnation in equal measure.

We’ve a ‘ceremonial’ funeral next week and doubtless amid the pomp there will be protests and questions as to why Margaret Thatcher deserves a multi-million pound send-off while so many across the country struggle in these austere times.

Someone who certainly doesn’t agree with this state-sponsored tribute is Joan Walley who was elected MP for the Stoke-on-Trent North constituency when the Iron Lady won a record third election in June 1987.

By then Mrs Thatcher was a towering political figure who had overseen the Falklands Conflict, defeated Arthur Scargill after the long-running Miners’ Strike and implemented many of the policies on which history will judge her.

Joan, who didn’t attend the tribute debate to the former Prime Minister, said: “When anyone dies, first and foremost you must be respectful of their family and friends and understand what they must be feeling at a time of loss and sadness.

“That said, my feelings towards Mrs Thatcher, I struggle to say Lady Thatcher, are of course coloured by the memories of what her destructive policies did to this country during the 1980s – the effects of which many communities are still feeling today.

“She dismantled much of the country’s manufacturing base, declared war on the trade unions, privatised the UK’s industries and utilities and sold off council homes without ensuring there was the social housing to replace it. We are now living with the consequences of these policies.”

In Joan’s eyes the fact that Margaret Thatcher was the country’s first and only woman Prime Minister is not significant in that it didn’t open doors for other women.

She said: “I don’t think she did anything for women, in all honesty. She certainly didn’t make a huge difference to the political landscape because during her time in office there were still many more men in Parliament than women.”

I asked Joan if it was too simplistic to say that Mrs Thatcher’s foreign policy was more successful than her domestic policy.

She said: “Even with regard to the Falklands War it is difficult to say whether or not she was right. She certainly went against the advice of colleagues and military commanders – we know that know from papers that have been released.

“It shows that she had the courage of her convictions but clearly the public confidence which she exuded at times was very much for the media because the success of the task force operation was far from guaranteed.

“Domestically, I would say she just got it terribly wrong. Yes she took over at a time of great industrial unrest but the way in which she set about changing the economy led to deep divisions which still exist.

“I remember leading the miners on marches at the Victoria Ground and Vale Park during the Miners’ Strike. Her policies, such as her war against the trade unions, left a very profound impression on me because I saw the suffering of families in our area.”

So how will Joan remember Margaret Thatcher as a Parliamentarian and a person?

“She was always immaculately turned-out. Her outfits were always striking and co-ordinated and she had those strings of pearls. There was never a hair out of place. I think image was very important to her.

“She was certainly an impressive performer in the House and when in front of the cameras – I think you have to say that. She was a good orator and had a very commanding aura.

“I think it also fair to say that she had more of an impact and a presence on the world stage than any of the Prime Ministers who have succeeded her.

“However, she has to be judged on the effect her policies had on the fabric of our society and, for many people, those policies were so destructive and caused hardship and misery.”

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Why good photographers are still worth their weight in gold

Sentinel photographer Steve Bould with a selection of images taken by Sentinel photographers over the years which were displayed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in an exhibition entitled 'Dear Happy Ghosts

Sentinel photographer Steve Bould with a selection of images taken by Sentinel photographers over the years which were displayed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in an exhibition entitled ‘Dear Happy Ghosts’

I’m sure it’s not just me that is still wowed by touch-screen technology and who thinks that cameras on telephones are a novelty.

To the current generation of teenagers who know no different, taking pictures of yourself pouting in the mirror and then uploading said image to Facebook is par for the course.

In contrast there are very few pictures of me or my friends at high school or college because the generation which grew up in the late Eighties didn’t carry cameras around with them. Most of us didn’t have one.

If someone took a photograph there was generally a good reason for it. It was an occasion, an event, a gathering. It had a purpose.

Nowadays every oik with a mobile telephone can take a picture of his or her takeaway tea and display it to the world within seconds.

Don’t get me wrong, I am genuinely in awe of the fact that my six and eight-year-olds are able to use a mouse and navigate their way around an iMac screen and use the internet.

I can also, of course, see the huge benefits of hand-held devices which are part computer, part camera and part phone – even if they have killed the art of conversation for many.

Nowhere has the march of technology been more pronounced than with photography.

You used to walk in someone’s house and there would be the obligatory wedding picture in a frame – given pride of place – along with a few pictures of the kids, maybe a shot of grandad’s 70th birthday bash and a recently-departed pet dog.

Nowadays photo frames are electronic devices – winking at you from the mantelpiece or coffee table as they change from Christmas Day to last year’s holiday in Majorca.

Working in the media, of course, image technology has had a huge impact on the way some of my colleagues work.

I started as a cub reporter at Smith Davis Press in 1989 – the same year as Steve Bould began his career as a photographer at The Sentinel.

Now the most senior man on our picture desk, he’s one of the few photographers who recalls the momentous changes that have taken place over the last quarter of a century.

Back in the late Eighties, of course, cameras used rolls of film.

We would take our holiday snaps to a shop to be developed and every media organisation had its own dark room where a kind of a magic happened.

Even though I was a scribe, I spent many happy hours (though not as many as Steve) chatting away to colleagues under the eerie red light as negatives – or ‘negs’ – were developed (‘devved’).

I watched in awe as images materialised on prints in the trays.

It was a time-consuming process whereby the photographer didn’t really know just how successful or otherwise a particular shoot had been until he was able to view his or her negs back in the safety of the dark room.

In those early days I developed a healthy respect for ‘snappers’ (they hate being called that, by the way).

The importance to me of images chronicling everything from major events locally – from job losses, major crimes and football club successes – to the minutiae of people’s lives cannot be overstated.

That’s why I am so in awe of the treasure trove that is The Sentinel’s library and archive – with its row upon row of folders of prints, negatives and cuttings.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then this newspaper’s archive boasts billions.

It was, of course, the advent of digital cameras which ended the dark room’s domination and consigned camera films to the nostalgia pages.

In 1996 The Sentinel’s digital archive began and, to be fair, it’s a terrific, immediate resource.

When I began working as a journalist in the Eighties photographers, the vast majority of whom were men, at newspapers like The Sentinel would travel to just three or four jobs in a day – because they needed the rest of their shift to come back and ‘dev’ their work.

These days, photographers on your average regional daily newspaper will be expected to do six, seven or eight jobs in a day – often uploading the images to a laptop and emailing them back to HQ, thus removing any need for them to return to the office.

They may do more jobs but they also, of course, have the luxury of being able to view images as they take them – re-shooting if they are unhappy with the results.

Steve said: “I guess it’s swings and roundabouts. Photographers will do more jobs these days but the technology at their disposal is far superior to what was available 20-odd years ago.

“The job has changed. Some skills are no longer relevant.

“However, even though most people have devices which can take pictures these days it doesn’t mean the pictures they take are any good.

“Most people don’t have the technical ability to take a decent photograph or lack the courage to ‘get in there’ and get close enough to whatever is happening.

“Simply posing a group of people properly or creating an interesting image from a fairly dull subject matter – that’s a real skill.”

He’s not wrong. That’s why a good photographer is worth his or her weight in gold: Because they know a picture of a takeaway tikka masala isn’t that impressive after all.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Magic moment for Pope echoes Eighties Vale legend

Vale legend Andy Jones with his gaffer John Rudge.

Vale legend Andy Jones with his gaffer John Rudge.

Believe it or not 30-goal strikers are a rare breed in these parts.

That is why the achievement yesterday of Sneyd Green’s finest – Tom Pope – is worthy of such high praise.

As I write this the Pontiff, as he is affectionately known, has scored thirty goals and – with six games remaining – has every chance of setting a new post-war record.

Since 1980 only two players – one for Port Vale and one for Stoke City – have reached the heady heights of 30-plus goals.

Before that you have to delve deep into the history books for names like Wilf Kirkham (three times for Vale between 1924 and 1927) and, for Stoke, Charlie Wilson (1927/28) or the great Freddie Steele (1936/37 and 1946/47).

Since 1980 the only Stoke City player to score more than 30 goals in a season (in all competitions) was Mark Stein.

The pint-sized marksman hit 33 goals, including 26 in the league, to fire the Potters to promotion during the 1992/93 season.

I was a cub reporter at the time and was covering all Stoke and Vale home games and even I, as a Vale fan, had to acknowledge I was witnessing something special at the Victoria Ground.

Stoke went on a 25-game unbeaten run that season and Stein’s partnership with Wayne ‘Bertie’ Biggins was prolific.

At Vale Park it was a unheralded Welshman who was to set a new post-war goal-scoring record in the mid-Eighties.

Andy Jones joined the Vale from non-league Rhyl in May 1985 – manager John Rudge having paid the princely sum of £3,000 for the man who had failed to make an impact at Wrexham.

He was only at Vale Park for two and a bit seasons but his impact during that time was astonishing.

He was Vale’s top scorer in his first season with 18 goals and his strike partnership with Robbie Earle, which fired Vale to promotion from the old Third Division, was unforgettable.

But it was the following season when Jones really hit the heights. He scored 37 goals and 27 of those came in the league – making him the top striker outside the top flight.

As Vale’s penalty-taker, he scored 12 of his goals from the spot.

But he also scored twice in eight games, scored a hat-trick against Fulham at Craven Cottage, and managed to score five against Newport County.

Andy Jones had scored six goals in eight games at the start of the 1987/88 season when he was transferred to First Division Charlton Athletic.

Ironically, his time with the club wasn’t a success and he probably looks back ruefully at the fact that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson just missed out on signing him.

Tom Pope may not be on Sir Alex’s radar just yet. Perhaps it’s because he isn’t taking Vale’s penalties at the moment.

However, having just been named the League Two Player of the Year, the lad who was born just a few months after Andy Jones signed for the Vale and grew up supporting the Valiants has emulated a club legend made in the Eighties.

Whatever happens between now and April 27, our Popey has had a terrific season and deserves all the plaudits he’s received thus far.

But I am sure all football fans can see the romance in him scoring a few more goals this season and firing his boyhood club to promotion after the most turbulent of periods.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

The Football Final and a paper round… how I fell in love with newspapers

A Sentinel front page from July 1988.

A Sentinel front page from July 1988.

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with newspapers. I would have been about 10 years old and it was The Sentinel that hooked me.

My mum and dad had the paper delivered and I would nick the Football Final and sit alone in the back room reading the brief match reports and scanning the league tables.

I remember thinking at the time that it was incredible that within an hour and a half of the final whistle a page full of information had been printed on the back of our local paper and delivered to our door.

At the age of 15 I began my paper round – delivering The Sentinel and national newspapers to homes in Sneyd Green and Smallthorne.

My ‘run’ was very hilly and was the longest of any of the paper boys and girls working out of the newsagents on Mornington Road.

The year was 1987 and I would get up at 5.30am on a school day and a similar time at weekends and have to be at the paper shop by 4.30pm each day after school.

I earned the princely sum of £5.50 per week but consoled myself with the fact that I lost a stone in weight in three months lugging that great heavy bag around.

I remember weekends being toughest because my bag was heavier – filled with numerous lifestyle supplements and magazines which the nationals produced to add value to their reader offer.

Being a paper boy helped me to develop a healthy interest in current affairs – from the trials and tribulations of ‘gender-bender’ Boy George to the kidnapping of Terry Waite and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

I would browse the nationals before delivering them – something my boss Joe frowned upon because he feared complaints from customers irked by papers with creased pages.

I slowly learned the differences between each of the tabloids, began to spot the spin and the political bias, and marvelled at how the same story could be told two or three different ways.

It was while at Sixth Form College, Fenton, a couple of years after I gave up my paper round, that I applied for a job with a local press agency – determined to carve a career in journalism.

It’s no secret that sales of newspapers, both national and local, have been declining since their peak in the 1950s – never more so than following the advent of the internet.

Two of the national newspapers I delivered as a paper boy – The News of the World and Today – are no longer with us.

The former was shut down in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal while the other, which had only launched in 1986, closed nine years later due to financial pressures.

I am proud to say that having delivered both I worked for and had articles published in both during my time as a ‘stringer’ for a local press agency. Back in the mid to late Eighties newspaper circulation figures were still astonishingly high.

In 1987 the News of the World was selling an average of 5,360,000 copies a week while the Sunday Mirror was selling almost three million.

The Sun was selling almost four million copies daily and the Daily Telegraph 1.15 million copies.

The circulation of all these titles, and all regional newspapers has plummeted dramatically over the last 20 years as technology has advanced and the way in which people access information has changed – prompting many observers to predict the death of newspapers.

Far fewer people take a newspaper to work and far more work at a computer or have a phone which gives them instant access to all the news, sport and features that they want.

However, in the week that politicians carved a highly unsatisfactory deal between themselves and anti-Press activists, I’d like to think there’s life in the old dogs yet.

Blogs and the broadcast media are all well and good but, in the final analysis: No-one does in-depth like newspapers; No-one chronicles history like newspapers; No organisations do investigations like newspapers. No other media organisations have the resources to do what newspapers like The Sentinel do here in North Staffordshire.

That’s our USP and that’s why, in my opinion, even in this age of ever-changing technology newspapers still have a vital role to play.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Decade spawned new TV format… and murdered some songs

The Children In Need logo from 1980.

The Children In Need logo from 1980.

As I was looking at the schedule for last night’s Comic Relief I began to wonder where it all began: This telethon lark, I mean.

Like many television formats we now take for granted, it originated in the UK during that decade of television firsts – the Eighties.

Back then – as with Live Aid – it was genuinely ground-breaking as a form of mass entertainment and in terms of a technological achievement.

The first terrestrial TV telethon was screened in Britain in 1980 and it has since gone on to spawn Comic Relief and Sport Relief – all fronted by the BBC.

Thirty three years ago the Beeb’s Children In Need charity – which has its roots in a 1927 Christmas Day appeal for children’s charities – took centre stage for a single themed programme which lasted the whole evening.

Presented by veteran Terry Wogan, newsreader Sue Lawley and That’s Life’s presenter Esther Rantzen, we were all shocked when it raised more than £1 million from public donations.

The show benefited, of course, from the fact that there was no cable or satellite TV back then and so most people in the UK tuned in to watch this most unusual bit of programming.

The massive success of that first telethon persuaded BBC bosses to keep the format which has been an annual fixture ever since.

Using its massive resources, Auntie has turned Children In Need Day into a huge annual fund-raising exercise – with all its regional TV news teams and local radio stations encouraging their viewers and listeners to do something daft for the good cause.

In 1985 Pudsey Bear became the charity’s mascot – designed by a BBC graphic designer and named after her home town in Yorkshire.

Originally, the teddy which now pops up on all Children In Need branding and brightens up supermarket checkouts during the month of March, was brown in colour and didn’t sport an eye patch.

Interestingly, the telethon isn’t universally popular – with some observers arguing that such events detract from other charities.

Others have criticised a lack of accountability in terms of where the money goes and the fact that some celebrities are able to promote themselves for free on prime time television.

But the telethon has surely done more harm than good since that historic first broadcast in 1980 – even if some of the telly is woeful.

Just look at the numbers: To date Children In Need has raised more than £600m – all of which has helped disabled children and vulnerable young people across the UK.

Five years after that first Children In Need extravaganza, comedian Lenny Henry and comedy scriptwriter Richard Curtis founded the Comic Relief charity in response to famine in Ethiopia.

It was launched on BBC1 on Noel Edmonds’s Late Late Breakfast Show on Christmas Day with a live appeal from a refugee camp in Sudan.

Since then Red Nose Day has raised more than £800m while, over the years, inflicting upon us some devastatingly awful music.

This tradition began in 1986 with Cliff Richard and the cast of The Young Ones who murdered Living Doll.

The following year Mel and Kim and Kim Wilde did similar to Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree – with a little help from comedian Mel Smith.

But worst of all was Bananarama’s version of Help! in 1989 which was ruined with the assistance of comediennes French and Saunders and Kathy Burke.

In 2002 Comic Relief and BBC Sport came together to create a new charity initiative. Sport Relief now alternates with Red Rose Day as Comic Relief’s big annual fund-raiser.’

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.