Can you remember the days before we were all connected?

John Caudwell, who went on to become a mobile phone billionaire, with one of the early Motorola devices.

North Staffordshire entrepreneur John Caudwell, who went on to become a mobile phone billionaire, with one of the early Motorola devices.

Just put it down for a minute while you read this, will you? Your Facebook account will still be there when you pick it back up again and, no, you absolutely do not have to answer that text message straight away.

That email can wait too. Honestly.

Mobile telephones: Great, aren’t they? One of the many technological advances for which we have the Eighties to thank. Sort of.

Passion-killers. Conversation killers. Movie-interrupters and promoters of ignorance on an epic scale.

OK, maybe that’s taking it a little far, but you take my point?

Unbelievably, it’s actually 30 years since the first mobile telephones went on sale at an eye-watering £2,300.

Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, which had been in development for about a decade, was as big as a house brick, weighed more than a kilo and was only seen initially on TV programmes or being lugged around by the ‘City boys’ of London.

However, its arrival sparked a race between manufacturers to produce ever smaller, more lightweight and – crucially – mass marketable phones.

During the 1980s, the growth in popularity of the mobile was largely fuelled by carphones.

Indeed, when I started work as a cub reporter for a local press agency in 1989 my colleagues and I shared a pager – yes, like a doctor would wear – when we were ‘on-call’.

It wasn’t until two years later that we were equipped with a big chunky mobile telephone which I felt hugely self-conscious about using when it first went off one night in a pub up Hanley.

By the end of the Eighties Motorola was ready to follow up its world first with another one – the first ‘flip-phone’.

The MicroTAC had a pop-up aerial but was still nine inches long and weighed just over 12 ounces.

It is worth pointing out that at this point, of course, a mobile telephone was still, well… a mobile telephone.

People weren’t using them to send dozens of text messages every day, they didn’t have built-in cameras and they weren’t connected to the internet because it didn’t exist.

It was a novelty just having a phone in your car, to be able to take to the shops, the pub or a football match.

Most of us were still using red phone boxes or those awful metal BT ones which took cash or cards.

Bear in mind my generation, and all those before, were just about getting used to cordless telephones in the home. The ones which had digits rather than dials.

When we made arrangements to meet someone this was done via a quick call from the home phone.

We would just turn up, as agreed – without feeling the irrational urge to check someone’s estimated time of arrival or to inform the world where we (or they) were at a given moment.

However, there was no stopping the march of progress and over the years mobile phones just kept getting smaller and more powerful – adding that word ‘functionality’ with every new model.

I’ll mention just a couple.

By 1999 the Nokia 3210 was on the market and became the first ‘mobile’ to gain widespread popularity among high school pupils.

Then the Blackberry 6210 was launched, 10 years ago, and that really did put an end to family life as we know it for many who couldn’t resist using their phone to check their emails when they should have been doing something more important.

After that, phones got ‘smart’ – started storing music and getting cosy with internet applications and the rest, as they say, is history.

Like the internet and email, mobile telephones have undoubtedly revolutionised our lives – for good and ill.

I guess the trick is knowing when, and where to switch them off…

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

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.

Just time for one last tour then school’s out… forever

The old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

The old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

There is a framed picture in head teacher John Patino’s office. It is an aerial photograph which I’m guessing, from the look of the vehicles, was taken around 1983 when yours truly started at Holden Lane High School.

It shows the mobile classrooms which had been built on an area previously home to cricket nets to accommodate for the double-intake that year.

This included 11-year-old, destined-to-be GCSE guinea-pigs.

My lot.

One of those mobiles, top right, became my ‘home’, or form room, for five years.

If you look closely you can just make out the speck of a lad on a bicycle – presumably riding home.

I wondered briefly if I knew him. Maybe he was in my year. Perhaps we’re still in touch on Facebook.

Schools are special places, you see. You spend so long there and your actions are so routine that they become ingrained in your memory.

As I sat there listening to John’s vision of the future for my old school I couldn’t help but reminisce.

I couldn’t help but think about teachers whose big personalities or quirky traits left such an impression on young me.

Even now, 25 years after leaving, I can still hear Mr Ball barking orders down the corridors and giving out lines and detention to ne’er do wells.

I can still hear my form tutor Mr Jones enforcing discipline with a sergeant major’s humour and the threat of the ruler and the cane.

I can still recall the dread of P.E. That feeling in the pit of my stomach from knowing that fat, asthmatic yours truly couldn’t run about without getting out of breath.

Rubbish at football. Always last at cross-country.

That’s just the way it was.

I can still remember music teacher Mr Baddeley rolling his eyes at me as I failed the recorder test.

I can still recall being smitten from day one when I first spotted a girl in the top class.

John bought me back to down to earth with a bump: From September, he explained, Holden Lane High in Sneyd Green will cease to exist.

It will be replaced by the brand new £11 million Excel Academy which is currently under construction.

In January the buildings of my old school will no longer be used and then the bulldozers will move in.

Much as it tugs at my heart strings, there are sound reasons for this.

A couple of years ago Holden Lane went in to special measures after a damning Ofsted inspection.

The number of pupils has fallen from 1,300 or so in its hey-day to just 800 or so. This desperately needs to change.

The buildings I refer to with such fondness are, to put it mildly, well past their best. This isn’t something a lick of paint or a refurbishment can mask because five decades and literally tens of thousands of pupils have taken their toll on the old girl.

Yes, what I didn’t realise was that Holden Lane High this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and will just about reach that milestone before it’s demolition time.

In order to reverse falling pupil numbers and exorcise the ghost of that Ofsted report a new academy will rise from the ashes – funded by the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

It will be an academy the pupils deserve with state-of-the-art facilities and one which, John and the governors hope, will tempt families to again look favourably on a school that has fallen from grace in recent years.

There will be a new uniform with a red rather than a blue tie. Yes, it’s all-change at Holden Lane – sorry, the Excel Academy – and it’s nothing more than present and future generations deserve.

John took me on a tour of the old building and I made him laugh by remembering where all my fifth year classrooms were across three floors.

The corridors that once were so daunting seemed woefully small, the stairwells antiquated and the windows, well, rather draughty.

Happily, however, not much had changed in a quarter of a century since 16-year-old me left to do his A-levels at Sixth Form College, Fenton.

There’ll be one hell of a reunion before they knock the place down, I’ll make sure of that.

I may even take a brick as a keepsake.

I’ll certainly want to take one final tour round the school before that happens – perhaps accompanied this time by some old friends from class 5/1. You know who you are.

It’ll be mint. Ace. Be there or be square.

Inside the old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

Inside the old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

Star Wars, The Bill and a landslide for Maggie

Margaret Thatcher celebrated a landslide General Election victory in 1983.

Margaret Thatcher celebrated a landslide General Election victory in 1983.

I was 11 years old in 1983. I hadn’t even started my Sentinel paper round but my world was about to get much bigger with a move to high school.

Trawling through the archives is fascinating but it doesn’t half make you feel old – particularly when you realise how long ago it is that certain people died.

1983 was the year when we lost some stellar names from the world of showbusiness.

Believe it or not it is 30 years since the likes of David Niven, Dick Emery, Billy Fury, John Le Mesurier and Violet Carson passed away.

It was also the year that music mourned the loss of the irreplaceable Karen Carpenter, aged just 32, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys – along with American heavyweight boxing legend Jack Dempsey.

Closer to home, Sid Daniels – the last surviving crewmember of the RMS Titanic – died at the age of 89.

It is difficult to comprehend now but in 1983 the Cold War was still cropping up on TV news bulletins.

In March of that year U.S. President Ronald Reagan outlined initial proposals for the Strategic Defence Initiative.

The media dubbed the plan to develop technology which could intercept enemy missiles ‘Star Wars’ and it stuck.

In September the Soviet Union admitted shooting down Korean Air Flight 007 which had entered their airspace – claiming that its pilots were unaware it was a civilian aircraft.

Two months later we saw the final scare of the Cold War when Soviet officials misinterpreted a NATO exercise codenamed Able Archer as a nuclear first strike. Thankfully, someone had the gumption to realise it wasn’t.

That same month the first U.S. Cruise Missiles arrived at the Greenham Common Airbase – prompting protests from the likes of CND and other peace protesters.

While managing to keep his finger off the big red button, actor turned U.S. President Reagan proudly watched as the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger set off on its first flight – three years before its final, tragic flight.

The former Hollywood hearthrob also indicated that the Global Positioning System or GPS, which we all now take for granted, would be made available for civilian use.

1983 was the year that the infamous ‘Butcher of Lyon’, Klaus Barbie – who is estimated to have been involved in the murder of 14,000 people – was indicted for war crimes after a lengthy crusade by Nazi hunters.

Of great interest to us here in the UK following the Falklands Conflict, military rule in Argentina ended in 1983 after seven years following democratic elections which resulted in Raúl Alfonsin’s first term as President.

Back home, on a wave of euphoria after the Falklands victory, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was re-elected by a landslide majority in June.

Four months later Neil Kinnock was elected leader of the Labour Party, replacing Michael Foot.

The Northern Ireland troubles made headlines daily in 1983.

In September 38 Irish republican prisoners armed with hand guns hijacked a prison meals lorry and smashed their way out of the Maze Prison.

It was the largest prison escape since World War II and the biggest in British history.

Then in December a Provisional IRA car bomb which exploded outside Harrods killed six Christmas shoppers and injured 90 more.

Another major story from 1983 was the Brink’s–MAT robbery in London.

Around 6,800 gold bars worth an estimated £26 million were stolen from a vault at Heathrow Airport.

In October Scottish entrepreneur Richard Noble set a new land speed record of 633.468 miles per hour by driving the British designed and built Thrust 2 jet propelled car across the Black Rock desert in Nevada. The record stood for 14 years.

In sport the Old Firm’s dominance of Scottish football was broken when Dundee United were crowned champions for the first time in their history.

Meanwhile, in tennis, the legend that is Bjorn Borg retired from the game after winning five consecutive Wimbledon titles.

In entertainment, Rock group Kiss officially appeared in public for the first time without make-up, the final episode of M*A*S*H was screened and UK TV favourite The Bill first aired as one-off drama called Woodentop.

Now that’s what you call an 80s phenomenon…

The 80s was, of course, a decade of fads – shoulder pads, boomboxes and neon spandex included – but there’s one particular trend has never gone away.

In fact, the ‘Now That’s What I call Music!’ albums, usually boiled down to ‘Now!’ went on to become a staple of the music industry in the UK and worldwide.

Everyone remembers the first one they bought (or in my case the first one my mum bought me).

Moreover, most can even recall their favourite songs on it. Mine was the very first release in 1986 and there was a three-way tie between Too Shy by Kajagoogoo, Total Eclipse of the Heart, by Bonnie Tyler and Is There Something I Should Know? by Duran Duran for my most played track.

The idea for the Now! phenomenon was born in the Virgin Records offices of Richard Branson in London.

The premise was to create a collection that would include original versions of hit tracks rather than the watered-down edits that were rife on their competitor albums.

Bizarrely the series took its name from a 1920s advertising poster for Danish bacon featuring a pig listening to a chicken sing “Now that’s what I call music.” The poster was purchased by Branson and was hung behind his cousin’s desk at the Virgin Records office.

The pig became the Now! series’ mascot for a while, making its last appearance on Now! 5.

Virgin teamed up with EMI and the first album in the original series was released in November, 1983.

Initial pressings were released on vinyl and audio cassette, with a re-release on CD in 2009, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the album and series.

Among its 30 songs, the excellent Now! 1 – the only album I had for my record player at the age of 11 – features 11 songs which reached number one on the UK Singles Chart: You Can’t Hurry Love by Phil Collins, Is There Something I Should Know? by Duran Duran, Red Red Wine by UB40, Give It Up by KC & The Sunshine Band, Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler, Karma Chameleon by Culture Club, Too Shy by Kajagoogoo, Down Under by Men at Work, Baby Jane by Rod Stewart, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home) by Paul Young and Candy Girl by New Edition.

The Now! series became a reliable blockbuster around two to three times a year by sticking to a much-used music industry formula.

It took a collection of the biggest radio hits and packaged them together in a compilation – and bingo.

Now II, released in March, 1984 debuted at number three on the UK Albums Chart and then climbed to number one a week later, staying there for five weeks.

The first full-track edition to be released on CD, as well as on vinyl and cassette, was Now! 10 in November, 1987. I have this too…

It reached the top of the UK Albums Chart for six weeks and featured three songs that reached number one on the UK Singles Chart: Pump Up the Volume by MARRS, China in Your Hand by T’Pau and La Bamba by Los Lobos.

This release pretty much summed up the problem with buying a compilation CD/record – you often had the sublime (Fairytale of New York by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl) as well as the ridiculous – My Pretty One by Cliff Richard).

Vinyls ended with Now! 35 and cassettes ended with Now! 63. Part of the series was also released on the MiniDisc format, starting with Now! 43 and ending with Now! 48.

These days the Now! releases seem predominately aimed at the young, especially ‘tween’, girls.

Eighty-two Now! albums have been released to date. The newest album in the series, Now! 83 was released last month.

Now! 83 features 12 songs which reached number one in the UK Singles Chart (most of which I confess I haven’t heard of).

Back in the 80s, before the days of digital downloading, if you were keen on the UK Singles Chart it made perfect sense to purchase a Now! album. It was music’s version of one-stop shopping.

And in our age of digital downloading, iTunes, Spotify and even YouTube, these compilations are still thriving. The series is the biggest selling compilation series… ever. It’s also the longest-selling branded compilation album in the UK.

“Now That’s What I Call Music! has always been a hit because every edition brilliantly distills each two or three months in pop,” says Mark Goodier, of Smooth Radio and the voice of Now! since Now! 21. “When a collector like me reviews the collection of Now! albums, it’s an accurate journey through the last two and half chart decades”.

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