Celebrities, saucy lost property and a riot over Rocky II…

When Peter Kelly first arrived in Hanley he was 29 years old. The year was 1972 (coincidentally, the year yours truly was born) and, although he didn’t know it at the time, Peter was to spend the rest of his working life in the Potteries.

When he took early retirement in 1999 at the age of 56, Peter had managed both the Odeon cinema in the city centre and its new incarnation at Festival Park, Etruria.

He oversaw numerous celebrity film premieres and, during the late Eighties, presided over the most successful Odeon business in the UK in terms of admissions.

Now aged 69, Peter looks back on his cinema years with fondness.

He said: “I was very lucky. It was a wonderful job and I got to meet and work with some wonderful people over the years – some of whom remain my friends to this day.”

Originally from Scarborough, Peter had been to theatrical school and was destined for a career on the stage before deciding to switch career and head into management with Rank.

When he first arrived in Stoke-on-Trent, Peter ran the Odeon at the former Gaumont on Piccadilly (now The Regent Theatre) which, at the time, was a dual-purpose cinema and theatre.

If you’re my age you’ll remember the free trips to see old movies there as part of the Staffordshire Police Activities and Community Enterprise (SPACE) scheme.

Peter said: “In those days, of course, there were no computers. It was very much a case of people turning up and paying to see the film they wanted.

“If the showing was full then they had to either get in the queue for the next one or come back at another time.

“There was no paying in advance or credit cards.”

In fact, on one occasion, there was no paying at all… as Peter explains.

“I remember turning up for work one morning at the Odeon in Hanley at 9am and finding a queue of 300 people outside.

“They were waiting to watch Rocky II (1979). Rocky had been released on video at the same time that Rocky II came out and there was great anticipation for the movie.

“I recall thinking that I was going to need some extra pairs of hands and so I rang my assistant managers who came in to help.

“By the time we opened the doors at 1pm the queue was enormous and snaked all the way around the building to where Radio Stoke was on Cheapside.

“There was an almighty rush and it was chaos. Windows were broken and people started helping themselves to sweets and merchandise.

“I called the emergency number at our head office and was basically told: ‘you handle it’.

“So I let the first showing in to see the film for free. I didn’t know what else to do. Then the next lot paid.”

If you think that was bad, then don’t ask Peter about the things he and his staff used to find in the cinema after showings. Let’s just say it wasn’t just bras and knickers that turned up around the so-called ‘love seats’ at the back of the auditorium.

Back in the 1980s cinema chains had deals with certain film companies which meant that, for example, Peter’s Odeon never showed some of the biggest blockbusters such as ET.

He said: “I remember standing outside at the Gaumont (Hanley Odeon) and looking down at the old ABC to see how big their queues were.”

Some of Peter’s fondest memories of running cinemas in the days before IMax, CGI and 3D that works, involved his benefit events – such as midnight screenings where the proceeds went to causes such as the Lord Mayor’s charities.

In 1987 the Odeon relocated to Festival Park and over the following two years ticket sales soared – making it the number one Odeon cinema in the country. Thus the decision to increase the number of screens from eight to 10.

Peter fondly recalls some of the quirky ideas he had to get bums on seats – such as a ‘Weepy week’ of films.

He said: “I remember this included the Lana Turner film Madame X and all of the audience weeping.”

Peter was also responsible for showing horror classic The Exorcist very late every Saturday night. It ran very successfully for more than a year at the Festival Park Odeon.

But it is the celebrity film premieres featuring the likes of Pierce Brosnan and Dudley Moore that brought him the most pleasure.

He even persuaded Sir Richard Attenborough to attend the Festival Park premiere of his 1993 film Shadowlands.

He said: “I met him in London and asked him if he would attend the Stoke premiere. He asked me why he should and I said ‘because Stoke-on-Trent’s Odeon sells more tickets than any other in the UK – including the one in Leicester Square’.

“So he came up to Festival Park and I got him on stage and he was thrilled because Sir Stanley Matthews was in the audience. They were both lovely people. Real. gentlemen.”

Peter’s favourite film is actually the musical Funny Girl which launched the career of Barbra Streisand.

But it’s a little known secret that he’s also partial to a bit of Dirty Dancing and Ghost – which left him ‘in tears’.

After all this, you may be surprised to learn that Peter, enjoying his retirement and living in Lower Tean, hasn’t seen a film at the cinema since he retired.

He said: “When you have spent so long around people you value the peace and quiet to be honest.”

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

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Verity’s still radio Ga Ga 30 years after her debut on BBC Radio Stoke

Verity Williams, as she was, was seven the first time she rang in to BBC Radio Stoke.

She wanted the presenter – a certain Jack Ward – to play a song for her: Love Me For A Reason by The Osmonds.

However, Mr Ward – a firm favourite of Verity’s nan – was having none of it and instead treated her to The Old Rugged Cross.

Amazingly, she wasn’t put off for life and at the age of 14 it was her prowess with a pen that earned her a part-time job with the station in Cheapside, Hanley, in 1981.

Verity said: “I actually wanted a job working in a shop but I was too young so my nan suggested I wrote to Radio Stoke. She was an avid listener to Jack Ward.

“My handwriting was very neat, apparently, and the bosses at the station were obviously impressed because they let me go in on Saturdays and answer the telephones and write down music requests from listeners. There were no computers back then, of course.”

It was another local legend – Bruno Brookes – who really gave Verity the bug for radio.
She said: “Bruno was wonderful to work with – such a lovely man who had a great way with all the people he met.

“However, he had a bit of a problem with his time-keeping. He would always turn up a bit late for his show which meant I ended up opening up the station, handling the switch over from Radio Two, introducing the first couple of records, and holding the fort for him. I would have been about 15 at the time.”

Back then it was records too – none of this digital playlist mullarky which yours truly enjoyed the benefit of when I did my first two shows on BBC Radio Stoke at Easter.

Verity, surname now Hilton and aged 45 and living in Bucknall, explained: “All music was chosen by the listeners or the presenters. The lazy presenters would just use the pile of records left by their colleagues while others did proper research in the old gram library.”

This autonomy meant each show sounded different – depending on the preferences of the presenters and their audience.

Verity said: “When the music began to be chosen by computers this was certainly more efficient and made it easier to put shows together. But it also gave the station a very definite ‘sound’, as the same type of tunes were heard with more regularity.”

It was 1984 when Verity began working for BBC Radio Stoke full-time and she worked for the station on and off until 2000, as well as enjoying stints as a researcher for BBC Breakfast television and as the Beeb’s producer for the Stoke-on-Trent Garden Festival.

She said: “In the 80s local radio really was all about the local audience. There were an awful lot of local people involved and there was a great sense of community.

“There wasn’t so much regional input into shows as there seems to be today. It was very much about what was happening locally.

“Even the local commercial station – Signal – was of the same mindset and they became a great rival for a time.”

Verity is perhaps best know for her work with partner Sam Plank – real name Terry Hilton – whom she went on to marry, but she also enjoyed working with many other well-known names such as the late Bill Humphreys and Mel Scholes, Grant Leighton – who now works in the U.S. – and my mate Pete Conway.

But what was it that made Sam Plank so special and so loved by locals that, at one time, one in three listeners to local radio in North Staffordshire was listening to his show?

Verity said: “I think the station bosses saw something in Sam back when he was working for the council and he would drop in and try to get publicity for various things.

“He was very chatty – a real people person. I remember once he was sent off down to London on a training course and they told him he should refer to the Stoke-on-Trent North MP as Ms Walley.

“Sam said: ‘If I start calling Joan ’Ms Walley’ then she’ll have to call me ‘Mr Plank’. Dunna be daft’.

“That, in a way, was his charm. He just wanted to talk to people – to hear about their lives. He would play daft games like asking listeners what was in his cup. He didn’t really want them to say what was in the cup – he just wanted them to ring in so he could have a chat with them.”

Technology may have changed local radio in the past 30 years, but nothing has diminished Verity’s enthusiasm for it.

She said: “I still love it. I still get a real buzz whenever I’m on air. It’s a great feeling and a real privilege.”