15 years… but I’m only just starting, really

Our Sir Stan tribute.

Our Sir Stan tribute.

A £500 pay cut and a demotion. That’s what it cost me to land a job here at The Sentinel in October 1998.

To be fair to the then Editor-in-Chief, who I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by, there were no vacancies on the Newsdesk and so I began life at my home city paper as a reporter.

As for the pay cut, I think it was perhaps his way of saying: ‘You’re on probation. Just another reporter. Show me what you can do.”

Against all odds, I’m still here – 15 years later – having seen off (in the nicest possible way) two editors and almost 200 journalist colleagues who have retired, been made redundant, left the company, or, in some sad cases, passed away.

To say that The Sentinel has changed a great deal during that time would be an understatement – both in terms of our working environment and what we do.

When I started, our photographers were still developing prints in the dark room.

Fax machines were still de rigueur. There was no internet and mobile telephones were still like bricks.

Few people had them and the idea of sitting there and being ignorant of the world and everyone around you while fiddling with a phone would have seemed preposterous.

The internet was still very much a geek thing and if you wanted information you couldn’t just ‘Google it’ or fall back on Wikipedia.

You either telephoned someone, picked up a reference book or looked in our library – which is probably one of the reasons I have such a healthy respect for our archive.

Many of my colleagues (particularly the crotchety old, cardigan-wearing sub-editors) at our Festival Park offices would disappear off to the pub at lunchtime for a couple of pints to ‘liven them up’ for the afternoon.

Half the journalists regularly frequented the ‘smoking room’ which was located up a corner of our vast ground floor editorial department.

It stunk to high heaven and every time someone opened the door the awful smell wafted across the newsroom.

Those early days are a blur for me. Within two weeks of starting my job I was doing shifts on the Newsdesk – the engine room of any newsroom.

The hours were long, as they still are, and I’d be up at 4am to drive into the office and prepare the news list for morning conference.

We had seven editions back then – all printed on site and staggered throughout the day. I couldn’t help but feel proud of working here.

Within a couple of months of me joining the paper the gaffer had appointed me Deputy News Editor.

Since then I’ve been privileged to be News Editor, Head of Content, Assistant Editor and now Deputy Editor and columnist.

My memories of colleagues who have moved on are still fresh and my recollections of each role vivid.

Our campaigns – such as Proud of the Potteries, in answer to some half-baked survey which said Stoke-on-Trent was the worst place to live in England and Wales – really mattered to me, as a local lad.

When Sir Stanley Matthews died I remember the UK Press Gazette (the trade magazine for hacks) lauding the Blackpool Gazette for its special 24-page tribute to the great man which had been produced by its journalists who had worked ‘through the night’.

We had worked 24 hours straight and produced 64 pages for the next day. From scratch. I’ve still got a copy.

I recall our 20,000-signature campaign for a new North Staffs Hospital – taken to 10 Downing Street by a little lad who must now be old enough to go the pub.

I remember the first time I planned and compered a Sentinel event – Our Heroes in 2006. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat a thing and spilt red wine down my tux.

I remember the first Stoke’s Top Talent variety contest – with a queue of entrants snaking round the Victoria Hall at half eight on a Saturday morning.

I recall planning our first Young Journalist Awards and Class Act competition which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools.

I’ll never forget the sheer terror of walking on stage at The Regent theatre in panto for the first time – and the strange mixture of elation and sadness as I took my final bow 33 shows later.

More recently I returned to news writing to help expose wrong-doing by former directors at Port Vale and was proud to be involved in the subsequent battle to save the club.

I was also privileged to travel down to London with two veterans to present our 17,000-strong petition to save the name of The Staffords.

And so it goes on.

Fifteen years ago this week I joined The Sentinel and now I look around the newsroom and there are only a handful of people who have been here longer than yours truly. Suddenly (and I’m not quite sure how it happened) I’m one of the old heads.

Thankfully I’ve still got Rob Cotterill, Dave Blackhurst, Steve Bould and Dianne Gibbons to look up to.

Astonishingly, they’ve more than 150 years’ service between them.

All local. All proud.

I guess I’m only just starting, really.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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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

Fast food makes youngsters slow to choose a healthy lifestyle

Sajid Munir, owner of Bilaal's fast food takeaway, with protesters.

Sajid Munir, owner of Bilaal’s fast food takeaway, with protesters.

When people in North Staffordshire start raising a petition they generally mean business.

When they start a petition calling for a new chip shop near their homes they are simply helping someone else’s.

And that’s exactly what people in Trent Vale are doing right now after entrepreneur Rakesh Kumar resubmitted plans for an empty shop – despite being knocked back last year.

Apparently Hartshill or Oakhill is too far for these fast food fans to travel. I mean, it’s practically the other side of the moon, you know.

Meanwhile, back in my neck of the woods – Sneyd Green – an astonishing 400 people have been moved to sign a petition to save Bilaal’s Kebab and Balti house from demolition.

The circumstances are markedly different, of course. Bilaal’s is an established business and the city council wants to knock down the building as it is part of an ‘under-used’ row of shops.

Unfortunately, they forgot to tell owner Sajid Munir or consult with local residents about the proposals, which have left officials with egg – or possibly salt and lemon – on their faces.

I should declare an interest here.

Way back in 1988, when yours truly was in his final year at Holden Lane High, Bilaal’s – which is just over the road – was a chippy owned by the father of my classmate Justina.

When pocket money allowed that’s where we got our cut-price chips and gravy.

More recently my brother has treated me to the odd kebab from Bilaal’s which is opposite my dad’s local. Mighty fine they are too. (No relish thanks, Oz).

Thus in this case I’d be sad to see the bulldozers move in – particularly as it is a viable business and Mr Munir recently spent tens of thousands of pounds doing the place up.

But, as an overweight, middle-aged father-of-two with a tendency to blame his expanding waistline on illness rather than a poor diet and not walking the dog enough, I have to say ‘enough is enough’ when it comes to fast food outlets.

In our drive-thru, throw-away society do we really need more chippies, burger bars and pizza houses? Of course we don’t.

If we want fast food options we are never more than five minutes away from a retailer willing to oblige. Or we can nip to Festival Park and play spot the boy-racer while choosing between Subway, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut or Frankie & Benny’s – to name but a few.

Now take a look around you.

Take a walk through the Potteries Shopping Centre. It’s like a salad-dodgers’ convention.

Watch the crowds streaming out of the Brit or Vale Park on a match day. It’s not hard to spot who ate all the pies, is it?

Never mind political-correctness, the nation is getting fatter. Fact. And the people of North Staffordshire have been getting even fatter than their counterparts in other areas of the country.

I don’t need some sunflower-seed munching expert from the department of nutrition and dietetics to tell me why, either.

Sure, income plays a part in the diets of some families. Some people have ‘slow metabolisms’ or genuine health issues which mean they find it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

And others, with very little motivation, self-esteem or willpower, gorge themselves on far too much of the wrong kinds of foods and do hardly any exercise and thus get bigger and more unhealthy every year.

The Potteries is full of such people. And, worryingly, more and more of them are children.

Currently, more than a fifth of Stoke-on-Trent’s 186,000 adults are obese (the highest proportion of any area in the West Midlands).

We are in the middle of an obesity epidemic and we need help now so that more people live longer and the local NHS doesn’t become over-burdened with generations of people suffering all manner of weight and diet-related ailments.

Stoke-on-Trent currently has 226 hot food takeaways, along with 131 cafés and snack bars, which include big-name fast food chain outlets.

So, what we certainly don’t need is more chippies.

The city’s future health and prosperity may not hinge on the decision over the empty shop in Trent Vale. But being careful about the kind of businesses we want in our communities is a step in the right direction.

I, for one, hope the city council does as it has indicated it might, and introduces new, tighter planning controls to reduce the number of takeaways opening in the city.

Meanwhile, we have to stop signing daft petitions get off our backsides, leave the car on the drive and – if needs must – walk to the nearest chippy.

Failing that, we could always have a piece of toast.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday