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.


Fewer home visits but a lot more bureaucracy for Dr Golik

The gypsy knew, of course. Paul Golik doesn’t know how the old lady knew but she correctly predicted that the young lad at the door of the house in Cannock would grow up to become a doctor.

Paul recalls: “I would have been quite young at the time and this lady was calling at houses, selling pegs and the like, and she told my mum I’d grow up to be a doctor.

“Of course, my mum just laughed it off. We were just your average working class family and, at the time, I’d showed no indication that I was destined for a career in medicine.”

But the gypsy was spot on and 50-odd years later Paul is now one of the longest-serving and most respected family doctors in Stoke-on-Trent.

Never one for the arts subjects, after leaving school he took chemistry, physics and biology at A-Level before moving on to study at Birmingham University.

He said: “Once you go down that route I guess you are only ever going to work in medicine or science.”

The year was 1975 and, having graduated at the age of 23, Paul began his training as a doctor.

Back then this involved spending two years in hospitals – in his case the old Royal Infirmary, as it was, up at Hartshill, and in Coventry.

He also spent a year training as a GP – working for a time with Dr Hugh Thomson in Trent Vale.

Paul remembers his first few months of meeting patients.

He said: “Of course you are a bit nervous but you just cope with it.

“Back then patient records were nowhere near as detailed as they are now. They were a bit of a nightmare, to be honest. They were kept in a Lloyd George envelope and were very messy and confused. You were lucky if they were in any sort of order.

“Prescriptions were taken down by receptionists at the time before repeat prescription cards came out.

“I suppose patient’s expectations weren’t as great as they are these days – and neither were doctors’ for that matter – which meant that in some ways the job was easier.”

On September 1, 1978, Paul joined the practice he has now been with for more than 34 years and which he now heads up.

Back then the surgery at Norton had just two consulting rooms. Nowadays there are seven at Norton and a further three at Endon – along with a bungalow which the practice has acquired for administrative purposes.

Paul said: “The basic kit a GP used in, let’s say, the early 1980s hasn’t really changed a great deal in 30 years.

“Things like the blood pressure monitor and the stethoscope still work on the same principles but some of the gear we have now is electronic instead.

“The biggest change is the way in which IT has transformed the NHS.

“From patient records to booking appointments – it is all much better organised that it used to be.

“In terms of the job itself, the hours are very similar but we did an awful lot more house calls at the start of my career. It wouldn’t have been unusual for a GP to make 20 home visits in a day whereas these days we make hardly any.

“This is because elderly people are generally much more mobile these days, more people have access to transport and we rarely visit poorly children in the home.

“It is, of course, much better to examine people in your surgery where the light is good and you have a proper couch rather than in their homes on sofas or in beds.”

Paul, who stepped down as secretary of North Staffordshire’s Local Medical Committee earlier this year, reckons the biggest problem doctors face in the modern era is bureaucracy.

He said: “These days I generally finish work around 6pm, rather than 7pm as it was, but sadly I spend a lot more time doing administrative work than I used to.

“For example, yesterday I visited a care home to give flu jabs to all the elderly residents. It will take me more time to update their records on the computer this afternoon than it did to actually administer the injections which seems a bit crazy.

“I’d say bureaucracy is a real issue. Like other professions GPs are now having to have appraisals – where another doctor checks that you’re doing a decent job. I can understand the thinking behind such things but you can’t help but feel that a lot of the red tape just takes you away from the real job of treating patients.”

Finally, I ask Paul how he spends his spare time.

The 60-year-old, who lives at Stanley, said: “I go to the gym and enjoy walking. I keep convincing myself I’m not old enough to play golf just yet.”

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

The irony of new showpiece cancer unit used as an ashtray

The North Staffs Hospital cancer unit (to the right of the sign).

The North Staffs Hospital cancer unit (to the right of the sign).

Make no bones about it – I’ve had my money’s worth out of the National Health Service.

To date my highlights include a tonsillectomy, treatment for several asthma attacks, the removal of kidney stones, emergency surgery for broken bones, the removal of metal plates from my legs, and, currently, treatment for thyroid cancer.

I’ve spent weeks on wards up at what is now the University Hospital of North Staffordshire as well as in hospitals on Merseyside.

And I still don’t get it. I still don’t understand why people – patients and relatives alike – stand outside these temples of healing and continue to smoke.

We’ve all seen them: pregnant women in dressing gowns; the overweight; people in wheelchairs; the worried mums, dads, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents; those pushing little trolleys carrying saline bags feeding intravenous drips – all puffing away.

Surely the irony can’t be lost on them?

People go into hospital, generally, as a last resort. They are admitted, hopefully, so that they can be made better. To help them recover.

Then a goodly number of them, and their loved ones, stand outside sucking lung-fulls of poison which is indisputably having a negative impact on their health.

I always wonder what the doctors must think (the ones who don’t smoke that is).

Imagine the conversation – “Nurse, have you seen Mr Benson from bay three? He really shouldn’t be up and about so soon after his triple bypass. Tell me he’s just nipped to the loo.”

“He’s outside doctor, having a fag.”

Groan. “Why do I bother..?”

You see, I sympathise completely with health chief Mike Brereton’s incredulity at recent transgressions up at Hartshill.

More than £70 million has been spent on creating two new showpiece cancer (yes, cancer) and maternity units at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.

They have only been open a few weeks and already the smokers are congregating – stubbing out their cigarettes on the beautiful white pillars and using the entrances as ashtrays. Charming.

Now I’ve heard all of the excuses. I’ve listened to the apologists hiding behind the ‘rights of individuals’.

I’ve been told, many times, how hard it is to give up.

I’ve heard people bemoan the death of ‘real pubs for the working man’ as a result of the smoking ban.

And I’ve kept quiet while people have justified their habit or their inability to quit with every excuse under the sun.

I’ve heard how smoking soothes people at stressful times like when they are busy, worried about their jobs or when someone is ill.

I’ve seen members of my own family standing outside a hospital smoking in an attempt to assuage their grief just moments after losing someone they love.

I’ve even had to listen to smokers telling me how the tax they pay on cigarettes helps to pay for my treatment on the NHS and how alcohol, not cigarettes, is the real societal problem.

Frankly, it’s all cobblers.

It’s hard to give up, is it? Don’t give me that. I was diagnosed with asthma at four. My mum quit smoking on the spot.

Smoking helps people cope with stress, does it?

Why not try a cup of Earl Grey or listen to some music? You won’t stink, they are cheaper and they won’t kill you.

You see, I’ve never understood why people smoke and I never will.

As an asthmatic I struggle to breathe at the best of times so the thought of clogging up my airways with pollutants and toxins would never cross my mind.

I saw my mate Richie try it at 14. I watched him cough his guts up and that, thankfully, was the end of the allure for him.

Let’s face it – there’s really no excuse for smoking these days.

The causal link between lung cancer and tobacco smoking was established more than 50 years ago.
Since then a wealth of research has hammered home the tragic consequences of tobacco consumption and the addictive nature of nicotine.

The statistics are eye-watering.

Smoking is today the UK’s single greatest cause of preventable illness and early death.

More than 114,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses including a raft of cancers.

Need I go on?

Life is full of risks and there are plenty of other perfectly legal, addictive and unhealthy drugs and stimulants I could get on my high horse about.

But I won’t be slating drinkers or people who love chocolate anytime soon.

It’s all about degrees, you see. And smoking is, without doubt, a killer – not something that in moderation gives harmless pleasure.

Smokers are, in my experience, the embodiment of selfishness. They hide behind a plethora of reasons why they can’t (won’t) quit.

And perhaps, most sad of all, is the fact that the worry they cause to people who care about them simply isn’t motivation enough for them to give up.

A big thanks from little lad who bought the blue teddy

What’s your earliest memory? Most of mine are, I suppose, understandably foggy.

I remember tagging along with my friend Glyn to the launderette with our mums and sitting on top of the noisy machines as they cleaned tonnes of washing from the Tideswell and Shelley households. I would have been three or four at the time.

I also have a vague memory of sitting on the back of my beloved grandad’s stationary Lambretta scooter on our drive.

Again, I would have been three or four. It’s hard to tell from the photographs.

However, my first distinct memory is from February 23, 1977.

I was four years and 11 months old and it was undoubtedly the best day of my short life.

My mum’s friend Linda was looking after me and she walked me up to the ‘top shops’, as we called them, near my home in Sneyd Green to buy a teddy bear. Blue, of course.

My baby brother had arrived, weighing in at a perfectly respectable seven pounds two ounces. Not bad considering he was three weeks early.

It was a huge deal for all of us. My mum had suffered two miscarriages after having me and the hospital staff were understandably twitchy as she approached full term.

Then suddenly a routine blood test threw up some problems and mum was kept in hospital and induced the next day.

My little brother duly arrived at 2.30 in the afternoon and I remember ‘auntie’ Linda telling me that I had a baby brother, but I couldn’t see him yet because he was poorly.

What she didn’t tell me was that Matthew was jaundiced and had been placed in an incubator at the North Staffs hospital.

There he remained for almost a week, with mum watching over him while the rest of the family all worried themselves silly.

I was, of course, blissfully unaware but content in the knowledge that the blue teddy had been safely delivered. Meanwhile I was preparing for the arrival of someone with whom I could play soldiers.

I can’t tell you how excited I was.

Mum and Matthew eventually came home, the screaming started, the pooey nappies began to flow and the rest, as they say, is history.

Matthew’s fine. He’s now 32, a self-employed window-fitter and built like the proverbial brick privvy – but with slightly less hair than when he arrived in this world.

However, had it not been for the care and treatment both he and my mum received from ante-natal staff and the everyday heroes in the special care baby unit, there’s every chance our Matthew wouldn’t be here today.

The neo-natal unit, as it is now known, celebrated its 40th birthday on Saturday with a staff reunion – just weeks after the department moved to a new home on the top floor of the new £40 million, state-of-the-art maternity unit at Hartshill.

I wish I could have been there.

For most of us, our jobs aren’t a matter of life and death.

But for frontline NHS staff like those who have worked in the various incarnations of the neo-natal unit, life and death is their bottom line.

Plenty of mud is slung in the direction of the health services nationally and locally because of everything from waiting lists and administrative cock-ups to hospital-borne infections.

But the one thing that is rarely questioned is the dedication and skill of the staff. And rightly so.

I interviewed some of the neo-natal staff in the early Nineties and came away with nothing but admiration for them.

So, although it may be somewhat overdue, here’s a big thank you from the little lad who bought the blue teddy.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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