Memory Lane: My 40 fantastic years

Craig Fleming travelled to Majorca in 1999 for a working lunch with Richard Branson and (below) Craig in 1972 & 1979 and (bottom) The Gazette June 19, 1972.
Craig Fleming travelled to Majorca in 1999 for a working lunch with Richard Branson and (below) Craig in 1972 & 1979 and (bottom) The Gazette June 19, 1972.
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IT WAS 40 years ago today...and, I suppose, in all that time Sgt Pepper could have taught the band to play twice over.

June 19, 1972: 40 years to the day since yours truly nervously joined the ranks of the buzzing town centre newsroom on the first floor of the rabbit warren of a building in Victoria Street, in which The Gazette was written, printed, published and despatched.

Craig Fleming in 1972

Craig Fleming in 1972

Right choice? Put it this way, if I had stayed in Rossendale, where I was born and raised, would I have been chasing zebras within a few weeks of starting? The animals escaped on Blackpool Zoo’s launch day, and I came face to face with one of the strays in a back garden in Newton Drive.

Strangest interview? Visiting a widow for an obituary report and taking notes next to her husband’s coffin, with the lid off, on trestles, in the front garden, for the neighbours to pay their respects.

Faux pas, or perhaps “pars”? More than a few. Like the time I was on night duty and someone had taken over the crow’s nest at the top of Blackpool Tower.

On my first routine call to police I was told there was “nothing, apart from a chap clinging to the flag pole”. I assumed it was a wind-up, on a par with left-handed screwdrivers and buckets of steam. Two hours later, next round of calls and a different officer mentioned the same incident. “Not you as well,” I groaned, “so how long has he been up there?”

Craig Fleming in 1979

Craig Fleming in 1979

He replied: “since 1939”, and I suggested the poor chap would be frozen solid after all those years. The situation was genuine, the 1939 referred to the 24-hour clock. There was some explaining to do next morning.

My crestfallen moment? Enduring the wrath of an East Lancashire editor the day before my Gazette interview, when I questioned the relevance of his opening line: “Is your father white collar, or shop floor?” He boomed back: “I’m conducting this interview, boy, and I’ll decide what is relevant.”

More questions rattled on (although the first one remained unanswered) until he told me there were no vacancies, and he was curious to see what Preston’s Harris College (now the University of Central Lancashire) was “churning out” (his very words) this year.

Next day, at my interview in Blackpool, editor Brian Hargreaves told me he had misplaced my application letter, had no vacancies, but perhaps I could persuade him why he should give me a job.

The Gazette June 19, 1972.

The Gazette June 19, 1972.

I must have done something right, because he took a chance on me, and, a week after becoming a junior reporter, I received an unexpected present on my 19th birthday: a letter from that inland newspaper also offering me a job.

Highlights? Too many to mention, and hopefully there are more to come. But moments that stand out include travelling to Majorca for the day in the company of Richard Branson, in 1999, when he threw a working lunch to launch his Virgin Sun packages, and he spoke of his next venture – galactic travel, a subject which many readers might have assumed was a joke, but they read it first in The Gazette.

Or, on a travel trip to New York in 2000, shaking hands with Hilary Clinton when she was on the campaign trail, and also bumping into somebody I knew at the top of the Twin Towers, less than a year before they were so shamefully, horrifically destroyed.

Or perhaps being named North West Travel Journalist of the Year in 2000 and 2003.

But definitely realising how many good friends I had, rather than just colleagues, when cancer treatment forced my lengthy absence from the office a few years ago.

Best exclusive? Lyndsey Brown, who I met when she was working briefly at The Gazette in 1978, and I am happy to report we’ll have been married for 33 years on her birthday this October.

When local news did not exactly lead the agenda

ONE thing missing from the front page of the West Lancashire Evening Gazette (as it was known in 1972) on June 19 was.... local news.

There was plenty inside, but as was the style of many daily papers at a time before the internet and 24-hour TV news, the aim was to update breaking national stories.

The main story was the rescue of 10 potholers trapped underground for 43 hours beneath the Yorkshire Dales, an account of a doomed Trident jet flight in Middlesex, the start of a strike by airline pilots and the ending of another strike by dockers.

A front page advert offered a 21-day Mediterranean cruise, from £120, while inside, Mayor Edmund Wynne was urging hoteliers not to be “despondent about the number of people spending holidays abroad”.

He said while five million went overseas each year, seven million still came to Blackpool where the town was “always trying to improve its standards to attract holidaymakers”.

There was wall-to-wall entertainment, most of it twice-nightly, with Cilla Black headlining International Spectacular ‘72 at the Opera House; Lovelace Watkins and Ted Rogers at the ABC; Joe Loss in the Empress Ballroom, re-christened for the season as the Stardust Garden; Jack Douglas and a young John Inman in The Love Nest at the Grand, and Charlie Cairoli king clown in the Tower Circus.

All three piers had shows in full swing, with The Grumbleweeds headlining The Laugh Inn on South Pier and the stage version of TV’s popular The Comedians on North Pier starring Frank Carson, Duggie Brown, George Roper and Colin Crompton, among others. Clinton Ford was “back by popular demand” for Those Good Old Days on Central Pier, while at the Winter Gardens’ Pavilion, Tessie O’Shea, Ben Warriss and Ronnie Ronalde held court in The Good Old Days, straight from the TV show of the same name.

And what about the entertainment headlined “Gay show that is part of Blackpool summer”? With Funny Girls et al still a few decades away from preening their feathers, this was the much more innocent Tower Children’s Revue, entitled Showbusiness, which had opened for the season in the Tower Ballroom.

And if you stayed in to watch the small screen, the only three channels available (BBC1, BBC2 and ITV) were beaming out A Question of Sport, United States Open Golf highlights and Coronation Street, respectively. The more things change...