No fuel like an old fuel

FRI OR SAT : NATHAN YATES WITH ACTRESS MICHELLE COLLINS, WHO PLAYS HIS MUM SHEILA DIBNAH, WIDOW OF STEEPLEJACK FRED, IN A PLAY BASED ON THEIR LIFE TOGETHER
FRI OR SAT : NATHAN YATES WITH ACTRESS MICHELLE COLLINS, WHO PLAYS HIS MUM SHEILA DIBNAH, WIDOW OF STEEPLEJACK FRED, IN A PLAY BASED ON THEIR LIFE TOGETHER
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Steamy. That’s the way statuesque former Blackpool showgirl Sheila Dibnah describes her whirlwind romance with the late great celebrity steeplejack Fred Dibnah. But she’s not talking about X-rated romance off the rails ... but staying on track for Fred’s favourite obsession.

The age of steam. They say there’s no fuel like an old fuel, and it was mutual love of northern England’s decaying industrial landscape, and the steam that powered it, that attracted opposites in a romance now portrayed in a play featuring two of Britain’s best known soap stars, directed by Olivier-award winning David Thacker, and packing out Bolton’s Octagon Theatre.

For portly Boltonian Fred, used to scaling mighty structures in order to demolish them, it was love at first sight, so to learn the leggy, blue-eyed blonde, 20 years his junior, and 12 inches taller, shared his love of the industrial north ignited passion.

For Sheila, it was more of an uphill struggle. “I saw this flat capped, beer bellied little fella and thought, by ’eck Shezza, you’ve fallen for some rum sorts, but this ’un tops the lot.”

And he did, because she fell for this feller of industrial chimneys, even scaled a 200ft chimney herself, and took to carrying industrial strength detergent on genuinely “dirty” weekends, for there’s nothing like a steam rally for getting smoke in your eyes and smut in your hair.

“Fred and I would leave a rim of muck around a bath from the rally we had attended, so we’d do our own cleaning before the chambermaid arrived!”

We now know it ended in tears. Sheila lives in Blackpool, in the home she bought long before Fred’s death, as a “bolt hole” from the “anoraks and steam mafia” camped outside their Bolton home and who commanded so much of Fred’s time when he wasn’t on telly.

The home she shared with Fred is a heritage centre, opened by new owner Leon Powsney, who’s retained the mine shaft Fred sunk in place of Sheila’s garden. Sheila pops over regularly to remember happier days. The property was sold by the estate. Sheila had no say, as she was written out of Fred’s will days before his death from a cancer he described, characteristically, as a “spanner in the works.” He was 66 when he died, in 2004.

The couple had been married for six years.

Spanners featured large in their life together. Sheila had 200 of them sprayed gold and adorned with flowers for their wedding. She even carried a giant brass spanner, made by specialist company King Dick, as part of her bridal bouquet. On the first anniversary of his death, she had a small spanner, topped in gold leaf, chiselled in the workings of the headstone at his gravestone. She also donated artefacts to raise funds for the bronze memorial in his native Bolton.

A protracted legal wrangle regarding Fred’s will, redrawn in a hospice, has been resolved. Sheila can’t or won’t comment on the outcome. Instead she makes a living from the public speaking circuit, via thespeakersagency.com, drawing on episodes of eccentric life at Fred’s side, such as the cast iron manhole cover she got for her birthday. Tongue-in-cheek, she admits: “I was voted best speaker of the year for two consecutive years at the annual conference of National Ladies Luncheon Clubs in Harrogate – look out Hollywood!”

The play puts widow Dibnah back in the public eye. It’s proved so successful the initial run has been extended by a week, to May 7, and there’s talk of a tour. “It would be wonderful to see it at the Grand Theatre,” Sheila admits.

“But it’s a real rollercoaster of emotions for me as it doesn’t gloss over anything, so there’s all the happiness and the horror of how it ended. I was in tears by the end, but haven’t had so many hugs in a long time. I’m glad the audience didn’t buy all the gold digger nonsense in the national press.

“I’d like to think I’ve proved that wrong with my work to preserve Fred’s memory.”

Sheila gave playwright Aelish Michael access to her memoirs, which are being revised for later publication, and helped former EastEnders star Michelle Collins pick up the accent.

“I gave her northern elocution lessons. Michelle’s lovely. I was astonished at how quickly she picked my accent up.”

Michelle herself admits: “To get to actually speak to the person you’re playing was amazing.”

Sheila was taken aback by Irish actor Colin Connor’s portrayal of Fred. “He’s younger, taller, Irish, but so good at being Fred it’s scary. He captured the charm and charisma that made me fall for Fred.”

But one performance proved so chilling Sheila had to lean on son Nathan Yates to meet the man responsible – former Brookside (and Waterloo Road) star John McArdle. “Most of Fred’s barmy army accepted me, but some resented me for taking him away from them. John plays one such, one of the steam mafia. I had to force myself to meet him. He gave me a hug and assured me he was acting!”

One delightful, unscripted, moment came courtesy of Sheila’s mum, watching the scene when Sheila dashes to her dying father’s bedside on the same day Fred was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“In reality Fred came with me, but in the play they have me rushing off and leaving him, Fred begging me to stay, his mates calling me a disgrace. At that point my mum piped up ‘it was nothing like that – he went with her!’ Bless her...”

n Demolition Man, Octagon Theatre, Bolton, to May 7, tickets from £9.50-£21.50, to book call (01204) 520661.

jacqui.morley@ blackpoolgazette.co.uk