It’s been a long journey

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If a week is a long time in politics just think what more than 39 years in journalism is like. The Gazette’s Entertainment Editor Robin Duke recalls some of the highs (and lows) of his career in Blackpool

It’s difficult to believe that it was more than 39 years ago that a young(ish) version of myself strode cautiously into the Gazette offices, then housed in Blackpool’s Victoria Street.

In retrospect my hair was probably too long, my new aubergine-coloured suit was perhaps too stripy and the shoulder bag (they weren’t called “manbags” in those days) was definitely a step too far.

But hey, I’d got a job on a newspaper (even though my grandfather thought I was going to be selling it on the street corner) in the country’s most famous resort.

It’s difficult to think that after all these years I’m actually leaving today. My hair’s shorter (and thinner), my waistline is thicker, I don’t feel obliged to wear a suit and I still have a shoulder bag – though it’s battered beyond belief and is probably more relieved to be hanging up its clogs than I am.

In those early days I was part of the reporting team, not allowed to join the lineage pool (which sold on local stories to national papers) until I earned my stripes.

It was a great team. We moved as a pack, socialised together, defended each other to the hilt and loved the work we did.

Within hours of starting on the paper I found myself interviewing Jane Asher. I was in heaven. Within months of joining I’d dropped the office keys down a grate on election day and reported that a parachute team had landed back on target when they hadn’t actually left their aeroplane (I’d a show to do on hospital radio so improvised... the first and last time!).

It wasn’t all disaster. My first review – of an ice show – received a note of praise from The Gazette’s then owner Sir Harold Riley Grime. It was like receiving a telegram from the Queen. We all dreaded his hotline ringing down from “upstairs.” It was rarely good news.

The Gazette had several editions back then plus weekly papers across the coast. We worked on typewriters, wrote everything in triplicate, telephoned copy from town or court, burned the midnight oil writing reviews in the office and had to explain to the fearsome switchboard operator Norma every external call we wanted to make. The smell of hot metal was in the air, we had more library staff than we’ve got reporters now and some of the classified advertising girls could have won beauty contests (and at least one did).

I came with a three-year plan but was talked out of leaving for a job in Liverpool by my boss, the late Brian Hargreaves, one of the last great eccentric editors. Instead I moved into writing features and within hours of launching “The Drought Desk” in 1977, found the Fylde coast flooded.

I was honoured to be part of the campaign to save the Grand Theatre from demolition. It’s hard to believe that the council in its infinite wisdom wanted to raze it to the ground to make way for a town centre car park.

Strange to think that all these years later there’s a feeling of deja vu as the current council wants to do exactly the same to the former ABC Theatre (more recently The Syndicate nightclub) which featured so heavily in BBC2’s Boxing Day tribute to the resort’s entertainment history – Blackpool: Big Night Out.

I also tried out other people’s jobs for a weekly feature series “A Day In the Life.” Zoo keeper, postman, window cleaner, all sorts of things, but I didn’t enjoy any of them as much as I enjoyed being a journalist.

There were “facility” trips to remember. A crazy one to Calais where we nearly all got arrested, a week on a Greek island to interview half a dozen Blackpool locals (thanks to an editor who liked me) and several days in Northern Ireland’s “murder triangle” (thanks to a news editor who didn’t).

I’d gradually started writing about more arts and entertainment, inheriting a page in our weekly series and developing the “Saturday Show Spot” in The Gazette. It was the hey day of the Fylde Arts Association which opened many an eye with its experimental programming – particularly one rope covered artist standing stock still in the street to depict the “troubles” (we adjourned to the pub but I wrote about it anyway).

In 1978 I was fortunate enough to be one of only 17 journalists in the world to be awarded a Rotary Scholarship to study for a year abroad. I chose Columbia University in New York and made many friends I have retained ever since.

It was a life changer. While there I wrote a weekly “Duke In New York” column for The Gazette but was also briefed by Brian Hargreaves to study how American newspapers tackled entertainment coverage.

On my return in 1979 I was promoted to Entertainment Editor. And that’s what I’ve remained ever since – though television, food, drink, cinema, the what’s on listings and various other elements have been added along the way. I’m not grumbling. It’s not every journalist who has had the pleasure of running the region’s major rock competition for almost 30 years. It had various titles across the years and prompted me to start going to the gym after being attacked by one losing band one night. It also saw me playing harmonica on stage once (I don’t play harmonica!) and greeted by a gorillagram containing a scantily clad model. Even better, some chagrined local bands staged their own Rock Against Robin Duke night at the now defunct GPO Club.

Along the way I saw hundreds of local bands though sadly the ones that made it are few and far between. But that was the point. It was all about keeping music alive – anything up to eight or nine bands a week, each heat in a different venue and, at its peak, a grand final in the Empress Ballroom.

Over the years I’ve reviewed something like 4,000 shows (contrary to rumour 2,000 of them haven’t just been Cannon and Ball, Joe Longthorne and the Grumbleweeds ones).

I was lucky enough to be writing about shows and showbusiness when Blackpool truly was the Las Vegas of England. Each of the three piers had its own summer show, there was the Opera House, the late lamented ABC, Winter Gardens Pavilion, Opera House, Grand Theatre and much more.

There was a genuine excitement about opening nights. These were the days when visitors queued round the block to get their tickets. As the curtains rose a sense of magic filled the air. And that was before the after show parties. Cannon and Ball were the first act to take a million pounds at the box office on North Pier, Joe Longthorne was the first to receive a spontaneous standing ovation, Danny la Rue threw a massive 50th birthday party and remembered the names of everyone and their guests.

The Stage showbusiness newspaper held an annual party for everyone even vaguely associated with the summer season and the late Geoffrey Thompson’s after show celebrations at the Pleasure Beach were legendary.

Along with writing about entertainment came almost joining in with it. I’ve judged pop quizzes for the fire brigade (and still have the helmet to prove it), a karaoke contest for some long forgotten television channel and countless local ones. Talent shows? I’ll show you talent shows. Hundreds of them. Thousands of acts, most of them forgettable. Yes, for every Jodie Prenger there’s a hundred wannabes.

It’s the same with non-professional theatre shows. For every John Simm in a student production there’s battalion of never will be’s. But they all had a go.

Likewise beauty contests and, dare I mention it, wet T-shirt competitions. All right, but someone had to do it in those days before political correctness set in.

I’ve never been a great one to boast about associating with the stars let alone interviewing them. Mostly I’ve either got on with them or not. I once had to be escorted out of the Winter Gardens when one bill-topper’s sidekicks were looking for me – and not to hold an intellectual discussion.

I’ve had “comedian” Jim Davidson lambast me from the Opera House stage in words no longer than four letters – though I wasn’t actually there to hear them. And even the great Les Dawson didn’t speak to me for a couple of years after I wrote a less than flattering review of a performance he made. He later admitted I’d been right. I went to his wedding to Tracy and, sadly, later his funeral.

I’ve a letter of thanks somewhere from Michael Barrymore (is that a good thing?) for a review I did of him when he was closing the first part of an Opera House show and another from Brian Conley for his North Pier debut.

A prized possession was a letter signed by all four members of Queen after they appeared at Preston Guild Hall

The days of the great summer shows may be over but the show will go on. Hot Ice vanished but is back for a shorter season, Eclipse and Mystique are unlikely to ever be seen again and Legends will be moving from Central Pier to the Sands Venue. Instead of full summer runs we may now have to make do with one nighters but can still boast the likes of Amy Winehouse, The Killers and Oasis as visitors.

Showzam is back with us and slowly making a mark on the national scene, the annual Blackpool Magicians Club convention still continues to attract thousands of delegates and most the world’s top illusionists.

Like the Rebellion Punk festival these are the unsung heroes of Blackpool’s entertainment scene. As mentioned earlier I more recently started writing about food and it saddens me that people are still so ready to criticise the Fylde coast’s culinary scene. I’ve met some marvellous restaurateurs and chefs, and had some excellent meals along the way.

It’s been, as the parlance goes, “quite a journey”. Thanks to everyone who joined me on it.