Poco a Poco – Stockport

There was a field – Ash Farm, farmhouse and field, at the junction of Manchester Road and Denby Lane, owned by one Harry Hitchen.

Harry Hitchen’s ambitious grandson reckoned that it was time that Heaton Chapel had a picture house, so on 6th May 1939 – where once there was a fertile farmer’s field, the seven hundred seat Empress Cinema opened.

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Opening with a screening of Alexander Korda’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.

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It continued to trade as a cinema until 18th April 1959, whereafter it transformed at the end of that year, into a dance house opening as the Empress Club on the 9th December, run by Manchester City footballer, Keith Marsden.

Other parts of building were used for Flamingo Coffee Jive Club, from 1961 Empress Bingo club used the none-cabaret portion of the building.

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Empress Ballroom

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Keith Marsden

In many northern towns and cities at this time a thriving beat scene emerged, literally hundreds of local bands, playing a circuit of clubs large and small.

Further details can be found here at Manchester Beat and Lanky Beat.

One such band played at the Empress on 14th November 1964, formerly The Matadors, then becoming The Swinging Hangmen, later known as The Hangmen. With a now sound, slick suits, a business card and a swinging, dead, novelty teddy bear mascot, they had everything going for them.

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I too played in such bands during the late 60’s and early 70’s, piling in and out of assorted vans, cars and buses to arrive at a packed venue, sandwiched between the bingo and a top flight comedian.

December 1968, in a flurry of flags, the Poco a Poco Club and Casino is born, international cabaret and entertainment abounds from here on in, beginning a fashion for the American style supper club, boil in the bag dining, for the discerning chicken in a basket cases.

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As beat becomes mod, psych, prog and glam a new generation of bands adapt and mutate to suit the ever changing moods and modes of modern music.

One such were Toby Twirl.

They hailed from Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England. Formed in the 60’s and originally called ‘The Shades of Blue’. After being signed to Decca Records by Wayne Bickerton, a name change was called for, as there was a US group of the same name. The group released three singles on Decca – Back In Time, Toffee Apple Sunday and Movin In. Although critically acclaimed in later years, none of the singles charted due to lack of major radio play. The group concentrated on live work during the late 60’s and early 70’s and were a top draw around the North of England. The line up was Dave ‘Holly’ Holland vocals, Barrie Sewell keyboards, Stuart Somerville bass, Nick Thorburn guitar and John Reed drums. Stuart was replaced by Dave Robson after he was tragically drowned in Tynemouth and Holly was replaced by Steve Pickering.

Interest in 60’s psych has seen the recent release of a Toby Twirl LP, a long overdue compilation of their admirable singles – including Romeo and Juliet 1968.

Other Poco regulars included Wishful Thinking:

Prior to 1969, they were recording with ex-Shadows drummer and record producer TonyMeehan. Between 1965 and 1969 the group released 9 singles and a live album. There were some changes in personnel and some successes, most notably Step by Step, Count To ten, Cherry Cherry, It’s So Easy and Peanuts, the latter remaining in the Danish charts for 3 months and also reaching No 8 in Japan.

My personal choice would be their version of Clear White Light.

Famously  Mr David Laughing Gnome Bowie played there on the 27th April 1970, just a few days before receiving his Ivor Novello award at The Talk Of The Town in London, for Space Oddity, which had been voted the best original song of 1969.

The club traded on through the 70’s and 80’s, continuing to ride the trends in popular music, the emergence of the discotheque and the almost superstar local DJ. As interest in the live cabaret music scene waned, the club began hosting boxing matches in the 80’s. Changing its name to Chester’s in 1983 and finally closing in May 1987.

It had lasted almost 50 years as a rich source of entertainments for thousands of Stopfordians, from a flickering film to a flaming beat, sadly it all ended in demolition.

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The beat goes on.

Many thanks to Stephen for the essential facts and copyright images from his website.

A Taste of the North

Where is the North and what does it look like?

It’s up there somewhere isn’t it, a dark elsewhere, a mythological other place.

I was curious, searching for clues.

I began in a nearby place in a faraway time, my first reference point, the film adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey.

Set in Salford by Salford born teenager Shelagh.

A  teenager becomes pregnant by a black sailor. She leaves her feckless mother and her flashy new boyfriend to set up her own home. She moves in with a young gay man, who helps look after her as she faces an uncertain future.

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The film’s release in 1962 broke new ground in terms of its matter of fact depiction of contentious and sensational subject matter. My interest in this instance rests with the visual image of the North that it created.

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Larkhill Road Edgeley Stockport

Shot almost entirely on location in black and white by cinematographer Walter Lassally, we are treated to dark treeless vistas, cobbled streets, industrial areas almost perpetually in decline, bleak canals and terraced homes.

As shown in these archive images of the 1950s, illustrating locations that would subsequently be used in the film adaptation.

There is a comprehensive list of locations here at Reel Streets

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Cambrian Street Holt Town Manchester

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Phillips Park Gasworks Manchester

Director Tony Richardson was a product of the British Free Cinema movement, which had previously produced short, sharp documentary and drama work, driven by a leftist outlook and using a restless, immediate approach, aided by the new lightweight cameras and faster film stocks. This is an ethos and methodology that would be carried over into the feature productions of the Woodfall Films company.

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Rochdale Canal Manchester

The film was shot in the flat, low, even light of the Winter which heightened the mildly desolate character of the landscape, though ostensibly Salford set many of the locations are in nearby Manchester and Stockport. An early long and free flowing title sequence and establishing shot, is a bus tour around Central Manchester, a city centre which at the time was still graced by a thick accumulation of dark industrial emissions and miasma.

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A soot blackened Queen Victoria mute and imperious in Piccadilly Gardens, the freshly blooming cranes of post-war renewal tentatively appearing in the background.

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The skyline punctuated by factory chimneys, the tight huddled streets of terraced houses chuffing billowing great grey clouds of smoke – a view familiar in the work of LS Lowry.

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Barton Bridge

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Trafford Swing Bridge

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Stockport Rail Viaduct

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Phillips Park Gasworks

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The location of the home that Jo sets up was ironically the stage set workshop of the Royal Court Theatre (the very theatre where the play was developed and produced) in London – that most northern of cities.

There is a brief respite from this milieu, through a picture in picture sequence based on the image of a suburban bungalow – which along with the coming age of mass motor car ownership, offers the promise of escape.

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A giddy day trip to Blackpool represents the temporary release from a contrasting and constricting world, a trip which for Jo emphasises the divide between Mother and her lover.

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So we the viewers are left with a cloudily clear, black and white world, a pervasive construct that the North and Manchester is eagerly beginning to casually shuffle off.

Where streets are no longer paved with Eccles Cakes and whippets are hip.

Identity through landscape and location can both define and constrain, but that landscape, its representation, and the identity that it produces are all mutually mutable.

Take some time to watch and rewatch the film, freeze frame where are we?

Who are you?