George Robinson is an ex-Ryhope Music Teacher, who, along with fellow teacher Malcolm Gerrie created those unique events now part of Ryhope Comprehensive School’s famous history…
After a long time searching for the elusive George, we finally found him with thanks to his inquisitive son who found our appeal whilst searching the internet. Here is the interview…
Starting with a little background about myself, I am from Whitburn and after infants & junior school there; I went to Jarrow Grammar School. My two main instruments are piano and trumpet. I started playing piano at the age of 7 and from the age of 8, spent 10 years in Silksworth Colliery Brass Band playing cornet & flugelhorn. (Silksworth was the home community of my mother and grandparents) I continued my studies in piano & trumpet at the Northern school Of Music in Manchester. I followed my 3 years in Manchester with a year at the University of London institute of Education. My first teaching appointment was in Southall, West London from September ‘71 until July ‘73. The Head of Music Dept. was a big Gilbert & Sullivan fan. The mainly immigrant Indian population, which the school served, was not. I remember her (Music Dept. Head) saying “when in Rome do as the Romans do “
George, your time at Ryhope was both short and successful, how long were you actually at Ryhope?
I started teaching at Ryhope in September, 1973 until July 1975. I also came back to a temporary position in the music department for 7 weeks in June / July of 1976.
Were you aware of any bad reputations Ryhope School had before you arrived? Did you have any concerns regarding the lack of discipline and (unique at the time) the absence of corporal punishment?
I arrived as a young Head of Department in Ryhope and I was very much in sync with the views and ideas of Dick Copland, so I had no problem with the lack of discipline or absence of corporal punishment. Without this environment Tommy and Stardust would not have been possible. I became aware of dissention from some teachers quite early on in my tenure. Much of it I think was probably a hold over from the Ryhope Grammar school era. The school, I believe still had teachers from that period. (I was familiar with that edition of the school as my older brother was a pupil there.)
Did kids ever call you by your first name and not Sir or Mr Robinson?
As I said, I was a young teacher and yes kids were allowed to call me George if they wished.
When did you first meet the fuzzy haired Malcolm Gerrie? Did you become firm friends from the beginning or was there a mutual understanding/interests?
Malcolm started at Ryhope the same time as myself and we were cut from the same cloth you might say. We were friends immediately, plus our interests and viewpoints were pretty much the same.
From what we understand, your first production together was Joseph & his amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1973, how did that go?
I think “Joseph “was done for a Xmas concert. Musically it was quite low key compared with Tommy. (Soloists, choir & piano accompaniment I think.) Malcolm, to make things more dramatic and easier for costuming etc. did it in modern dress. Joseph was a rocker and came out on a motor bike in the final scene. (It was pushed out I think. I don’t recall the bike being started.) It was a successful small scale production and it probably made us realize that we could do something more elaborate and grand if we wanted.
So legend has it that you brought in a copy of the Tommy album by The Who and told Malcolm, we have got to do this “I can do the music if you can do the drama”. Is that about right? Or rather a boozy idea in a pub? In any case, it must have been a surprise to everyone as it soon grew and grew.
The “elaborate and grand “turned out to be Tommy. It did not start with discussions in a pub. Malcolm & I were together at someone’s flat / house and I had brought the album of the Lou Reizner (a London impresario) Rainbow production of Tommy with me. We had a few drinks, and while listening to the album, which we both thought was great, that’s when I said to him “We can do this. I can do the music if you can do the drama. “In terms of local & national coverage that the production obtained, I defer to Malcolm. He was a real publicity hound and had a way of making connections and pressing the right buttons. It was also Malcolm who contacted Lou Reizner who he persuaded to let us have the then unpublished orchestral & vocal scores of the Rainbow production. I don’t know if they were ever put in the public domain. I still have them here with me.
Musically, you had a chorus of 40 (4th 5th 6th & 7th Years) and a band of 30 (including orchestra and group) in Tommy. How was that to manage?
Almost correct. Yes we had soloists & choir plus a brass band & rock group but there was no orchestra with strings & woodwind. I took the orchestral score and transcribed the full orchestra parts down for brass band which I did not find particularly difficult, just very time consuming.
You obviously put hours and hours of your own time into this production, evenings, weekends; even kids were working late in Mr Franklin’s workshops making scenery and props, etc. But there was obviously a lot of opposition to this project from fellow members of staff, in particular a certain Jack Barker (Head of Art) seemed to voice his opinions against the whole Tommy project. What are your memories of this?
As far as I can remember, there were many rehearsals for the show on evenings and weekends, following which, the teachers involved would go to The Albion pub on the corner by the green, with one or two of the older pupils possibly sneaking in as well. The amount of support, enthusiasm and dedication from the kids for Tommy was exceptional. There was very little problem getting pupils to attend rehearsals whatever their involvement, big or small. I think everybody realized that we were all involved in something very special. Bringing it all together musically, although probably not easy, was certainly facilitated by the talented kids with whom I was working and the fact that everybody in the production wanted it to be a success. I remember Jack Barker being the most vocal opponent and I think Vic (deputy head – surname escapes me – Boldon cricketer) felt caught in the middle and had to make overtures to the other side sometimes. If he had been headmaster it might never have happened. There were always teachers who had a problem with the performing arts being given precedence over academics and there always will be. I also think that some teachers were pleasantly surprised by the positive publicity the 2 productions brought to the school and the amount of good will and feeling of pride it brought to Ryhope, the school and the community. Dick Copland had a remarkable strength in his beliefs, and, as I said, was instrumental in providing the working environment for teachers and pupils to make Tommy and Stardust the success they were.
For its day, the sound and PA system you managed to blag from funding and donations must have been awesome, were you worried everything would work out OK during the shows and that the balance would be right? Was Grahame Snowdon in charge of the sound during the show?
One of the things about me that is a bit of an anomaly, given my wide musical tastes and what people see as my musical ability, is that I have never been in a rock band. So, when it came to Tommy and Stardust the weakest link in what I was able to contribute was (and still is) my lack of experience and technical knowledge when it comes to sound systems. Yes I had input and a measure of control over the decisions concerning sound but in relation to what knobs and dials to tweak to get the desired results I was dependent on others. Graham Snowden’s name, it rang a bell but I don’t remember him. I would imagine that what you have heard about him being the sound man is correct. It was always a concern that the sound system would do the unexpected at inopportune times but I don’t recall any major hitches. Again, it was probably Malcolm’s ability to press the right buttons that got us the sound system, I think. Or it could have been Graham Snowden himself. I’m not sure.
We were sad to hear of Ivan Hargreaves passing recently, was he also heavily involved in your productions?
I do remember Ivan Hargreaves. He was very supportive and worked on costumes and make up. Sorry to hear of his passing.
…Tommy the movie…
Speaking of meeting famous people, (or people who were to become famous) and reverting back to Tommy for a moment, I forgot to mention the trip that Malcolm, John & Colin took to the Lake District to the set of Ken Russell’s Tommy found me excluded. I was excluded because I could not be found. Malcolm really tried. The arrangements for the visit and its timing all happened during the summer holidays of ‘74. I had taken off on a camping trip in Dorset & Devon with my girlfriend and there was no way of contacting me because nobody knew exactly where I was. Just that I’d gone camping. How I wish I had not taken that trip or that Mobiles or Wi-Fi had existed back then.
So 1975, you attempted to go one better, aiming higher with the production of Stardust. What made this different from Tommy, was it easier due to expectations from everyone around?
Was Stardust easier due to expectations from everyone around? I don’t think I was aware of “expectations from everyone around’’ Nor do I think Malcolm & I cared about such things back then. We were a pretty confident pair and we had this ‘’come hell or high water’’ approach.
Having the success of Tommy behind us made things easier in that there was now less opposition. Although again that did not really affect Malcolm or I as the opposition to Tommy was handled by Dick Copeland and we just went ahead and did our thing. We were young and carefree and those who were of the old school were just behind the times and were flogging a dead horse as far as we were concerned.
Tommy was ground breaking. It was current with the Ken Russell film and schools were just not doing productions of this type both in terms of the music and the dramatic content. The pupils knew and sensed this. It added to the buzz and the glow around it all. I think there were also more pupils who had a direct involvement in Tommy so it perhaps permeated through the school more. And of course, Tommy was the debut production Stardust was the sophomore.
(we provided George with a copy of the original Aquarius TV Show)
What are your recollections of Stardust?
My recollections of Stardust, even though I’ve watched the DVD, are still on the fuzzy side regarding details. In fact if I am being honest I don’t remember too much that is specific about the rehearsals for the production. The production, generally, was more professional. There was much more spoken dialogue which meant the music, although still quite extensive in its use, was more incidental to the plot development. Also choir involvement was a lesser part of Stardust than it was for Tommy. I do remember Malcolm, Bill & myself had much discussion about songs we were going to include. There was also the 2 original songs that Bill composed to which Malcolm supplied the lyrics. I can’t remember which came first, lyrics or music – probably the lyrics. My involvement centred around rehearsing singers, the bands, choir, plus musical arrangements for the singers & brass band and playing keyboards for the shows.
...other things come to George’s mind during the interview…
The lead guitarist with the rock band was John Hedley who was someone Malcolm had made contact with. John had an interesting background. I have a 1970 LP in my collection by a band called Brian Davison’s Every Which Way with John as lead guitarist. Brian Davison was previously in Nice & the band also had Graham Bell on keyboards who from his bio on Wikipedia was no slouch. John then joined Last Exit, a jazz rock combo which just happened to have a certain Sting (he had the nickname then) on bass guitar stand-up bass and vocals. John’s association with Sting led to Malcolm & I meeting him at the club in Newcastle where Last Exit were playing and having a drink with the band between sets. I also vaguely remember attending a rehearsal of the band one afternoon as well. I next came across Sting when The Police came out with their debut LP, in ‘77 I think, and I was definitely now living in Canada.
Were there any adaptations you made to the original album tracks or any special arrangements for the production?
We were led to believe by some musical instrument company in Newcastle, can’t remember which, that they were going to provide us with a two-manual Lowrey Organ. When it arrived it was a big disappointment to the pupils and myself. I had told them we were getting something really special, just like all the top bands of the time. When it arrived, a rehearsal was underway and I can still recall the look on some of their faces. It wasn’t a Lowrey nor was it two-manual. It was something quite basic, suitable for use in a home rather than a big concert event. The make I can’t remember and likewise their reason for not providing the Lowrey. We never did get that Lowrey. Finally we had two drummers in the rock band. (not a common practice at that time) Auditions had been held and we told the drummer who played in Tommy (he was not a pupil) that he was chosen for the Stardust band. Somehow a new drummer auditioned after making this choice and he turned out to be a much more experienced drummer with a higher skill set. In other words he was better.
So after much hemming and hawing between Malcolm and myself we decided we could make it work with two drummers. (we took the easy way out because really we just wanted to go with the second drummer) I don’t think either drummer was totally pleased with this decision because it made it more difficult for them.
One regret, looking back, is that there was no way of getting a musical element in the Newcastle airport scene. It would have been nice to have had some band / choir members / soloists involved. I don’t know if these are favourite memories but that’s what I recall.
So did David Puttman and Ray Connolly really come to the school to visit after the heard you were doing Stardust?
David Puttnam and Ray Connolly, I don’t recall anything about them visiting the school. If it’s something Malcolm tried to arrange, which is entirely possible, it’s not something I am aware of. It could be something he went after at a later date (over the summer?) but I wouldn’t know as I left at the end of that school year.
(we have since had confirmation that they did indeed visit the school that year)
Finally George, what made you decide to Leave Ryhope? Briefly, what have you done since then and what are doing at the moment?
Leaving Ryhope was for a very good reason. Before the end of the school year, a friend from my previous school (Kelvyn Curry who took the Tommy photos I have - see slideshow at the bottom of this page) decided that we would take a couple of vehicles and drive the overland hippie route to India. I then got a temporary music appointment at Ryhope for 7 weeks in June & July. (I think Dick Copeland liked me) The following school year there was a 1 term appointment at a school in Essex and the rest of that school year I was on the dole.
In the summer of ‘77 I was actively looking at overseas teaching jobs as I still had the wander lust and wanted to see the world. There were jobs in Australia & Canada. I applied for the a music position in Newfoundland as I thought Australia was further than I wanted to go. Got the job there which took me to a small fishing community called Heart’s Content [pop 700- 800] So now I was teaching in a small school of around 280 pupils. The staff consisted of 12 males and 1 female teacher.
I taught in Heart’s Content until ‘95 - pupils from age 5 to age 18. I then taught in a nearby community until 2002 at which time I retired, aged 53. The size of small communities here, especially those like Heart’s Content, plus geographical considerations in relation to the catchment areas of the schools, is not conducive to productions of the Tommy and Stardust variety.
I did treat myself to a Yamaha Grand Piano 18 months ago so I do spend a lot of time playing it for my own enjoyment – mostly classical music. I also have a very nice surround sound music system which allows me to indulge my CD & album collection which includes all types of rock music, jazz & blues, plus all the classical stuff I’ve got.
George and his wife are happily retired now with 4 children and 3 grandchildren.
CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO SEE A SLIDESHOW OF EXCLUSIVE PHOTOGRAPHS