GOODBYE TO STEPHEN WILLIAMS
Stephen Williams retired from Blackpool’s Grand this November after dedicating nearly a quarter of a century of his life to the town’s famous Matcham theatre.
Known to all simply as ‘Steph’ – he is best known as the formidable figure in the tuxedo who has stood tall in the foyer for 23 years and welcomed thousands of theatre goers to escape their every day lives and enjoy a few hours of “magic”.
As Front of House Manager he has replaced hundreds of lost tickets; pampered to the many whims of stars of stage and screen; sorted out problems with the theatre’s plumbing/heating; calmed countless company managers; met with members of royalty and led the applause at the end of every opening night – all with his wonderful dry wit, incredible patience and “by having a very thick skin – sometimes you need the hide of a rhinoceros!”
Stephen was born in 1947 in the old Charing Cross hospital on The Strand in London within the sound of the famous Bow bells and so is, by definition, a true cockney and still retains a delightful East End twang to this day. His father’s ambition had been to be a song and dance man on the stage, and while the arrival of Stephen and his brother soon put paid to that, the two boys were still raised on a diet of entertainment on the wireless and a young Stephen’s very first taste of live theatre was at the age of eight when he was taken to see Humpty Dumpty at Streatham Hill Theatre starring Arthur Askey. He says: “I can still remember to this day sitting in that smoke-filled auditorium listening to the pit band tuning up and inhaling the evocative aroma of the greasepaint. I did think this band can’t even play! Then the lights went out, the curtain went up, the band started proper, the principal boy slapped her thigh and sang ‘On a Wonderful Day like Today’ and I was sold. I knew then I wanted to be involved in this captivating world somehow.”
However, the bright lights called to Stephen and at the age of 32 he got a job at the BBC at Shepherd’s Bush in the props department and was soon working alongside some of the biggest stars of the time from Laurence Olivier, David Bowie and Terry Wogan to Telly Savalas and Michael Parkinson. But there was no long brown overcoat for him: “I was more fifty shades of grey with a bit of lemon at the neck…” Stephen continued to enjoy his work at the BBC throughout most of the 1980s and during this time he met his current partner David (affectionately known to all as Daisy) while on holiday in Jersey and it was he who wanted to make the move to the seaside resort of Blackpool. “David wanted to open a little B & B and I was getting itchy feet at the Beeb because I felt it was changing and not for the better and so we packed up and came to Blackpool in 1988. But when we got there we found we had been gazumped on the property and while we were devastated at the time I soon realised it was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Stephen wasted no time in continuing his pursuit of all things theatrical and when his gaze fell upon Blackpool’s beautiful Grand Theatre he knew he wanted to be part of it and so he pestered then Stage Manager Bob Duffy to give him a day’s work until Bob gave in and let him work on the get in for Northern Ballet’s Coppelia. “Well I thought I knew everything about scenery and the like of course,” Stephen remembers. “I was terrified too. It was a very different world to the BBC and while I was happy to be kept on after that first day, the first two or three months were the unhappiest of my working life. I was this flash Herbert from down South whom no-one seemed to like. And then on the first night of that year’s summer season Bobby Davro show the rest of the crew reluctantly asked me if I wanted to go for a drink after work with them and I went along and proceeded to tell them exactly what I thought of them all and from that day on we have all got on like a house on fire!”
Stephen continued to work backstage until the then Front of House Manager Paul Blake was taken ill and sadly passed away in 1990 and Stephen was asked to step in for a six week trial period. And that was 23 years ago…
“I had no formal training,” says Stephen. “But it’s a bit like acting – you put the suit on and just do it. My first night was Anthony Quayle’s Compass Theatre with The Government Inspector and I’m going out this November with Cannon & Ball. You couldn’t make it up! That’s variety for you and that encapsulates the Grand perfectly – variety in its biggest and broadest sense.”
And what will Stephen do now he has finally hung up that tuxedo? “I’ll tell you what I won’t be doing! Watching TV all day. The first week or two will be a bit of a novelty but then I would love to do some voluntary work, maybe at Blackpool Victoria hospital – teas and coffees, the mobile library, that sort of thing. I need to be doing something. The old body may be getting weaker but the mind is still very active thank you very much.”
And what would he say to his successor? “I hope they do my job better than I ever did!” he laughs. But as he strolls off back through the stage door I somehow feel that would be quite a task…