The Full Story of the Blue Plaque at the Downstairs Club, Bournemouth (aka Blue Plaques for Dummies)
Somewhere, some other brave soul may be thinking of trying to get a blue plaque erected to commemorate a person, place or event of note. I thought it might be helpful if I put down my experience of doing just that.
There’s a lot more work involved than you might imagine, but don’t be put off – if you stick with it to the end, all the hard work and pressure become worthwhile when the unveiling speeches are over and your chosen “celeb” pulls the cord to reveal the plaque, preferably without it falling down on his or her head. And because of all the stress involved it’s a great way to lose weight – by the end of my project I’d slimmed down to no more than clinically obese. Anyway here goes…
(NB. Please don’t rely on this article as a definitive guide to any other blue plaque project. Instead, use the English Heritage guidance notes referred to below.)
The Big Idea
Towards the end of 2013 I was sitting in for a couple of numbers with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band at The Bull’s Head, Barnes in south-west London. I’d sat in at the Bull with my old mate Zoot quite a few times (see link top right for YouTube video of “Georgia” on one occasion) and had done a complete gig there with him a few years before, when he couldn’t find anyone else as a guest artist. (It may also have been a thankyou by Zoot for a review I’d written of the British Legends of Rhythm and Blues UK Tour concert at Guildford.)
This time, however, it was in the new music room at the Bull, following the pub’s complete refurbishment under new ownership. Gone was the old, and much bigger, music room where I’d seen so many famous British and American jazz musicians over the years from the 1960s. That was now a restaurant, and the wonderful Yamaha grand piano was apparently now used only by cocktail pianists playing “eating music” to the shabby chic diners. (NB. It now seems to have disappeared completely.) “Proper” live music was now confined to what used to be a pizza restaurant round the back of the Bull, a much smaller room with a low ceiling, small stage and an upright piano facing the wall, so when you’re playing it you’ve got your back to the band. As I was pounding away at it, looking over my shoulder at Zoot and wondering what the hell he was going to do next (no change there, then) it struck me that the experience wasn’t that different from the old Downstairs Club where in the autumn of 1961 we’d played the very first gig of the original version of Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band. (We were probably still playing the same numbers too, although in 1961 Zoot was just on vocals and not also on keyboards – or piano as it was quaintly called in those days.) That got me thinking about the fact that there was now nothing left to identify 9 Holdenhurst Road as having been Bournemouth’s first full-time rock and jazz venue, and the idea of a blue plaque popped into my head. After the gig I mentioned it to Zoot, Paul McCallum (bass) and (I think) Nick Newall (tenor), all of whom remembered the club. They seemed to think it was a good idea, or more likely were just being polite.
(NB. In the unlikely event you’re interested in the earliest days of the club and the formation of Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band please click here.)
A Bit More Encouragement
I then floated the idea on the Hampshire and Dorset Musicians Past and Present FaceBook page. That provoked some more supportive comments, and I was invited by Annie Christopher to join the committee putting together a Bournemouth Rock (family) Tree showing Bournemouth musicians and bands from the late 1950s to date.
After an 80 mile drive down to Bournemouth I attended my first committee meeting and met Stuart Gard, Annie Christopher and Martin Kitcher for the first time. Ed Roberts and Keith Collins, whom I already knew, were there, as was Roger Deacon-Smith, whom I hadn’t seen since he played bass with the Al Kirtley Three at one of our rock’n’roll gigs at the Potters Arms, Hamworthy in 1970. As I’d suggested the plaque, I agreed to find out how to progress the idea. At that stage I think everyone concerned, including me, assumed that the blue plaque idea would entail no more than writing to the appropriate authority and asking for one to be erected. In other words, it would be a relatively minor element of the much bigger rock tree project, rather than, as it transpired, a separate project.
The Size of the Task Emerges
It didn’t take much searching online to establish that the English Heritage blue plaque scheme wasn’t operating outside London. Bournemouth Corporation had operated their own scheme but that too had been stopped, a victim of the cuts following the recession. It was going to be a DIY job, but that raised a host of questions. What should be written on the plaque, how would I find a manufacturer, what would it cost, what permissions would I need, and what would be involved in the unveiling of it? And what other questions had I forgotten? Fortunately English Heritage had published online a 162 page guide on blue plaque projects and Bournemouth Corporation had produced illustrations of the 30-odd plaques already erected in the borough. Having printed off those, two things struck me: (a) it was going to mean a lot more work than I’d imagined and (b) the information on the plaque had to be of interest to more than just those elderly souls like me who remembered the club opening in 1961.
Taking (b) first, my original idea of including the names of the first Bournemouth rock musicians to play at the club wouldn’t work. There were too many of them, some of whom became famous such as my old mate Michael Giles, later co-founder of King Crimson, but most of whom, like me, basked in the warm glow of complete anonymity. Two exceptions were Zoot Money and Andy Summers, both of whom had played at the club in bands which included their names. However the plaque needed more names which most of the public would recognize and that meant finding out who’d played there during its heyday in the mid-1960s as Le Disque a Go! Go!Having consulted Colin Saunders, a stalwart attendee of the club under its various names, Nick Churchill, the journalist and author, and Allan Azern, a fellow-piano player who’d owned Le Disque a Go! Go! during the mid-60s, I settled on Manfred Mann, Eric Clapton (who played the club with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers), The Who and Georgie Fame as well as Zoot and Andy. (NB. There was a suggestion that Rod Stewart had also played the club with The Soul Agents but it transpired that he was not a member when the group played there, although he did visit the club as a punter, when he apparently lost out to Keith Moon in vying for the affections of Kim Kerrigan.)
Where was I? Oh yes, after a brief check on the microfilms held at Bournemouth Central Library of the earliest ads placed in the local paper by the original owner, Jerry Stooks, the opening date of the club was confirmed as 3 May 1961. That gave me all the details I needed for the plaque.
One Thing at a Time
The English Heritage guidance notes stated that it was essential to tackle the project one step at a time. (An electrician would call it wiring in series rather than in parallel.) That meant getting approval in principle from the freeholders of the building, then the leaseholder, if any, then any local authority planning or other consents, etc, etc. But who were the freeholders, and the leaseholder, if there was one? If the freeholders were leasing each individual shop or flat direct to the occupiers and not through a head-leaseholder then would the consent of all the tenants of the shops and flats be necessary? There were fourteen of them in total. What if one of them refused permission and held out stubbornly like one of those Japanese soldiers who didn’t emerge from the jungle to surrender until years after the end of World War II? It was all starting to look a bit complicated.
Land Registry searches established that (a) the freehold was owned by a charitable foundation originally set up by a member of one of Bournemouth’s oldest major land-owning families, the late Alice Cooper-Dean (not to be confused with Alice Cooper) and (b) there was indeed a leaseholder of the entire premises. A letter to the solicitors acting for the trustees of the foundation resulted in a promise that the trustees would consider the outline proposal at their next quarterly meeting. That was more than two months away so rather than just wait I turned to the practical aspects. Bournemouth Corporation gave me the address of the manufacturers they’d formerly used for their plaques and I quickly received a choice of options (size of plaque, ceramic or aluminium, inset or wall-mounted) plus provisional quotes. I’d got an idea of the likely position of the plaque by studying Google Streetview and from a subsequent visit to the premises and managed to rope in two members of the Bournemouth Rock Tree committee to check the probable position of the plaque for hidden wiring, and whether the type of bricks would be suitable for drilling into with a battery-powered drill. It had became clear that because of an air vent and old burglar alarm the plaque would have to be positioned centrally above the two doorways to nos. 7 & 9 Holdenhurst Road, both of which fortunately had the same freehold and leasehold owners.
Meanwhile I’d applied to the Musicians’ Union, of which I was a member for many years, to see if they’d make a donation towards the cost (they didn’t but wished us well with our project) and to the various Lottery Funds. It transpired that the only one of those who was able to help – the Heritage Lottery Fund – required a minimum project expenditure of £3,000 and even that involved a great deal of red tape. We were organizing a gig to raise funds (which took place at the end of June 2014) but it was only fair that the first call on the profits from that should go towards the much bigger Bournemouth Rock Tree project, which had been in existence before I’d joined the committee with my blue plaque idea.
The freeholders having replied with their agreement in principle I then approached the leaseholder and got an immediate and helpful response. With his agreement I wrote to each of the tenants of the shops and flats at nos. 7 & 9 Holdenhurst Road, informing them of what we had in mind in principle. I’m not sure what would have happened if any of them had objected; only the consent of freeholders and leaseholders and not tenants is strictly required, but objections by the tenants could have nonetheless made things difficult. Happily none of them did object.The next step was to ensure that no planning or other consents from the local council were necessary. Bournemouth Corporation were very helpful and confirmed that as the building wasn’t a listed one no formal planning consent was needed. (They did, though, charge £65 for the letter confirming that, although in fairness I was probably being over-cautious in asking for one.) I’d now decided on a 20 inch diameter aluminium plaque, which was a lot cheaper than a ceramic one, and opted not to have it inset into the wall, but to fix it to the bricks with “one-way screws” (whatever they were). That meant that I could tell the freeholder and leaseholder that the plaque would involve minimal effect on the brickwork and would avoid having to employ someone with special equipment to carve out a recess in the brickwork for the plaque. All of these details plus a mock-up of the plaque with final wording and fixing diagrams and dimensions were sent to the freeholder and leaseholder, who replied promptly with their agreement. I therefore instructed the manufacturers to go ahead with making the plaque. They gave me a delivery date of late June/early July.
I’d already been thinking about the logistics of unveiling the plaque. I knew I wanted my old mate Zoot Money to be one of the “celebs” pulling the cord and that we’d need a modest bit of speechifying beforehand. I’d need to cover the thanks to all who’d helped plus a few words about the earliest days of the club, then Allan Azern, who’d owned the club in its heyday as Le Disque a Go! Go! could follow on from me. Allan suggested he also ask Paul Jones, singer with Manfred Mann, to join Zoot in pulling the cord, and another old mate, Colin Saunders, managed to get Andy Summers to agree to do so too. It was starting to look like a pretty “showbiz” affair. Around this time I’d also met the Mayor of Bournemouth, Chris Mayne, a super bloke and a good sport, who’d been at school with Zoot and had been a regular visitor to the club, and he agreed to say a few words too.
Getting Down to Details
It was all looking good but there were still lots more details to think about. Looking back, some of these turned out to be trivial but when you’re trying to think ahead, not really knowing what you’re doing, and yet trying to ensure that nothing gets missed and wrecks the unveiling, the sheer complexity of the task seems daunting. Firstly I was going to need some unveiling curtains, complete with a pelmet. Would those have to be specially made or could you hire them? Another email to Bournemouth Corporation established that they still held a set of curtains etc which had been used on some earlier plaque unveilings, but would they be big enough for our 20 inch plaque? Most of the plaques put up by the council were 18 inch ones. That meant an additional trip down to Bournemouth Town Hall to inspect and measure up the curtains and pelmet frame, from which it was clear that they weren’t big enough for our plaque. I’d have to hire some.
Secondly there was the question of potential numbers attending the unveiling. The pavement outside the Downstairs Club isn’t that wide and there are bus stops right alongside that stretch of Holdenhurst Road. I couldn’t imagine the police agreeing to close off a busy thoroughfare and divert the buses, and even if they did that would mean “marshals” with hi-viz jackets, a plethora of ‘elf’n’safety issues and probably taking out expensive insurance cover. Whilst in Bournemouth, therefore, I called in at Bournemouth Police Station and met a very nice elderly policeman in the “Dixon of Dock Green” mode and explained my problem. (He was probably about 20 years younger than me, but in my head I’m still about 25.) It quickly became clear that if we could restrict the numbers to 30-50 (and I stressed that in view of the average age of attendees water-cannons might not be required) we could go ahead on an informal basis. That, though, meant that I couldn’t publicize the unveiling as I’d hoped to and would have to try to restrict it to invitation-only. A lot of people were going to be miffed.
The third issue was the technicalities involved in fixing the temporary pelmet plus the plaque itself to the wall. The pelmet would have to go up first and the curtains temporarily hung to ensure the plaque was positioned high enough to be fully hidden by the curtains. In our case the pelmet width meant that it had to be positioned high enough to avoid an air vent. That in turn meant the plaque would be positioned higher than originally planned and that meant we’d need an extra-long cord which our “celebs” could reach easily. (NB. Andy Summers is only about 5’6″ tall and Zoot and Paul Jones having to lift him up might detract from the dignity of the unveiling ceremony.) The plaque itself had to be fixed with “one-way” screws so it couldn’t subsequently be unscrewed by metal thieves. I had thought that might necessitate a special fixing tool but the manufacturers told me that the trick was to initially screw in normal screws to get a bite into the rawlplugs, then replace each one with the one-way screws, using a normal (and not electric-powered) screwdriver. It’s extremely tricky, as you haven’t got the normal groove in the screw-head for the screwdriver to bite into, but it’s possible with a bit of patience and a lot of care. If the plaque ever needs to be unscrewed at some time in the future (perhaps for repainting after 30/40 years) a special tool will be required.
Final Preparations and PublicityThe plaque (plus drilling and one-way screws) arrived from the manufacturers early in July. It looked super, though it was heavier than I’d expected, despite being made of aluminium. From it I was able to make up a cardboard replica to scale with the exact positions of the screw-holes. (This is highly advisable for marking the exact positions of the screw holes on site, as using the real thing is a two-man – and therefore two-ladder – job because of the weight of the plaque itself.) At this stage I still didn’t know the exact date for the unveiling (hence the plaque showing no more than the year 2014). I knew it had to be a Sunday afternoon when Zoot was less likely to be working and the traffic and buses on Holdenhurst Road much lighter and it was essential to avoid weekends when major events were taking place, such as the Bournemouth Airshow. I then heard via Allan Azern that Paul Jones couldn’t make Sundays as he’s a committed Christian and runs a gospel session every Sunday. That left Zoot and Andy Summers to do the unveiling and, after checking that Ed Roberts and Keith Collins were free to install the curtains and plaque the day before, I settled on Sunday 14 September. I’d rechecked that Zoot was free that day and, via Colin Saunders, that Andy could attend, although that would mean him breaking his journey between Los Angeles and Germany, where he was about to start a tour with his band Circa Zero. The Mayor of Bournemouth, Chris Mayne, was free, as was Allan Azern. I could therefore place the order for the hire of the curtains and inform Bournemouth Police, plus the occupants of all the flats and shops, of the exact date. Hiring a battery-powered PA system for the event was proving difficult (unless we could make do with a loudhailer) but fortunately the head-leaseholder, Roger Rossano, arranged for us to have access to mains power. We could therefore use Keith Collins’s PA.
It was now time to notify the media. Nick Churchill had kindly provided a comprehensive media list covering print, radio and TV and had vetted the wording of my bulk emails, which mentioned that Zoot and Andy would do the unveiling and that we didn’t want any advance publicity. I’d already invited musicians past and present who’d had some connection to the club plus various people who’d helped me with the project and had had a good response, though how many journalists would turn up was obviously unknown. I’d left off the invitations list a number of helpful people at Bournemouth Corporation, purely because there were too many of them if I was to avoid breaching the 50 maximum limit that I’d promised the police. For the same reason it still wasn’t possible to mention the unveiling on FaceBook or elsewhere.
The media seemed interested in the event. BBC television phoned to say they’d be covering it and I subsequently did a phone interview with the Bournemouth Echo, once again asking that nothing be printed until after the event. At the end of the interview the reporter told me his editor wanted to publish something in advance, but promised to ask him to hold back until after the unveiling had taken place. I thought nothing more of it until a couple of days later when someone emailed me to say that a piece had appeared in the paper (see article in Bournemouth Echo). The Echo has a large circulation in the Bournemouth area and the first references soon started to appear on Facebook. The cat was well and truly out of the bag and it was partly my fault; I should have remembered from my marketing days in the City in the 1980s that my email should have been headed “Embargoed until 14 September”. Any hopes I might have had that the article would be forgotten were dashed when another reference apparently appeared in the paper a few days later. The last straw was a phone call from Colin Saunders telling me that Andy Summers couldn’t after all come. Colin had sent him the article in the Echo but Andy’s decision had apparently not been made through worries of the whole thing becoming a circus but simply because his German itinerary had changed. I therefore informed the media that Andy wouldn’t be coming and had a call from a nice guy at BBC TV apologizing that they wouldn’t now be sending a crew. My only consolation was a feeling of schadenfreude (why is English the only language not to have an equivalent word in its lexicon?) at the fact that the Bournemouth Echo’s article was now incorrect.
By now I was wishing that we’d just crept down to the site at dead of night and erected the plaque in secret. Although it was nice for a lot more people to be able to turn up for the unveiling, if numbers got out of control would the police decide to move us on before the ceremony was complete? I phoned the police and and told them of the leak and (with tongue in cheek) that I didn’t think it would have much effect on the numbers and anyway the whole thing should be over in about 20 minutes “or so”. (May I be forgiven – I’d timed my speech at just under 10 minutes and there’d also be speeches by Allan Azern, by the Mayor and by Zoot and I’d have to read out an email which Andy Summers had sent.) All I could do now was to cross my fingers and hope for the best.
The Day of the UnveilingThe previous evening had seen Ed Roberts, ably assisted by Keith Collins and cheered on by me, putting up the curtains, pelmet and the plaque itself before wrapping up everything in bin-liners overnight to prevent the curtains from being pinched. (If you do something similar for your project don’t forget to tuck away the unveiling cord – a dangling cord produces an irrestible urge to pull it.) The cardboard mock-up proved very useful in marking out the holes in the brickwork for drilling, and the whole of the complex operations had been faithfully photographed by my long-suffering wife, Rig.
I hadn’t really given much thought to it raining on the day, beyond establishing that the unveiling curtains and cords would still work in the wet, but as we drove down to Bournemouth for the second day running it was clear that we were in for a sunny day. After picking up from Southbourne my old mate John Penhale, one-time drummer with Johnny and the Giants, who’d come over from New York specially for the occasion, we arrived at the site an hour before the proceedings were to kick off and helped Ed Roberts to remove the bin-liners from the curtains. Keith arrived shortly afterwards with his PA. (I’d printed off “Police Aware” notices for my, Ed’s and Keith’s windscreens with the police incident number on them so we could park right outside.)
The unveiling ceremony went better than I’d dared hope, as you’ll see from the photos on the parent page to this article and the link to the YouTube video. Thanks to the leaked Bournemouth Echo article more than 100 people turned up, and the proceedings ran on a lot longer than the 20 minutes I’d promised the police. However, I didn’t see one police officer there – we weren’t moved on and when Zoot pulled the cord the curtains opened smoothly and didn’t come tumbling down on his head. Admittedly the Mayor was a few minutes late, but he’d forewarned me and I was able to keep the crowd raptly entertained by explaining that the 14th September was also the 262nd anniversary of the British Empire adopting the Gregorian Calender, since when New Year’s Day has been the 1st January instead of the 25th March. Not everyone lost the will to live while I was speaking, though by the end of my history lesson one or two people had managed to procure seats and had probably nodded off.It was a great day, which made all the hard work worthwhile and at the end, after Ed and I had taken down the pelmet and curtains, we were able to join a bunch of people who’d decamped to the Cumberland Hotel on the East Cliff.
And of course the best bit is that there’s now a blue plaque commemorating the Downstairs Club.
So that’s the story of one blue plaque project. If you’re about to embark on a similar project of your own I hope you find these ramblings useful and end up with as much satisfaction from your project as I did from mine.