When ITV went on strike it was either us or a maths programme
Houghton Weavers guitarist David Littler caught up with MALCOLM WYATT to talk about a forthcoming charity night and his iconic folk band’s impending 40th anniversary
All this talk of financial austerity doesn’t seem to have affected a world-renowned Lancashire folk outfit gearing up for a major milestone next year, marking four decades in the music business.
The Houghton Weavers have been winning over fans in the North West and beyond since 1975, and founder member David Littler, of Cottam, Preston, and his band are still ‘selling halls all over’.
“We’ve had more work these past 15 months than the previous 15 years.
“Don’t ask me why, but we’re recession-proof!
“We got through two others before this one.
“We offer wholesome entertainment, and maybe people looking after the pennies decide we’re a group they can afford to come and see.”
David, who turns 65 in March, is preparing for a St Catherine’s Hospice fund-raiser at Ingol Golf Club on Friday, February 21, in memory of son-in-law Jim Greenhalgh, who was treated at the Lostock Hall centre before he died in June 2012, aged 33.
Jim had an inoperable brain tumour, but bravely filled his last years with a number of ambitious projects.
And now his father-in-law is determined to give something back to the hospice which helped him.
It wasn’t difficult to twist the arms of fellow band-mates, co-founder Tony Berry, 64, and more recent recruit Steve Millington, 55.
Then there were friends from the circuit, not least Chorley-born comic Phil Cool and guitarist and fellow Prestonian Ken Nichol, formerly of The Albion Band and Steeleye Span.
“Jim was my daughter Joanne’s fiancé when he had a seizure.
“Procedures found a tumour, the sort that invades every space it can, meaning he only had a limited time.
“He went to a Harley Street specialist with his scans from the Royal Preston.
He was asked how he wanted his diagnosis, and – with his background selling tractors – was a straight-talking bloke, so asked for it straight.
“He was given a limited time, between five and seven years.
“Sadly that proved right.
“He was advised to go back and enjoy life.
“If he wanted children, he had to do that as soon as he could.
“Jim and Joanne were so happy when they got pregnant with our grand-daughter Holly.
“And he bore it all with a lot of fortitude – just got on with life.”
Jim became a St Catherine’s regular, having been admitted to hospital in October 2012, returning home for Christmas that year.
He was back in hospital by March and didn’t quite make his 34th birthday on June 6.
“It was so sad.
“He knew his fate, we all did, but you always think people might be wrong.
“But he had his bucket list and tried to fulfil as much as he could.”
David, married to Helen and with one other daughter, Andrea, added: “Joanne’s received a lot of counselling, and that’s paid off.
“One phrase that keeps coming up is ‘if you can’t change it, accept it’.
“There’s a little of Jim in Holly too. That helps.
“It’s not all doom and gloom.
“Life is tragic, but as my Dad used to say, in life there’s a beginning, middle and end.
“All that changes is the length of what you have in the middle.”
David’s band story starts in 1975, with his brother Dennis, Tony Barry, Norman Prince and John Oliver.
“I attended a folk club at the Red Lion, Westhoughton, where we lived, with the Auld Triangle playing, fronted by Norman and including Tony’s brother Jim, my friend.
We put on shows at old people’s homes and church halls, providing music for anyone who’d pay to watch us.”
Tony and John went for a night out with Norman, and they decided to start their own group, Norman recommending David as a guitarist.
“The rest is history. I got a knock on the door one morning from Norman, asking if I fancied starting a folk group.
“I lived next door to Dennis, so he attended practice as a bass player. John soon left, though, so anyone with a picture of us as a five-piece has a bit of a rarity.”
So how did they end up as television and radio personalities?
“My mother was very proud to have two sons in this group, and at the time there was a programme called We’ll Call You on BBC North West, showcasing local talent.
“She watched it and said ‘you’re better than this’.
“She wrote to the BBC and got a reply, asking more about us.
“The producer, Terry Wheeler, came along to see us and within a few weeks offered us our own series, called Sit Thi Deawn.
“I worked for the Bolton Evening News as an ad rep, Tony was a social worker, Norman worked at the county court, John Oliver sold cars, and Dennis was an electronics engineer at British Aerospace.
“But we had this meteoric rise to fame and suddenly became professionals, filling theatres up and down the North West.
“Every week we were on telly, a half-hour show with a 10-minute interlude starring actor Joe Gladwin (Last of the Summer Wine’s Wally Batty) and up-and-coming comic Stu Francis (later Crackerjack).
“They would cut from our spot to the corner of a pub, Joe in his flat cap talking with his pint to this young whipper-snapper, Stu, anecdotal situations prevailing.
“After two series, people were asking for more of us, and for the last four series it became a half-hour of us singing songs we’re well known for today.
“When ITV went on strike, there was only this BBC 2 programme against us, a bit hoity-toity – people either watched The Houghton Weavers or some mathematics!”
Their fame soon spread beyond the region, not least through a 1980s series on BBC Radio 2.
The band have been going strong ever since, sticking to their original motto, Keep Folk Smiling, even boasting a Number 1 in Tasmania with The Blackpool Belle, which also went top three in New Zealand.
The band have recorded 30 albums and made numerous radio and TV appearances, with David (guitar, banjo, mandolin and vocals) and Tony, still in Westhoughton (lead vocals), now joined by Cheshire-based Steve Millington (keyboards, guitar, bass, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, accordion, vocals).
Word has it that no two evenings in the band’s company are the same, the second half of their act given over to audience requests.
So how does David describe their style?
“At the time we broke, there were hundreds of folk clubs in the North West, and we appeared alongside Mike Harding, Bernard Wrigley, Bob Williamson, the Fivepenny Piece, and the Oldham Tinkers.
They were quintessentially the best Lancashire folk group, and we also had our own dialect and a rich vein of songs.
“What made us unique was Tony – who made a bit of pin money singing in clubs, songs from the shows, Frank Sinatra, and so on – slipping into songs like The Lady is a Tramp or something.
“We were never just an ordinary folk group.
“We were entertainers. Between songs, Norman was telling jokes, so we interspersed comedy, a winning formula.
“Nearly 40 years down the line we’re still doing the same thing.
“The personnel changed, but Tony and I are still treading the boards.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
David’s forthcoming charity night includes a few other friends they met on the circuit.
“When we were on TV, we were asked to do shows with Phil Cool, so knew him before his break.
“I met Ken Nichol around 10 years ago.
“We were playing Buxton Opera House and Steve, a session musician with a studio in Warrington, said we must see this brilliant guitarist.
“After our show we went over the road to this club and saw his last spot.
“As a guitarist, you say ‘wow’. I assumed he lived in London, but when I asked where he was wending his weary way, he said Preston!
“We became mates and play golf at Ingol, while Pete Frampton (who shares a name with a more famous guitarist) was also introduced by Steve.
“He’s also a wonderful guitarist and when told about this, said ‘I’ll be there’, knowing Jim’s story.”
They approached Ingol Golf Club secretary Terry Baldwin about his venue, David having promised his son-in-law he’d do a show to raise money for St Catherine’s.
“When I asked Terry how much he’d charge to have us, he said ‘how does nothing sound to you?’
“That meant we could earn a little more for the charity, and he’s been very forthcoming with prizes and everything else.”
For tickets for the 7.30pm-1am charity event, priced £15 and including fish and chips, call the golf club on 01772 723898, a ticket hotline on 07878 633395, email [email protected], or head to www.houghtonweavers.com.