Michael Whitehead …a life in showbiz

The Island’s Michael Whitehead has enjoyed a fascinating life that has involved working with Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, the Milky Bar Kid, the Apollo Theatre, Tales of the Riverbank, the Mary Rose and currently The Ghost Train.

His excitement really began when his late father, the world famous figurehead carver Jack Whitehead, found him a job at ATV. Mike was 19, and being in the post room was not such a glamorous start, but becoming the studio call boy meant mingling with many of stars of the day. Eventually he became an assistant floor manager and worked on the televised midweek dramas, which were all live.

“That was scary. The tension was incredible. People in that business didn’t last there much after 40 because they had nervous breakdowns and other things. The last 10 seconds countdown before the live show was the most stressful,” reflected Mike.

Luckily, he was never seen on screen but a few technician colleagues were not quite as lucky as the red light certainly spelt danger! For a while he was in charge of the cut button. If an actor forgot or fluffed their lines Mike had his thumb ready to press the button which cut out all the studio sound and he shouted the line.

The highlights working on music shows with Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. When Tommy was in the studio there were hundreds of screaming girls outside the stage door and on one occasion young Mike was the decoy.

He recalled: “I had a crew cut like Tommy and was told to go out of the stage door, look around and run like hell. The girls all followed and that gave Tommy the chance to sneak out the back door. I also got to know Cliff and the Shadows well and in particular Hank Marvin.”

Later Mike joined a small animated film company who did work for television commercials. One of his jobs involved the famous Milky Bar Kid advert. In the early 1970s he was also involved in making 26 episodes of Tales of the Riverbank, here on the Island with David Ellison. He created the sound effects, laid the tracks and did the editing.

“We had quite a time with the guinea pigs, white rats, hamsters and other animals. We had to try and persuade them to do the things we wanted. If they refused, we had to rewrite the script to what they had actually done.”
When he was a member of the Plessey Radar Diving Club they were among the early volunteer divers who helped to uncover the wreck of the Mary Rose. It was such an adventure but not on the occasion he nearly drowned. As the standby diver he went in to save a naval diver, without a rope. In fact it was a false signal and the guy was not in danger. He said: “They managed to pump me out and hide me from my wife until a bit later.”

Sadly, when the wreck became a high powered archaeological dig with millions of pounds available, Prince Charles became so heavily involved some of the original local divers left the scene, for varying reasons.

Mike joined Newport’s Apollo Players in 1979 to play Hank the taxi driver in Night of the Iguana and, he admits, his American accent was appalling. Over the years he has been their Artistic Director and Technical Manager, amidst many other roles including being heavily involved with sound and lighting.

He is directing the Arnold Ridley classic The Ghost Train at the Apollo Theatre, Newport, from Friday, June 30th to Saturday, July 8th.

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