I Recall A Riot, I Recall A Riot… – How A Trip To A Shopping Centre In 1978 Taught Me About The True Nature Of Heroism
They say you should never meet your heroes. This is a lesson I learned quite early in life. When I was 9 years old, my hero was Lewis Collins. He played Bodie, of Bodie and Doyle fame, in the hit Seventies TV show “The Professionals”. Doyle was played by Martin Shaw.
Bodie and Doyle worked for fictional law enforcement department “CI5”, which was an imagined cross between CID and MI5. Bodie was the rock hard one who tackled criminals on their own terms, then shot them. Doyle was the touchy feely one who offered criminals understanding and compassion, then shot them. All 9 year old boys worshipped Bodie and Doyle, but especially Bodie. I was no exception.
So imagine my excitement when, in 1978, I found out that Lewis Collins was going to be signing autographs half a mile up the road from where I lived, in a place called Killingworth. My mum took a bit of persuading to let me go. She didn’t like me going to Killingworth. Why? Well, I’ll show you. Here’s a couple of old photos of what Killingworth looked like back then:
As you can see, my mum didn’t like me going to Killingworth because it was a shithole. It did have this though:
The Massive Slide. We all loved The Massive Slide. Though those banks on either side of it are not sand, they are solid concrete. Killingworth was very big on concrete.
Killingworth had a couple of nicknames. The main one was “Alcatraz”, because it looked like a high security prison. The second one was “The Windy City”, not so much because of a mental connection to Chicago but more because it was always bloody windy there. You can’t tell that from the photos – even though they are the sort of photos that evoke “windswept” sound effects in your head – but trust me. It was windy.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t some Little Lord Fauntleroy walking wide eyed into a lion’s den. Where I lived wasn’t very upmarket either, despite its slightly posh sounding name “Forest Hall”. It was a council estate and my house backed onto the local rubbish tip. Fortunately for me, Forest Hall was built when the authorities thought that if you had a lot of people to house in a hurry, what you might want to house them in would be actual houses.
Unfortunately for Killingworth, it was built when the authorities thought that if you wanted to house a lot of people in a hurry, the way forward was to plonk them in concrete cubes stacked on top of each other in a windswept field in the middle of nowhere.
So while Forest Hall was a little rough around the edges, Killingworth was a violent, rubbish strewn hell-hole whose cement walkways smelt perpetually of piss. Not that I had any thoughts on town planning when I was 9. I just wanted to meet Lewis Collins. Fortunately for me, a lot of the older kids who my mum trusted wanted to meet Lewis Collins too, so I was allowed a little day trip to Alcatraz.
As it turned out, Lewis Collins was going to be signing autographs at Killingworth Shopping Centre’s branch of Woolco. This was a bit like Woolworths, only much bigger and it sold carpets and furniture as well as LP’s and Pic-n-Mix.
That’s the actual Woolco in question. Though you probably guessed that from the Brutalist style of the surrounding concrete.
I think the people who organized this event were anticipating a sedate affair where parents would take along their star struck progeny to queue up and meet Mr Collins in an orderly manner and that perhaps the parents might buy the odd stereo system or sofa while they were there.
What the organizers actually got was a massive pack of feral, unaccompanied teenagers and bored latch key kids. The shop didn’t look like a shop, it looked like a crowded football terrace, with an atmosphere to match. Things were ok, if a little boisterous, to begin with though. A bit of pushing and shoving, but that was it.
However, as the hour that Lewis Collins was meant to be coming out to sign the autographs came and went, things started to turn a bit nasty. Kids started climbing on things to get a better view for when their idol finally made his appearance. They climbed on the shelves, they climbed on the carefully positioned displays, they even climbed on the huge rack that held rolls of carpet, though the rolls of carpet were on rotating rollers so they kept falling off.
There was a poor man behind a customer service podium who kept trying to calm things down to no avail. He assured the baying crowd that Lewis Collins was on his way and that everyone would get an autograph if they were patient. He was drowned out with chants of “We want Bodie!” and much smashing and crashing. Many a lamp and vase would never play the piano again before the day was out.
I didn’t need to climb on anything, I was right at the front. So when Lewis Collins finally appeared, which against all probability he did, I could practically reach out and touch him. He smiled a bit and waved a bit, but this just made the crowd go into full-on riot mode. After about thirty seconds of actually being a few feet from the actual Bodie, my idol was whisked away by burly men in suits who had clearly decided the job wasn’t worth the candle.
So Bodie didn’t save the day, like he always did in The Professionals. Not that I was all that disappointed that he didn’t. Even at 9 years old, I knew he was just an actor and I reckoned he’d have been lucky to get out alive if he’d stayed much longer. I was impressed by the poor man behind the customer service podium though. You could see the colour drain from his face when Lewis Collins left. He was the only thing standing between a non-violent outcome and some little gutter rat remembering he had a lighter in his pocket and torching the place.
Somehow though, he managed to talk the place down to some level of calm without having to call the riot police. It took him half an hour, and to this day I’m not quite sure how he managed it, but he did manage it. Eventually, the crowd dispersed, leaving the Killingworth branch of Woolco looking like The Budokan after a Deep Purple concert. If there was a hero of this particular day, it was this man.
Later in his career, Lewis Collins became obsessed by personal protection and the SAS. I find it amusing to think that the incident at Killingworth Woolco had something to do with that. It’s gratifying to consider that, when you met your idol, you made a bigger impression on him than he did on you. Not many people can say that.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2014