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Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Beer: Part 1” by Ken Dunn

Looking back on it all now it’s quite funny, I suppose. At the time it was far from it. In fact, when I think about it, which I try not to, it was positively diabolical. I’ve never been involved with anything quite like it since and I hope I never will, but at the time you don’t think of things like that, do you?

I’m talking about the ‘Great British Beer Festival’ in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England, ‘Geordieland’. Never heard of it? I’m surprised. I thought everyone had. Ah, well. It certainly felt at the time that the whole world knew about it and were intent on wreaking vengeance on anyone who had anything to do with it. It was 1973, almost forty years ago now. Doesn’t time fly? As a struggling designer I was barely keeping the whole pack of wolves from every single door, crack and crevice when the prospect of some substantial graphic work simply popped up in front of me.

I say ‘popped’ as it came from a diminutive little fella who had a habit of trying to surprise people by literally sticking his head under your nose when you were least expecting it. This character was Fred Thompson, known to all as ‘Tommo’, a freelance photographer. I’d come across him some months before. He’d split from the company he’d originally worked for and set upon on his own. A standard arrangement at first with portraits, weddings, cuddly babies, you know the kind of thing.

Gradually he expanded his territory even managing to sell a few ‘newsy’ shots to the local paper. There were other more shady areas which he ‘developed’ and I suppose he made most of his money from these. ‘Artistic’ and highly private, erotic poses of young ladies had become one of his more unsavoury specialities. Now and again he actually sold a few to the bottom end, if you’ll forgive the expression, of the ‘girly mag’ industry.

In any event I had passed what bits of photography I could his way and, I suppose because he wanted to help me, he told me about this new event which had just hit town. Two rather well heeled business men, Robert and Tony Long, had set up residence in one of the best hotels in town and were contacting all and sundry developing a concession base for their new enterprise. This was to be a major Beer Festival along the lines of the Munich Beerfest. It was going to celebrate British Beer, not the watery lager which the Germans and particularly the Australians were trying to peddle at the time. No, this was to a be festival of the finest British Ales around. It just happened to coincide with the National urge in the early seventies to go back to basics, ‘proper’ beer in wooden barrels, not the fizzy keg stuff which had just begun to appear in the new fangled aluminium barrel variety.

The word had spread like wildfire about this and somehow Tommo had wheedled his way into the organisation and came back out with the photographic concession for the whole thing. I should have known then that if Tommo was involved then I shouldn’t be. How anyone could have recognised him as a professional I’ll never know. This in itself should have been a warning about the two Long brothers but I suppose I was too close to it and at that time I was a little thin in the bank balance stakes which always tended to affect my normal reasoning.

I met the Long’s the following day in their hotel, was introduced by Tommo and we sat in their spacious suite, both of us slightly cowed by the opulent atmosphere. Both of them were sleek, business suited examples of capitalism, immaculately dressed and oozing confidence. There was nothing cheap here, at least on the face of it. Robert Long was from somewhere in the Midlands, Nottingham as I remember. Fairly tall and thick set, he was a larger version of his older brother, Tony, who talked with a distinct Canadian accent. It became apparent later, that he had emigrated some years before but had arrived back to help organise and run this prestigious, liquid operation.

The Festival would run for five days, Monday to Friday, and they wanted the best ‘image’ for it they could get. It would mean not only tickets, brochures and posters but TV and Radio ads as well as the design for the staging and a hell of a lot more besides. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was now facing a lot work and the prospect of a lot of money as well. This might run into thousands if I played my cards right.

We arranged to meet the following Friday when they would be better placed to give me a full briefing. There was still a lot to organise and by then they would be able to outline the full extent of their needs. Champagne arrived and we all drank a toast to the festival. I arrived back home to tell my wife my news. She was apprehensive about the possible work load but saw the opportunity. It was too good to miss and being in on the ground floor, as it were, was even better.

Friday came around and we met again at the hotel. By this time they had a venue organised and a pile of applications from several breweries. These guys didn’t mess around. As well as that various people had been arriving all day long asking for appointments to see the two brothers. The place was beginning to buzz. We sat and talked the whole thing though in detail. The site of the festival was going to be the open space on the edge of town inside one of the largest tents ever seen in Europe. That turned out to be vast not just large. Planning permission had been applied for and granted. A specialist company had already been signed up to provide the tent and they were due to arrive to set it up the following day. Once that had been completed it would need a rapid ‘dressing’ of the whole thing, outside and inside.

This ranged from a main and spectacular entrance surround through a signing system for the operations inside then to cash desks, turnstiles and various point of sale units for the gifts and bric-a-brac which the brothers wanted. After all that other parts of the huge interior would need platforms for the entertainment events, several bars where the beers would be sold, a main stage, lighting and sound systems and several booths for the sale of Beer Festival Souvenirs such as glasses, hats, beer mats and clothes and all manner of goods associated with Beer. One of these, ‘hats’, had to be explained to me.

What the brothers were looking for was the ‘North Country Image’, they who knew their beers, and the hats were in fact caps, the ‘Andy Capp’ variety, which would ensure the arrival of the ‘common man’. I had my reservations about this but, if that’s what they wanted, then that’s what they would have, it was their money after all, but I managed to get that simple thought quite wrong.

By the time I left them I had pages of notes and a full brief. We had agreed terms, which included a rather substantial fee, and everything seemed very healthy. They were pleased with some of the suggestions I had made and all I had to do now was ‘deliver the goods’. The only problem was that there wasn’t a lot of time available. They wanted the whole thing up and running in two weeks! Quite apart from my own problems, things were hotting up elsewhere. They had to bring in three office staff and install a few more phones just to cope with the enquiries and calls which continued to bombard the hotel from all quarters. Everyone wanted a piece of this ‘beer based’ action.

The tent was now up and complete. It was the biggest thing of it’s kind I’ve ever seen. Describing it to give the right scale is tricky, but if you can imagine about four of the circus type structures all fastened together that should give some idea of the area. But this was much higher and wider with hardly any internal supports. They were on the outside with the canvas being suspended from an intricate arrangement of cables which were tensioned back over the top of the whole thing. It stayed up somehow and the feeling of space on the inside was quite extraordinary. Fortunately for me the company responsible for it were able to provide a scaled layout on paper which made the chore of organising the enormous interior that much easier.

I was still quite blinkered by all of it and the speed in which every thing was developing didn’t help. I was caught up with ‘beer fever’, just like everyone else who were involved, and mesmerised by how much I thought I might make out of the whole affair. I should have stood back mentally and looked harder but as the days fled by, with hardly any time to spare for thought, I became more and more enmeshed in the whole business and reassured by the easy confidence of the two brothers.

Unknown to anyone working on the Festival a few rumours were beginning to surface in the town about the Long’s financial credentials and it took another few days before some of the organisations involved began to wonder if they might just be being taken for a ride by these two smooth characters who had arrived from nowhere. But then money had been paid ‘up front’ by them and it seemed inconceivable that anything could go wrong.

I ploughed on with the preparation of drawings and specifications. I didn’t get a lot of sleep over the following few days but I managed to knock out a simple component system which would be easily constructed and provide all that they needed for the interior of the tent. The graphics for tickets, posters and all the other things they wanted was an easier task. Once I’d established a theme, an ‘image’, it was a relatively simple process of applying that to everything, right down to the beer mats.

Four days later we were going over the drawings and presentations and they were very pleased with the end products of my labours. I then had the extraordinary situation of having that paid for then and there. This was unprecedented! What more could I do? What more did they want? I was now firmly, and totally theirs to command. I then found myself as overall co-ordinator of the whole thing, just like that! The fee for this role was agreed and would be paid at the end of the Festival. That then left me, not only ‘gob smacked’, but with a huge list of organisations to deal with, and all in the space of ten days to ‘get the show on the road’!

A battalion of different companies were established as Festival plumbers, electricians, sound and lighting consultants as well as furniture, glassware, crockery, bunting, floor covering, security, cutlery, table cloth supliers and a host of other hopeful, would be purveyors of goods of all kinds, shapes and inclinations. I could only hope to estimate the overall numbers of customers for the five days of the Festival and hand these figures over for them to deal with.

Everything seemed to being going smoothly, albeit at a rather hectic pace, when the first ‘problem’ emerged. The company who had erected the tent had arrived on the site complete with the trucks it had first arrived in. They were not happy. Although an intitial payment had been made no more had been forthcoming so they were now going to take it away! The Long brothers were less than enthusiastic about this and met them on site, being careful to block the entrance to the site with their own car.

After a heated agrument things eventually calmed and heads began to nod. The tension eased but I noticed that Tommo was creeping around in the background with a plasitic bag full of unidentified lumps. These turned out to be huge potatoes which he had rammed up the exhaust pipe of the four trucks in the hope of immobilising them. Little did he know that if they had started up the spuds would have been blown out like canonballs and anyone caught in the firing line would have ended up with a very large hole through them! The drivers dug them out before they drove off, grinning at the naive attempt to stop them.

In any case that turned out to be the turning point of all our fortunes. A few more nervous exhibitors from the breweries down to the smallest supplier were asking similar questions about the slow payment which seemed to be taking over. That began to show itself a day or so later. Meanwhile Tommo was working on something else which was making him grin from ear to ear. He was arrangeing the ‘supply’ of ‘Beerettes’. These were half a dozen of the local girls, well endowed, frothy, mindless near harlots which he had ‘interviewed’ at great length before offering them to the brothers to help the sale of all the souvenir ‘tat’.

They were exactly what the brothers were looking for. Young, bouncy – in more ways than one – attractive, in a tarty kind of way, but they still needed their ‘uniforms’. These turned out to be a bright red with a very, very short flared skirt, tight fitting top, very low neckline, a full cap and knee length silver boots. They arrived at the hotel to ‘demonstrate’ how they looked and pranced around the place in this bizarre gear to the delight of the Long brothers and especially Tommo, who was almost dribbling at the sight.

Tommo took them all off to his studio, suggesting he should taking publicity shots of all of them for the local papers. I saw him the following morning and he could hardly stand. It must have been quite a session! His grin now almost met at the back of his head and it took him another day to regain his strength.

The day of the Grand Opening of the Great British Beer Festival was only two days away but the rot had begun to set in. Three of the major Breweries pulled out, unhappy about the lack of payment and the rumours of a possible, major, ‘con’ were now flying about all over the place. They all centred on the lack of payment and more and more people were becoming distinctly suspicious of being ‘taken’ by the Long’s. After deposits had been paid not a penny had passed to anyone and even the hotel was beginning to become apprehensive about the Long brother’s bill. This was now in the thousands for all the additional services and rooms which had been taken over

The brothers managed to stem the tide by oozing confidence and reassuring statements but there was still a general feeling of unease. The local TV News invited the brothers for interview on the eve of the Festival and it was plain that they were out for blood, accusing them openly during the broadcast of being con-men. The Long’s parried every probe and snide remark and that probably kept the ‘show on the road’, at least for the opening the following day. After that things changed.

To be continued…/

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