Top Rank Groovy

Recollections of musical memories

“I’m going to the Top Rank” is a phrase that instantly brings Preston in the 1960s back to life.  I was too young – just – to benefit from the full fruits of the swinging flower power decade, but those immortal six words still echo in my head, because it seemed that whenever the youngest of my four elder sisters went out, that was what she said.

When the decision was made to stage a major music production set in Preston in the sixties, the Top Rank seemed the obvious setting.  Little did I realise just how important that night club had been to so many people.  An appeal via the local Press brought the memories flooding in.  For one night only in June 2003 Cardinal Newman Limelights theatre company recreated some of those recollections on stage.

We were indebted to all who wrote, emailed, or telephoned.  There were far too many stories weave into two hours of drama, and not every contribution found its way to the stage in detail, but they all helped to build the background and feel of a very special time and place.

The production poster


Top Rank Groovy was the first major musical staged by the College.  The students greatly enjoyed working on the project.  They became envious of those who could remember the sixties, though of course, they do say if you can remember them you weren’t really there.  Like all the best sayings it’s not entirely true, and neither is Top Rank Groovy.

As well as consulting dozens of clubbers, we also spoke to staff members, including one of the original disc jockeys, and our dancers had individual tuition from one of the original and much celebrated ‘go-go’ girls.  I decided not to represent real people, living or dead, on the stage.  The memories were transferred to totally fictitious characters and adapted to suit the plot.

One crucial character was Vin Sumner, and although he is one of the few real people named in the play, he remained off-stage.  In a sense off-stage at the Guild Hall was exactly the right place for Vin, because after managing the Top Rank for its first decade, he became the General Manager of the very building in which we performed Top Rank Groovy.  Vin, or father, as his colleagues called him was mentioned a great deal in the anecdotes related to me. He had died prior to our performance, but his presence was induced from the very start. The opening speech had a double resonance due to the fact he had been integral to both the fictional setting and the theatrical location:

Anne:  Mr Sumner? (pause) Mr. Sumner? (pause) Mr. Sumner, I know you can hear me.  I know you can. You were in charge here.  Here.  This magical place.  This place that became . . .

Barbara: . . . becomes . . .

Anne: . . . so many places. . .

Clare:  . . .  in your head.  It’s like it takes over your mind and you’re somewhere else.  You’re not there.  You’re somewhere else.

The narration was delivered by several characters, but mostly by two young women – Anne and Debbie – whose social lives and personal aspirations hinged on nights at the Top Rank.

Anne and Debbie
Anne and Debbie

Debbie:  Dear Mr. Sumner, we never met but, I want you to know how grateful I am.  You changed my life.  Not you personally of course, but . . .

Anne:  This place.  This magical place.

Debbie:  That magical place where I went that night, and so many nights.

The Top Rank Suite was opened in 1963 in the Odeon Cinema building (formerly the Gaumont) on Church Street.

It offered a mixture of ballroom and disco dancing every night and twice on Saturdays, with morning sessions for younger teenagers.  Some nights were reserved for private functions and these could obtain extensions to the licence to two o’clock in the morning, but mostly the Rank opened at 7.30pm and closed at midnight.  The admission price varied during the decade but was about two shillings and sixpence most of the time.  Cheaper admission could be gained before 9.00pm if the public Beat the Clock (the title of a popular TV Quiz show).

tech1 013
Frank, Harry and Gordon

Three lads are ambling towards a bus stop.

Harry:  Any road, she said she’ll bring her sister.

Gordon:  Risky that Harry.  You never know what the sister is going to look like.

Harry:  No, I’ve seen her.  She came to the office.

Frank:  Yeah, I had this mate, right, when we lived in Liverpool.  And he was courtin’ this right gorgeous bird, you know, right gorgeous like, right gorgeous.  And said to him, Mick, Mick – I said Mick, ‘cause that were his name like, you know – Mick.

Gordon:  Get away.  It weren’t were it?

Frank:  It were, yeah, it were his name – Mick.

Gordon:  Were it?

Frank:  Yeah.

Gordon:  So, what did you say to him?

Frank:  I said – Mick, Mick your bird she’s bloody gorgeous, bloody gorgeous. He said yeah.  I said can you get her to bring a sister?   He said yeah, I’ll get her to bring a sister.  And he did.

Gordon:  And I bet she were ugly as sin, weren’t she?

Frank:  No just the opposite.  She were a nun.

Gordon:  A nun?

Frank:  Yeah – he’d brought a sister.  A nun.

Gordon:  You made that up, didn’t you?

Frank:  No, it happened.  I swear it really happened.

Gordon:  Yeah but not to you.

Frank:  No, but it happened.  In Liverpool.

Harry:  I’d quite fancy a nun.

The other two look at him.  Pause.

Gordon:  Where’s your tie Harry?

Harry:  What?

Gordon:  Your tie.  Where’s your tie?  You can’t get in Top Rank without a tie.

The facilities were upgraded about a year after the suite opened then it continued to thrive right into the next decade.  In the mid-seventies the Top Rank became Clouds, then Easy Street, Tokyo Jo’s, then Lava and Ignite, and is now Evoque.  Its name changed with each generation reflecting their tastes in music and fashion, and accommodating their evolving social strategies. Our correspondents reported attitudes very alien to the 2003 teenagers who shared them with our audience.

Anne:  I suppose it’s hard for people to understand now, unless you lived through that time, just how much expectation hinged on a relationship, a meeting; the chance of meeting someone.  Especially for a woman.  Once you got past a certain age there was no such thing as a single woman.  You were either married, widowed or a spinster.  A spinster.  Nobody wanted that.  Careers?  Huh!  They were for men. Women had jobs, not careers. Nursing, teaching, secretarial, shop work. But marriage had a certain respectability to it.  And it was an escape.  An escape from so many things.  Me?  I worked at English Electric.  In the canteen.  And that’s where I was going to stay.

Len, the head bouncer in our story outlined the venue to Norman, a new recruit:

Len:  Well there isn’t time now, but I’ll give you a quick run-down.  Five bars including the snack bar and Charles’s Bar, so called because Charles runs it; and Hadrian’s Bar . . .

Norman:  So called because after you’ve been there you’ll be Roman all over the place!

Len:  Good at self-defence are you Norman?

Norman:  Oh, aye I’ve had to learn to look after myself.

Len:  I can see why. Private function room there, gents over there, ladies powder room over there, very plush, nice mirrors, carpet on the walls, cloakroom over there, tickets given and a bit of a crush at closing time.  We open seven nights and eight days a week.

Norman:  Eight days?

Len:  Twice on Saturday.  Saturday morning under sixteens, Saturday night – the big night – the only pace to be. Know what this place is?  Instant glamour.  And it’s not here, it’s somewhere else; glamour land.  Over there, revolving stage: one side – the band – sometimes dance band sometimes pop bands, side two the disc jockey and two lovely go-go girls.  Keep your hands off their arses and your eyes on the punters.  First sign of trouble move in and get the message out.  Kick the fire exit open and it’ll trigger on of them coloured lights by the control room.  That tells the rest of the chaps where the problem is.  If the main lights flash – there’s bother at the front.  Got it?

Norman:  Aye, aye captain.

Len:  Len, Norman, Len.  Or Mr. Jacobs.

Norman:  Jacobs eh? Bet you’re a bit crackers.

Len:  I wasn’t.  Till tonight.

Past Post - Preston Pubs/Clubs - Top RAnk 1965
Inside the Top Rank, Preston in 1965. Beyond the dance floor is the revolving stage that would sweep the live band out of sight and replace it with disc jockeys and go-go girls.

Debbie:  Dear Mr Sumner, when I walked into the Top Rank for the first time, it was like passing through a door into another world.  This was my world.  Not my parents’ world.  Not my parish priest’s world.  Not even God’s world.  In here no one who watched over me could keep an eye on me.  I left my guardian angel at the door.  They wouldn’t let him in because he wasn’t wearing a tie.  I walked through that long foyer where others went past on their way into the Odeon cinema.  Then by the cloakroom and on to the great staircase, the great, great staircase.  I’m sure it wasn’t as long or as high as I remember it, but it seemed to go on forever.  Literally for ever.  It was like walking into your future, and that’s exactly what it was.  This was the place where I would find my future.

The bulk of the recollections suggested  that the heyday of the Top Rank was the mid-sixties and we made that the main focus of the first act, but for added contrast, I decided feature flower power in the second half. The attitudes from that phase found evangelism in the voice of our disc jockey, named Mike:

tech1 020
Mike and the flower folk

Mike:   Music.  Music is the message.  Beat is the new bible.  Soul can be your salvation.  On this rock ‘n’ roll I will build my church.  The four great evangelists: John, Paul, George . . . and Elvis.

Elaine: What about Ringo?

Mike:   What about Ringo?   The message of Mick Jagger. The spirit of Phil Spectre.  The epistle of Engelbert Humperdinck.

Elaine: The dispatches of Dylan.

Mike:   He and a hundred others will speak to you.  They will be the testament of the transistor.  They will enter your mind, and show you all that there is in there is your mind.  You are this world and the next.  We are the world that was, the one that is and the one that is yet to come.

tech1 022 (3)

Frank:  Cool man.  Crazy!

Gordon:  Peace!

Jackie:  Power to the people – right on.  Where am I?

Gordon:  Avenham Park.

Jackie:  I’ve just had a long conversation with a tree.

Frank:  Groovy.

Irene:  Hey.

Frank:  What?

Irene:  I’m the tree she was talking to.

Frank:  Cool.  What kind of tree are you baby?

Irene:  A very tall one.  I’m higher than you.

Frank:  Hang on in there baby I’m getting higher all the time.

Irene:  Well stone the crows in my topmost branches.

Frank:  It might take me a little while to get that far.

Irene:  Start climbing.

tech1 012As well as the featured live songs, (listed below) the action was  accompanied by scores of iconic scores such as Stranger of the Shore, I Get Around, Ain’t Nothin’ but a House Party, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honeybunch), All You Need is Love, Reach Outand Stoned Love.

tech1 025

 In the end we had to return to the narcotic that our correspondents treasured the most:

TRG beautiful 2

Anne:  Dear Mr. Sumner, you could say it was the drugs but they were a . . .

Debbie: . . . novelty that most of us got fed up with, you could say it was flower power, but that was just a passing phase. You could say it was the decade but the decade died.

Anne:  Yes, it was the time, but much more important was the place.

Debbie:  A place of the time and a place out of time.

Anne:  The place to be.

Debbie:  The only place to be.

Anne:  A place to be whatever you wanted to be.

Debbie:  A place to find love.

Anne:  A place to be loved.

tech1 017

The production was dedicated to Kevin Quigley who had been Principal of Cardinal Newman College from 1994 to 2002.  Under his patronage the Performing Arts Curriculum Area was established and grew into the Faculty of Creative Arts, Tourism and Sport that by 2003 catered for some 700 sixteen to nineteen-year-old students. Kevin particularly fostered the Arts and sport and was especially concerned to nurture diversity among those who took part.

The reaction

The theatre was packed and the audience reaction was ecstatic.  This was partly due to the superb performances of all on and off the stage, but in addition to that, the atmosphere was uniquely enhanced by the presence of the members of the audience who had supplied the text by sharing their personal pasts.

The Lancashire Evening post reviewer credited it as “one of the best shows I’ve seen in ages.”

It was not perfect, but remains a personal favourite, and it spawned a sequence of original musicals, many of which retained a local focus.  Read more about that in the previous post:  ABBA, David Bowie, the Red Army of Russia, Wonder Woman, The Starship Enterprise and the people of Preston


From the Top Rank Groovy Programme:



Conversations (Debbie) (Greenaway, Cook, Lordan.  Dick James Music Ltd. 1969)

Downtown (Clare. Anne & Barbara) (Hatch.  ATV Music 1964)

Eight Days a Week (Len+ bar staff) (Lennon & McCartney.  Northern Songs1964)

The Young Ones (Clare & Tina & Passengers) (Tepper/Bennett.  EMI 1961)

I’m a Believer (Gordon) (Neil Diamond.  Gema / Biem 1967)

Dancing in the Street (Clare, Anne & Barbara)(William Stevenson, Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter. Motown: Jobette Music 1964)

You’ll Never Walk Alone (Anne & Debbie + Choir) (Rogers / Hammerstein.  EMI  1963)

California Dreaming (Harry + Choir)       (John & Michelle Phillips.  MCA  1966)

Avenham Park (Itchycoo Park) ( Anne & cast ) (Marriot / Lane.  EMI  1967)

Wild Thing (Si) (Chip Taylor.  EMI  1966)

Everlasting Love (Harry) (Cason / Gayden.  Peter Morris Music 1968)

TRG beautiful 1
Avenham (Itchycoo) Park

The Company

Anne  Emma Lockley

Babara  Lucy Finnigan

Clare  Katherine Daggers

Debbie  Nicola Jaques

Elaine  Natasha Ward

Frank  Ashley Shillingford

Gordon  Chris Smithson

Harry  Lee Johnson

Irene  Jessica Morris

Jackie  Sally Whittaker

Ken  Michael Quigley

Len  Liam Booth

Mike  David Hartley

Norman  Andrew Neale

Olive  Lizzie Conboy

Pamela  Lisa Baird

Quintina  Vicky Smith

Rita  Emma Swinton

Si  Wayboon Diec

Tina  Steph McLaughlin

Ursula  Kerry Martland

Vicky  Liz Forster

Winnie  Linzi Broxton



Danielle Bromley

Liz Cam

Bernadette Flannagan

Kerry Grogan

Aisling Kiernan

Emily Hardman

Lisa Holmes

Hannah Mairs

Nicola McKee

Leah Pritchard

Choreography Rhiannon Dunleavy


The Choir

Abigail Ainsworth

Heather Boyle

Amy Collison

Rebecca Crossley

Gemma Godsmark

Nicola Kellet

Rosey Kennedy

Daniel Murphy

Joanne Millington

Anne Noonan

Susan Noonan

Christine Simpson

Jane Snape

Natalie Wareing

Howard Wilson


The band

Lead guitar  Paul Anderson

Tenor sax  Annette Allen

Bass guitar  Joe Green

Keyboard  Darren Brome

Drums  Peter Quigley

Alto sax  Margaret Jones

Alto sax  Sally Woodcock

Plus members of the Lancashire Artillery Band.

Musical Director Margaret Jones


Sound Philip Quigley

Lighting Fiona Mulholland

DSM Amy Costello

Crew Olivia Neville

Roadie Ray Langlands


Poster Louise Rimmer & Ian Wharton


Produced and directed by Pete Hartley


Strictly Done Dancing

Strictly Front cover from full sizeEighteen former celebrities step out one more time.

A glittering selection of historical personalities are given another chance to dance.  They have one more opportunity to show the world what their lives meant, but first they must meet their allotted partners and work out their routines.

What will Fred make of Marilyn?

What will Eric’s partner think of it so far?

Will Stephen’s routine be out of this world?

Who will dance with Diana?

Will there be a winner?

Available from: Strictly Done Dancing paperback


2 thoughts on “Top Rank Groovy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s