Ian Sandy is one of the most colourful characters on Birmingham’s showbusiness scene. He tells Graham Young about his plans.
Even in the world of theatre, there are few more colourful characters than Ian Sandy, whose Hawaiian shirts might be the only ones you will see during a Birmingham winter.
Yet, although he is a man who always prefers to look on the sunny side, it all began in tears.
Having become “the assistant junior to the assistant junior compere” at the Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Centre in Skegness, Ian burst into tears in his dressing room.
“I was asking myself: ‘Is this what I want to do?’,” he recalls.
“Something happened that night that made me realise it was.
“I later went up to Leisure Holidays where a Yorkshireman said to me: ‘You’re too happy... you won’t last’.
“Fourteen years later I was area controller running 14 holiday camps.
“I was Rank’s manager of the year for two years running and, in the winter, I would revert to acting and panto, doing what I love.
“One day somebody called to ask: ‘How many ping-pong balls do you need?’ I didn’t have the foggiest, but realised he was an accountant.
“I resigned that day, started working for Gary Wilmot’s touring company and then, when my parents died, returned to Birmingham.”
Eight years ago, in the days before The X Factor, the former child actor on God’s Wonderful Railway and other TV programmes such as Juliet Bravo decided to launch BSS Spotlight, since rebranded as BSS Showbiz.
Inspired by his former mentor Mary Richards at The Old Rep’s Birmingham Theatre School, he wanted to give children a chance with affordable, Saturday morning classes at the Birmingham Hippodrome – and to sow the seeds needed to make and sustain this year’s hits from We Will Rock You to Scrooge and Evita.
A desire for children to have fun was considered far more important than talent, background or the colour of anybody’s skin.
As we chat on the first floor of the Birmingham Hippodrome, 172 children are rehearsing for the big BSS Showbiz summer show which was held on Sunday night at the Alexandra Theatre.
“Listen to them,” says Ian. “The youngsters are doing Fame upstairs, the older ones Little Shop of Horrors downstairs and yesterday I was writing a script for Sooty this Christmas. You can’t get more bizarre than that.”
As the West Midlands’ recession bites, it is worth noting that Ian offers a traditional spark of Birmingham innovation as well as combining his skills as a panto company manager (he is now in his 23rd year running the Hippodrome panto behind the scenes), actor, producer, director, presenter, Aston FM broadcaster, accountant, entrepreneur, publicist, agent, advertiser, programme designer, video maker and outdoor summer concert compere.
“You’ve got to be able to do everything these days,” he laughs.
“What everyone has to remember is that the only person who stops you from doing something is you.
“You are in control of your own destiny and you have to get out there and have a determination to make things happen.”
This is where the children at BBS Showbiz really score.
“One of our old boys is now a props master on the Harry Potter movies,” says Ian. Another works for the National Theatre, another for Tesco and so on. It doesn’t matter where they end up, they learn the extra skills here that makes the difference.
“The greatest gift you can give any child is confidence. That is what will help you to climb a mountain, sing on a stage or walk in to a bank and think to yourself ‘I’m the customer’ so that you can take charge.”
Ian’s other businesses include The Production Office (TPO Group). He also runs the entertainment for North Yorkshire’s Thornwick Bay Holiday Centre and he stages Tamworth Snowdome’s Christmas Winter Wonderland experience where Sooty (and Sweep this year) will be starring this December.
He has spent the past year converting the Old Fire Station in Moseley into the Birmingham Independent School for Performing Arts (BISPA).
Although the building is now a valued rehearsal facility for various groups, including the burgeoning British Academy of Bollywood Arts, Ian’s plans to open a full-time ‘Flame Academy’ school for than 100 pupils are now on ice until September 2010.
“I’m just one major backer away from opening the school,” says Ian, 45. “But times are really tough, especially for independent schools.
“I so believe, though, that Birmingham needs a facility like this, because the only alternative now is to go to London.
“What sets us apart from other stage schools is that we just use people who are actively working in the business to teach them. I don’t want parents to send their children here to become stars. I cannot guarantee that and who knows what that means any more in the age of Big Brother?”
What Ian doesn’t want is success for the sake of it.
“I want people to come here who are willing to get better at what they do by working with professionals. Like Basil Fawlty once put up a sign saying ‘No riff raff’, I also want nice people. If we then get some success, that’s a bonus.”
* This summer, BISPA will host a course for five to ten-year-olds called High School Musical Mega Mix at the Old Fire Station from July 27-31. Groups for 11 and over include Hairspray (August 17-21) and Chicago (August 24-28). Each course costs £99, running from 10am-3.30am Monday to Thursday and until 8pm on Fridays.
* For more information, go to www.bispa.co.uk