Mark Blackstock, manager of Wolverhampton Civic Hall tells Andrew Cowen that variety is the spice of his working life.
You get the impression that Mark Blackstock has the best job in the world. The instantly-likeable manager of Wolverhampton Civic Hall and its two satellite venues is full of enthusiasm for a job which touches the lives of many thousands every year - not in a fluffy sort of way, but with the majesty of rock. And tea dancing. And darts
Pretty much all the live entertainment that passes through the city has been arranged by Mark and his team. They're responsible for all Wolverhampton's outdoor events too.
They're at the heart of the cultural life of the place and they're doing a brilliant job.
Over a 20 year period, Mark, 48, has transformed the fortunes of Wolverhampton Civic Hall. When he arrived, it was a run-down place with very little happening.
Now it's one of the country's best live venues, open all hours, with a list of gigs that shames the pulling power of the promoter-run halls in Birmingham.
New Order and Radiohead are just two of the big names who chose to grace the Civic stage when they could have opted for much larger gigs. Pretty much everybody has played there during its long history.
The reason why the Civic, plus its two smaller siblings, the Wulfrun Hall and the Little Civic, are so popular is chiefly down to the vision and leadership of Mark Blackstock and his attention to detail. The fact that he's a man on a mission doesn't harm.
His journey from his home city of Leeds to Wolverhampton is an interesting one. He knew while at university that he wanted to be involved in entertainment management.
While his mates were studying to be doctors or lawyers, he was busy booking bands for the Students' Union.
"I went to college in Northampton and had a fantastic four-year holiday doing my degree, which was basically worthless. I left there and thought 'Oh Christ, what do I do now?'
"I'd done entertainments at college, been on the committee and all my friends were becoming solicitors and policemen. I just didn't fancy any of that.
"I wanted to get back into entertainment and just couldn't get in. My uncle at the time worked in bingo halls and he suggested I get into those so I went to work for a company called Top Rank.
"It was fantastic, absolutely brilliant because if you work in bingo you learn the price of everything. You contextualise entertainment. If something's worth coming to, they'll come to it and if not, they won't. I did that for two years. I'm a poncy middle-class person and it put me in contact with working-class ethics. At college I just lived in this bubble and this really brought me back to crushing reality.
"I can remember emptying the fruit machines and watching people put their last penny in. It's quite humbling watching some fool putting their rent in.
"After two years I got sick of it, grinding the hours out, so I left and went to work for Harlow council doing outdoor events, which was good fun, but I wanted to get into music and went to Cheltenham, got a job there and I didn't have a clue.
"I put entertainment on and things lost money; not a huge amount. I learnt my lesson with Lenny the Lion. I booked his show and couldn't work out why nobody came. Then I realised that I was literally in the wrong decade.
"Lenny was popular in the fifties and sixties and this was the early eighties."
From Cheltenham, Mark's next stop was Wolverhampton where he's been happy and busy for 20 years.
"I came in and the hall at the time was very, very run-down. Not much was going on and the council were keen for things to happen. They gave me the freedom.
"I went up to London to look at the Town and Country Club and I nicked a lot of ideas off them.
"The competition in Birmingham at the time was the Hummingbird which was extremely popular and we aggressively chased all their trade.
"Birmingham was going through a bit of a sticky time and so we did well and managed to snaffle most of it.
"The Town Hall was busyish but we targeted their trade too. We're all in the same game, a municipal blob.
"If you live in Birmingham or Wolves, you don't see a line between the two."
Mark worked hard to bring the trade to Wolverhampton and he did it, succeeding beyond what he thought possible.
Wolverhampton began to get a name for itself on the rock circuit. "The council thought it was fantastic," he says.
"The city started to get more busy. It's not Brindleyplace. It doesn't have that sort of vibe. Wolverhampton's different. Very different to Brum. It's far more villagey, I mean, a large part of our audience physically walk in. Rather than drive home at night after a show, you'll always see shedloads of people on the Penn Road, walking home."
Mark reckons that there are more people at the shows who have had a drink which makes for a boisterous audience and a better atmosphere.
The only real competition to the venue in Birmingham is the Academy, owned by the people who used to run the Civic. When the Carling-branded venue opened its doors, it initially caused problems to the Civic's family of buildings.
"Overnight it decimated our trade," says Mark. "It was a shock at the time but you dust yourself down and crack on. Our main strength was starting off the Little Civic and that's been fantastic for us.
"If you look at the West Midlands, there are no pub concerts left. In an area of three or four million, there's probably two pub gigs. It's extraordinary. You need somewhere for tomorrow's big bands to play.
"The music scene in the Midlands has almost vaporised in the last 10 or 15 years because all the pubs have gone."
The Little Civic fills that niche superbly, with a capacity of about 120. It gave the Kaiser Chiefs its first Midlands gig and, as bands get bigger, they want to return to play the larger Wulfrun or Civic Halls.
The Civic Hall is 70 years old this year and is in pretty good shape. As Mark says, "it brushes up well".
It was designed as a dance hall which accounts for its superb acoustics and sightlines. It really does sell itself at a certain level.
"We'll have a tea dance on one day and the Kooks on the next. It's that versatile. As a building manager, you're given a permanent challenge about all the things you can do.
"I book the classical concert season but equally I'll book the small pop bands. It's a massive spectrum of product that we do. We have the Grand Slam of Darts and Dickinson's Real Deal. The huge variety keeps you very much on your toes."
It's also vital that everyone in the region is catered for. The Civic is owned by a council and has a duty to provide entertainment for the whole community, unlike the promoter-run venues which concentrate wholly on pop and rock. It's a duty Mark takes very seriously, probably harking back to his days in the bingo halls.
"It keeps you humble," he explains. "You do get to meet the rate-payers who own us. We're not a commercial venue, although we do work under commercial discipline.
"If I just did classical concerts and the posh stuff all the time, it would be boring, same if it was just pop or rock. We do the comedy club now, which has been a massive success. I can do anything, and that's what makes it interesting."
When Mark first arrived at the Civic, his post was extremely hands-on. The first gig he booked was local legend Steve Gibbons in the Wulfrun Hall. It was really a dry run for the new boy to see how the organisation worked, how the hall shaped up and how the staff carried out their duties.
"I fly-posted all round, God forbid," he confides. The next show was The Proclaimers, which sold out. The Civic was on its way.
"It's very rare that something's not happening here now," says Mark. "I can't say that everything is a huge success but we're not complaining."
Mark is very much a music fan and not a bean-counter.
Although he has a team helping him with the bookings, he still actively pursues acts he wants to see himself.
There is talk of getting Creedence Clearwater Revival legend John Fogerty to play and Willie Nelson confirmed a gig there this week.
Mark admits that he relies on his kids to keep him in touch with the latest buzzbands and he gets plenty of feedback through the Civic's superb website.
He has a strong heritage to maintain. "I think we're the oldest concert hall in England, if not Europe," he says.
"I know for a fact that we had acts on in 1951 and we have been constantly open since then.
"The people who came to see Hot Chip on Friday were all 20, 21. They're getting picked up by their dads and dad's got grandad with him. And grandad came here to see Bill Haley and dad came to see Slade, and that means stuff to people.
"Everybody's been here. The list is endless."
I've often wondered how the Civic can consistently trump Birmingham and get really big names to play. Actually, there's no voodoo involved, it's down to a few vital factors.
Firstly, the backstage facilities are superb, with great dressing rooms and a sauna. The venues themselves are all superb places to play, something that bands really value.
Despite having a capacity of 3,000, it's possible for performers to really connect with the audience due to its lay-out.
"The stage has had a lot of money spent on it. That was our priority when he had our last refurb, before we ran out of cash. It's designed like a huge TV. When an artist arrives, they feel looked after.
"Sometimes a stage can be an intimidating place for an act, but not here. The band can see the audience."
Finally, it's a cheaper place to play, due to it being a municipal venue.
"I don't have the figures, but I'm pretty sure that we're cheaper than anywhere in Birmingham," says Mark. "It must be working because we get tens of thousands of people coming through and we hardly have any complaints, which from my point of view is fantastic. It means we must be doing something right."
When asked what his favourite gig has been, Mark's quick to respond.
"The last one," he says. "I'm 48 but I stood there watching Hot Chip and thought 'this is chuffing brilliant'.
"The music was so challenging and it went through such a wide spectrum.
"There's not many people got a job like mine. I was offered a job in London last year but I turned it down. It wouldn't have given me that variety although the money was more than treble what I'm now on.
"You have to get a kick out of what you do."