In memory of Jackie Fielding

Posted on: June 2nd, 2015 by Trevor | No Comments

NORTH EAST theatre has suffered a terrible loss with the death of Jackie Fielding, aged only 47.

Jackie’s name won’t register with the vast majority of people reading this article but if you’ve been to a Durham Gala pantomime, attended a play at the Customs House in South Shields or at the Live Theatre in Newcastle in the past 20 years or watched TV programmes like Emmerdale or The Bill over the past decade the chances are you’ll have witnessed her work either as a theatre director or as a thespian. After studying drama at Manchester University and then training as an actress at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Barrow-born Jackie took occasional work on the boards or in the TV studio but her first love was as a theatre director.

Back in the day, people often spoke of “Jackie” and I first encountered this ubiquitous dynamo in around 2000, when I went to see the Boyle Ya Stotts troupe.

Three young lads – Wayne Miller, Iain Cunningham and Dale Meeks – wrote their own surreal comedy and, joined by Jackie (who also directed it) performed at the Customs House.

It was tremendous. Inspirational, in fact. It was exactly what I’d always wanted to do but, for me, until then, theatre was the preserve of the middle class; it said nothing to me about my life.

Trevor and I wrote our first play, Good to Firm, in 2002.  The first time we worked with Jackie was in 2005 when she directed Waiting For Gateaux. She was able to recruit a top-notch cast through her plethora of contacts. All 2,000 tickets were sold ten weeks before the first curtain up.  We were cockily riding high on the runaway success of Dirty Dusting. She allowed us into the read through – and then kicked us out of rehearsals! How could she do this to us!?

Of course she kept us informed about what was happening and proudly presented run- throughs and dress rehearsals where we discussed aspects of the show. It was a formula that was to work time and time again; we trusted her with our words.

Since then Waiting For Gateaux has toured the UK and New Zealand, has been used in school exams in the UK and Australia, and is a regular on the amateur and professional circuit today. Poignantly, a new production returns to Jackie’s beloved Customs House later this month.

She became our go-to director of choice and next directed The Revengers in 2005. That has subsequently had three productions, most recently in London four years ago. Then she took on our radio play Son of Samurai in 2008, which ran for a month at the Customs House and, in 2009, was the first North East play to be performed at the Latitude Festival.

Jackie was also an integral part of the production team involved with our trilogy of plays at the Customs House in 2010 (Good To Firm, Raising the Stakes and Photo Finish). Part of the marketing plan was to attend Newcastle Races where they promoted Good to Firm. Jackie had never been to the races. I’m not convinced she enjoyed the experience, she was happier conjuring up props and technical things from seemingly nowhere. Apparently her flat was an Aladdin’s cave.

A few years ago, we called on Mark Wingett to direct Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather to raise money for Darlington 1883 after the demise of Darlington Football Club. ”Alf Ramsey” is about the West Auckland miners who won the first world cup in 1909. Jackie, a staunch Manchester United fan, was Mark’s assistant director for the Darlington Civic Theatre run. The pair became instant firm friends and the production went like clockwork.

She loved the play and when we asked her to direct two scenes from the show for the Sir Bobby Robson 80th Birthday celebrations at The Sage, Gateshead, in 2013, her words were: “Yes! I’ve finally got my hands on Alf Ramsey.” If the show had been revived again she’d have undoubtedly have been at the front of the queue to lead the team.

In 2012, Trevor and I wrote a play called Amazing Grace, about Grace Darling, and toured it in the region. We had deliberately  chosen a young team to take the show on but, just to be on the safe side, brought in Jackie to give it that behind-the-scenes organisational support and experience they needed. She was fantastic. It was a huge success, playing to around 4,500 people. Typically, she refused to be paid the going rate for her role. It took a stand-up argument for her to take the cheque.

We had numerous heated discussions. Anyone in the arts who tells you they’ve never “had a cross word” won’t get far, simply because they haven’t got the courage to defend their ideas. She, like me, like all of us, could be a pain in the backside at times. Sometimes she was right, sometimes she was wrong, but the test of a person is how they respond afterwards. We didn’t always have time for a drink but there was always a hug.

Back in December 2013 I wrote a sketch show called The Laffalang that we performed at The Stand in Newcastle.  It was a charity event involving around 14 actors. We had 24 hours to rehearse it. I watched in amazement how experienced actors and performers responded enthusiastically to her direction. The Laffalang went great. Jackie, however, never saw it. She was up to her eyes directing another show – she’d helped us on her weekend off!

That reflected the type of altruistic person she was. Her work with Bold as Brass Young People’s Theatre Company and Ocean Arts, a voluntary organisation for adults with learning disabilities, meant a lot to her.  She asked me to write press releases and I wondered where she got the energy to give such commitment to so many groups.

It was at that first Laffalang that she met Ray Laidlaw who was performing in a sketch. Their paths crossed again at the Sir Bobby Robson event at The Sage and Ray invited her to get involved with Sunday For Sammy (SfS). Trevor and I write sketches for SfS and the last time we worked with Jackie was on the 2014 Sunday for Sammy at Newcastle City Hall. She was in the production team. It’s a tense, frenetic time with barely a day to get the show on. We hugged on stage. During the next 30 fraught hours we only had time to swap a few smiles.

Jackie attended subsequent Laffalang shows and Dracula: Die Laughing, a show I wrote for the 2014 Whitby Goth Festival. We performed “Dracula” at the Westovian Theatre in South Shields. Afterwards she approached me, giggling. I asked if she’d enjoyed the show. “Loved it!” she replied. That meant a lot.

Outside all the brilliant work she did with Trevor and me, I’d been hugely impressed when she performed in The Stars Look Down in 2004. She was outstanding. I once asked her why she never appeared in our plays. “I never get bloody asked!” she retorted. It was a professional and personal oversight, now a big regret. She left us aged only 47. I thought there’d be a lot more time.

We did recruit her to be in our BBC Roman-era radio sitcom set on Hadrian’s Wall, called It’s Grim Up North in 2011. She was superb.

It’s quite ironic that Jackie collapsed with a brain aneurysm during the re-run of The Man and the Donkey. It’s a cracking show and, I believe, the pinnacle of Jackie’s directorial prowess. I went to see it three times during its premiere run in 2011.

Sadly, her long-time partner Jeff Crowe passed away before he got the chance to see the show. But he, like many of us, knew Jackie to be the best theatre director in the region.

The tragedy is that she still had so much to offer.

Over the years, we’d been out for many beers and numerous curries, and vegetarian meals were prepared for her at our house. Jane and I would pick her up and drive her home to South Shields from far-flung shows and there was always good crack and banter, with a “thank you”, “take care” and a hug at the end.

I can’t say we were close friends but I know if I needed owt she’s be there, and vice versa. I’ll miss her personally and professionally. Many, many others will.

RIP Jackie Smith (stage name Fielding). And thanks.


A remembrance service in Jackie’s memory will take place at the Customs House, South Shields, on Sunday, September 13.