GREG LAMBERT speaks to GRAEME BOND as he prepares to retire after almost 25 years as manager of Lancaster’s popular Gregson community centre.
Graeme Bond and Richard Dow were first brought together by a fruit machine.
While playing in the Gregson Centre bar they formed a friendship that would last more than 30 years.
Little did Graeme know that this chance meeting would eventually evolve into a successful business partnership.
Their double act would not only rescue the Gregson from closure but build it into an enduring hub of Lancaster’s community.
As Graeme prepares to retire as centre manager after almost 25 years, he reflected on the day he met Richard – the man who helped him save the Gregson.
“We had a drink, got chatting and fell in love with the place,” he said.
“Then later when it closed, we thought we just can’t do without ‘The Greggie’.”
In the early 1990s the Gregson was close to bankruptcy. Despite the efforts of volunteers and the founding committee from the Gregson Arts and Community Centre (GCA) charity, the building had lost its entertainment licence, couldn’t pay its debts and was shut.
Graeme and Richard held talks with the committee and it was decided the Gregson needed day-to-day professional management.
So Graeme became manager with Richard as financial and business manager.
They formed a limited company, got the licence back, reopened the centre and set about raising funds.
At the time Graeme was working for Britain and indeed the world’s longest-running radio drama The Archers, as the voice of popular character Kenton Archer.
“I was only working five times a month, we did six episodes in one day. I had a lot of time on my hands.
“At first it was very difficult. We tried for lottery money but never got it.
“But then we managed to acquire the off licence next door and the nearby fish and chip shop, so we could expand.
“We put in extra rooms upstairs and a 26-seat cinema.”
They also created a larger downstairs bar, an outside seating area, better toilets, baby changing and disabled facilities, a kitchen, staircase, windows and two new bars. They also presided over a fundraising drive for a new roof.
Sadly their partnership came to an end in 2015 when Richard passed away, aged 58.
Paying tribute to his friend, Graeme said: “He was a really good ideas man and most of them worked.
“The garden, the food, the cinema, they were all his ideas.
“I was a professional actor with a background in the arts, and he knew about property and business. We worked very well together. And we took risks that paid off.
“I can remember when Richard’s first son was born he came in to the Gregson to wet the baby’s head.
“Then I did the same when my son was born about a year later.
“Both of our sons later ended up working behind the bar at the Gregson for us!
“People from our groups and societies tell me today that they wouldn’t have been here for the past 30 years without myself and Richard.
“So we didn’t do too bad!”
These groups and societies are the lifeblood of the Gregson.
Over the years Graeme and Richard gave a home to bingo, folk dancing, the Jo Jingles baby and toddler group, the Real Music Disco, film societies, plays, ceilidh, Tai Chi, martial arts classes, zumba, pilates, world music acts from Madagascar and the Lancaster Jazz Festival, to name just a few.
One of Graeme’s favourite moments was the Gregson’s Y20 festival in 2003 which marked 20 years since the formation of the founding charity.
“We’ve had some famous visitors too,” he said.
“David Miliband came in when he was running for the Labour party leadership. Jeremy Corbyn has been in a couple of times. Geno Washington played here.”
Originally from Middlesex, Graeme has rubbed shoulders with a few famous faces himself during his acting career, performing under the stage name Graeme Kirk.
He has appeared in Coronation Street three times, playing three different ‘bit part’ characters.
“I shoved Curly Watts into some baked beans because I thought he was having an affair with my wife, I sold a car to Alan Bradley and Mike Baldwin did a fashion display to get me to buy (clothing),” he said.
He also worked in the theatre, including roles in Hamlet, The Threepenny Opera and Dario Fo’s satirical play Trumpets and Raspberries.
Graeme, 68, who is married to former Coronation Street actress Roberta Kerr, who played Wendy Crozier, will continue voiceover work now he is retiring from the Gregson.
He also aims to brush up on his golf, go travelling and even do a spot of fishing.
As a lifetime member of the Gregson, Graeme will always be part of its fabric.
He praised the team of staff he has worked with, saying “I have been very lucky”.
But he says that after he leaves in October, he won’t go back in for at least six months to be fair to the new management.
“If you’ve been involved with something for a very long time, the new people don’t need somebody standing there saying ‘I would have done it like that.’”
Overall, Graeme admits he is feeling strange about his decision to leave his beloved ‘Greggie’, which has been such a major part of his life.
But he said: “I’m looking forward to the future.
“I’ve done my bit and I leave it in a much better state than when I found it.
“As the Lancaster Guardian once wrote, it’s exactly what a community centre should be.”