Lancashire folk group Houghton Weavers anniversary

Lancashire's favourite folk group is celebrating a remarkable 35 years on the road. Roger Borrell reports

Taken from their annual Christmas show at Preston's Guild Hall in 2008, The Houghton Weavers play perhaps their best known song "The Blackpool Belle" with The Wingates Band.

You could say it all kicked off when David Littler’s mum, Gladys, wrote to the BBC telling them her sons were far more talented than a lot of people she saw on the box.

Mums know best and so the folk group that was to become The Houghton Weavers began a journey which has last 35 years and shows no sign of ending.

They were invited onto a programme called We’ll Call You, they sang two songs and they’ve never paused for breath since.

Their exhilarating combination of Lancashire folk music interspersed with humorous anecdotes has created a huge following, not just in their home county but across the globe. They are particularly proud of the fact they have remained true to their original motto: Keep Folk Smiling.

While the personnel has changed a little over the years, this isn’t a tale riven with musical rivalries and creative jealousy. They really seem to enjoy each other’s company and love what they do - more now than ever before.

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But it has come at a price. Life on the road is rarely conducive to a happy, stable home life and a marriage or two has fallen by the wayside. However, you get the strong impression from talking to this garrulous trio there are few things they would change.

Like all good ideas, it started over a pint when a group of lads at their local, the Red Lion in Westhoughton, declared they fancied having a go at performing. Unfortunately, as lead singer Tony Berry admits, they were pretty clueless.

With lots of practice in someone’s kitchen, the Houghton Weaver built up a reasonably repertoire and sang publicly for the first time at the Riverside Club in Wigan. The bookings didn’t exactly flood in so they decided to start up their own folk clubs, first in Chorley and then in bigger venues such The Last Drop.

After the fateful intervention of David’s proud mum, they came to the attention of a television producer called Terry Wheeler who had an idea for a programme. He would watch them perform in Wigan before making a final decision.

Tony’s brow furrows as he recalls: ‘Come the night, we were truly awful, the sound system was grim and the audience was horrible. We thought our chance had gone. Then we got a call from Terry the next day apologising because he hadn’t turned up.’

Bacon saved, they eventually turned up at a BBC studio expecting to sing songs on someone else’s programme. ‘That’s how na�ve we were,’ laughs David. ‘We didn’t even realise we’d been given our own show.

‘Suddenly, we’d been catapulted from four lads with ordinary day jobs into becoming professional musicians.’

They became household names with a seven show series of Sit Thi Deawn on BBC1 every year from 1978 to 1985. With the then highbrow BBC2 and the occasionally strike-bound Granada as their only rivals, Sit Thi Deawn built up a big audience which will be well-remembered by many readers.

In those days, the band’s line-up was David and his brother Denis, Norman Prince and Tony. Norman and Denis eventually departed and a brilliant keyboard player called Steve Millington joined 14 years ago.

During those years they appeared on This is Your Life, Jim’ll Fix It and had their own six show series on BBC Radio 2 along with Lancashire singer and comedian Mike Harding.

Tony said: ‘People often ask us when we are on tour next. The reality is that we are always on tour - we are a working band and we go where the work is.’

They’re no strangers to the recording studio, clocking up an impressive 27 albums, including the recently released Ae Fond Kiss, named after the Robert Burns poem that was set to music.

There was a three record deal with EMI put together in the Abbey Road studios in London and there have been several singles. ‘One called The Martians have Landed in Wigan shot us to absolute obscurity,’ laughs Tony.

 People say we must have made millions and we probably have but when you divide it up between four people over 35 years you’ll realise we are certainly not rich, although we have made a living.’

Although the group have stopped many a fine Lancastrian songs fading into history, you get the impression some of the finger-in-the-ear folk purists look down their noses at The Houghton Weavers.

‘We’ve never done a folk festival and, to a certain extent, we’ve never really been accepted,’ says Tony. ‘People will say that they never thought we were a folk group but more of a show band because we have always used humour in our concerts. We make people laugh with the stories and cry with some of the folk songs. We make no apologies for that.’

David adds: ‘After all this time it’s still fun and that’s the essence of what we are all about.  People might say they don’t like our work, but they can never say it’s rubbish or we wouldn’t still be making a living after 35 years.’

The huge numbers who have turned up at some of the country’s top venues certainly don’t think they are rubbish -  they’ve appeared with or been watched by the likes of Rick Wakeman, Billy Connolly, Ken Dodd, Les Dawson and Norman Wisdom, who has been a great fan.

‘I genuinely still enjoy going to work after 35 years. In fact, I enjoy it more now than ever. We are more relaxed, more confident and, musically, we are better than ever - especially since I stopped smoking!’ says Tony.

David concludes: ‘People ask why we continue. An old man came up to us after a recent gig and he pushed some money into my hand and said “Buy the lads a drink - I’ve had the best night’s entrainment of my life.” That’s the reason why we go on.’

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