Gordon Sheppard's Big Lil Scrapbook
2 – Gordon recalls a near-disaster at the 1966 Big L bonfire party

I happened to see a few seconds of Paul Anka on one of the digital television programmes recently, and it reminded me of a very serious, but in a strange way, funny incident, from Big L days. I have been laughing all day remembering it.

In November 1966 I put on the Big L Fireworks Display at Wimbledon Stadium. We had various events scheduled throughout the evening topped off by a big firework finale. The display was to be set off by the teen idol Paul Anka. He was in the country at the time and I had managed to persuade him to make a personal appearance at the event and set off the fireworks. Paul was the big 'Star' of the event.

The evening went very well with a huge crowd in attendance. All the Big L jocks and other showbiz guests were presented to the crowd in turn, driving round the motorcycle-speedway track, sitting or standing in big American open-top cars. The cars would enter the stadium and drive one circuit of the track, stopping at the winning post for the celebrity to be introduced to the crowd.

(Click on the Big L bonfire party advert – from Brian Long's book The London Sound – to view a larger version)

I had arranged the procedure to be followed when Paul Anka made his appearance to set the fireworks off and had instructed Tony Windsor carefully. Tony was to accompany Paul in a car and drive round the stadium, in the same manner as the other jocks. They would then stop at the winning post and get out. TW was to introduce Paul Anka on the mike, Paul would say a few words to the crowd and then declare, "Let the Big L fireworks begin". This was the actual signal for the display team on the green in the centre of the track to set the fuses alight.

TW was then supposed to escort Paul Anka safely up to the VIP box to watch the display.

Very simple instructions and everything should have gone like clockwork, as the event had done all evening long. But TW had been at the sauce. Probably bored out of his skull for most of the evening he had imbibed more than enough. He was well and truly sloshed! So when he and Paul Anka got out of the car, he introduced Paul to the crowd all right, but then things went wrong. Paul said his piece, "Let the Big L firework begin!", and the fuses were lit as programmed. But then Paul asked TW, "What do we do now?"

Well Tony said (you will not believe this), "Perhaps we go over to the green and set them off". They walk slowly towards the centre of the track. The fuses by now have been burning merrily for about a minute. They stroll across the track to the centre green. I'm ****ing myself in the VIP box as I watch them go across. And just as they cross the dirt track reaching the green, the display explodes. WHOOSH! BANG! BANG! BANG! WHOOSH! The green completely vanishes under black smoke.

Marshall Mike Lennox who according to Tony Blackburn was going to spend the bonfire party"moseying round a roman candle." (Photo: Willy Walker)

Paul Anka ends up white-as-a-sheet, with both eyebrows burned. He is screaming and threatening to sue Big L for all we had.

It was a superb firework display and the crowd loved it. TW hadn't a clue what he had done. As the display finished to rapturous applause, he swayed over towards me and, with his usual great big daft smile he says, "Gordo that went very well, didn't it?"

Next morning I had to meet Paul Anka in his hotel room. I had to get a grip on myself not to burst out laughing as he entered the room. His face was quite red and he had tiny black spots all over it. His eyebrows were singed a sort or orangey-brown. Paul was livid, but he proved a really nice guy. Profuse apologies and much grovelling plus promises to play his records ensued. Then he held out his hand. He could have taken Radlon Services Ltd to the cleaners but, gent that he was, he let the incident go. As I left Paul's room I looked back at him, he was ruefully rubbing both eyebrows with his index fingers.

The company got out of that one by the skin of its teeth.

Text © Gordon Sheppard

Back to 'Lil's 60s Scrapbook'
Gordon Shepherd Page 1