joe robertson leisure dome
Joe Robertson Media Archive

It’s out with the brown ale and in with the cocktails as Geordie Joe Robertson of Newcastle and Monaco gives Newcastle’s good-time boys and girls what they want.

It’s Friday and Joe Robertson of City Leisure plc is standing in the disc jockey’s crow’s nest at Macey’s, the flagship of his rapidly expanding leisure empire. Macey’s was formerly an unremarkable public house called the Lord Chancellor in Newcastle City Centre.

But Joe Robertson can’t for the minute remember what it used to be called before he set to and, unburdened by either sentiment or nostalgia, ruthlessly gutted the place. That was barely three years ago. Out went local beers, meat pies and the old nicotine patina. In came disco lights, booming bass-bins, a happy hour (‘trebles for singles, half price cocktails’) and, on Friday and Saturday nights, a throughput of between 4,000 and 5,000 clients, almost all aged between 18 and 25.

“This place has got so much spunk it’s unbelievable”, Robertson says, as he stares down through the swimming-bath-sized hole bashed through the original ceiling. Above the hole, which is central to his redesign, is a back lit Tiffany style dome and, around it hang Tiffany-style lamps. Below in the main bar, hazy through the white mist belching out of a smoke machine, are the good-time boys and girls who have made Macey’s the second biggest outlet for vodka in this part of England. (The biggest, Robertson promises, is a supermarket).

A former pop group manager (Lindisfarne, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) and manufacturer of antiqued mirrors, Robertson’s first venture in leisure retailing in the Bigg Market was the 1978 purchase of Pumphrey’s, the century-old coffee house. A year later, rechristened Rick’s Bar, it was the only place in Newcastle to merit a listing in The Sex Maniac’s Diary under the heading ‘singles bars, discos and pick-up joints’.

Robertson built on the success of Rick’s bar by opening, in quick succession, Brahms and Liszt, Sloanes, City Vaults, Luckies and Legends, all of which he sold to Allied Breweries for £2.3 million in 1984. The following year, however, he was back in the Bigg Market, taking on all comers with Macey’s, Masters and a nearby yuppie satellite, Berlins.

This is remarkable enough in an area with long-term unemployment among young people still runs well into double figures. More remarkable still, however, is the fact that Macey’s is just one of more than a dozen ‘youthful drinking bars’ squeezed into the Bigg Market, one of the oldest and architecturally least altered parts of Newcastle.

Macey’s, Rick’s, Presidents, Brahms and Lizst, Sloanes and places like them have become part of a circuit that, to its supporters, makes Newcastle the most vital and style-conscious night-time city centre in Britain. Its critics argue that ‘circuit drinking’ has turned the Bigg Market int oa ‘youth ghetto’, with all the attendant problems that those two words imply.

On weekend nights queues, regulated by bouncers, start forming outside the pubs well before the end of happy hour and continue snaking backwards and forwards across the black cobbles of the Cloth and Goat markets until closing time, three hours later. What is most noticeable, however, is not ‘the wolf-pack mentality’ mentioned in Wednesday’s programme (the first in a series of Northern documentaries) but the clothes worn by the revellers.

Even on a Friday night at the end of January, with a cold wind whipping up the Bigg Market from the river, there isn’t a jacket, much less a balaclava or a pair of gloves, in evidence. Costa Brava-wear – T-shirts and bowling shirts, little strapless numbers, white stilettos – is the order of the day. Goose pimples are de rigeur.

They want it to be Benidorm all year round in the Bigg Market. And Joe Robertson, who prides himself on ‘profiling’ his places to meet the needs of his customers, has always been only too happy to oblige. ‘My barmen are under strict instructions to pour drinks at the bar in front of the client the way they do in Majorca. Make a show of it. Make them feel part of it,’ he says. ‘We started the thing with big chamber pots filled with ice. The people want the style’.

Having recently ‘Robertsoned’ two pubs in the West End of London, he is now looking to repeat his Newcastle success in the capital. ‘Some of these Southern places have forgotten how to trade,’ says Joe. ‘The Geordies will show Londoners how to fight properly for business. I’m gonna turn Soho into the Bigg Market. better believe it.’