Tuesday, 21 June 2011


john adams sennen 75
John, Sennen 1975.

John Adams was one of the original pioneers of the West Cornwall surf scene in the 60s. Along with co-founding the Sennen Surf Club and the BSA, he was a music promoter and film-maker producing and distributing action sports films from his base in Penzance. Here he shares a little bit of personal history from those days...

John, where are you from originally?
I grew up in Yorkshire and spent my teenage summer holidays working in my mothers snack bar in Whitby, where I was allowed to buy the weekly 78 records for the juke box. Guy Mitchell, Frankie Lane, David Whitfield ... THEN Bill Haley, Elvis Presley etc. circa 1957/58. In September ’58 I went for three years to Courtfield Catering College in Blackpool where I studied Hotel and Catering Management. Whilst there I used to organise our socials and dances.

What turned you onto surfing?
We would get jobs in the summer holidays in kitchens and restaurants. My close friend Bruce from St. Annes had a friend who had come to St.Ives to paint so we decided to try and get a summer job at the Tregenna Castle. They wouldn’t take us but we found work as joint second chefs at the Grenville Hotel Bude where there existed a surf club and the lifeguard was an icon called Peter Cokes, eventually head of the Cornwall Surf Rescue organisation. A couple of Aussies worked there as well and they introduced me to body surfing and surfing with a belly board and fins. I was hooked from the start.

You had a music venue in Penzance called the Winter Garden and put on loads of big name bands didn’t you? Can you tell us how that came about?

After working in Bude, Bruce and I went to Germany where we worked for eighteen months at two top class hotels in Cologne and we learnt to speak German and later French. When I returned my family were offered the Winter Garden Dance Hall in Penzance from someone in Scarborough who had bought it as an investment in case he lost his licence for his other business. I took it on with the idea of developing the catering expertise that I had acquired and did banquets, buffets, club socials, wedding receptions as well as running the weekly dances. I started Beat nights on Fridays and booked bands such as Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, The Fortunes and many other local and national acts.

Can you remember your first green wave?

I had my first green wave at Sennen.

You were also involved in creating the BSA (British Surfing Association) weren’t you?
I met a couple of brothers, Mike and Tony Hole, who I had been at school with. They knew I was interested in surfing and we agreed to buy Malibu boards. At the time Bilbo had a three month waiting period so we got our boards from Fred Bickers in Newquay and paid £30.00 each for them (a lot of money in those days). We were the first surfers at Sennen and formed the Sennen Surf Club. We met other surfers from Porthmeor (who nicknamed us ‘the Sennen Spastics’!), Porthtowan and Newquay.
Mike ran a clothes boutique in Penzance called Modern Man and with Tony this became the office for the British Surfing Association of which we were founder members and Mike became Secretary.

John Adams (left), pictured with Dave Swift who wrote the renowned ‘Talking Surfers Blues’ original song featured in the 1976 epic ‘Getting Wet’.

Where did you surf at the time?
We had a diver friend who made wetsuits, called Olly Crocker, he made us winter surfing wetsuits – at the time no one surfed after November and never on the south coast. As Mike and I both had vehicles we used to cruise around looking for unsurfed spots and this way opened up locations such as Porthleven, Praa Sands, Perranuthnoe, Nanjizal and even Gwenver – pioneering times!

Have you always been a bit of a pioneer?
We were also interested in rock and got into the Doors. We went to the Roundhouse in ’68 and saw the Doors with Jefferson Airplane. I could see that concerts with audiences seated on the floor were the way forward and booked Jethro Tull and Ten Years After for concerts at the Wints that Christmas and continued with all the up and coming bands such as Status Quo, Genesis, Yes, Fairport Convention, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Elvis Costello and many more. With my brother in 1969 I helped him open another venue in Scarborough which we called The Penthouse. The Wints and the Penthouse became a ‘must’ on any tour that bands were making. In 1973 with Tony Hole and another surfing buddy I opened a hamburger joint in St.Ives which we called Space – Great American Disaster and the Hard Rock Café had just began in London and for me the relaxed atmosphere with great food really appealed (unfortunately we were a little ahead of our time as people still preferred the tiny 'Wimpeys').

Hanging out at the 'Wints'.

I had always loved making home movies and when asked put on surf films at the Wints such as MacGillivray Freeman’s Free and Easy, Five Summer Stories, A Sea for Yourself, Salt Water Wine and others. As a surfer and presenter I worked hard to get a good atmosphere for the screenings and the Wints became known as the Santa Monica of Britain when you could expect up to 300 people for a screening of a new surf film. As chairman of Sennen Surfing Club I helped organise our annual Surf Dance, where we would have a theme, promote it with parades through Penzance, wear outfits in keeping with the theme (Hawaii, The Jungle or something) put on a name band and project surf films during the dance. As a result Sennen Surf Club became the most prosperous club in the country and members were given a free Christmas party surf dance where everything was thrown in.

Do you have a favourite gig from those days?
It isn’t easy to identify a favourite gig, you are too busy smoothing things over and keeping things to time (live music had to finish by 11.30pm). I do remember the Sonny Terry/Brownie McGee concert as very special. Also the first visit by Fleetwood Mac and I loved the concerts given by Caravan. Incidentally the foam cushions we would throw out for people to sit on proved very popular in those ‘progressive rock’ years!

When did you start making your own films?
Around 1975 I began making super 8 surf films featuring local surfers like Harvey Hoare, Colin Wilson, Mike Cattran, the Cattran twins etc. My first film I called Tubular Swells which came out in 1975 (a year before Dick Hoole and Jack McCoy nicked my title!). Each September with my wife Sally I went to Biarritz in my camper van and whilst there I met Greg Haythorpe an Australian kneeboarder who was a keen stills photographer and who liked fishing like me. He worked as a diver on North Sea Oil rigs but gave up in 1978 to work on a skateboarding magazine followed by becoming editor of Atlantic Surfer, the first British all colour surfing magazine. With Paul Neilson, Rabbit Bartholomew, Bruce Raymond and Brian Creegan, Harry Hodge was making 'Band on the Run' the first sponsored surf film. Greg and I helped them and showed them the breaks including Mundaka. I was getting more into films and film making and punk rock had arrived in the music world. So many of the bands that I had regularly booked were packing up as they could not compete with punk and even though I booked the Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Ramones and Talking Heads, I did not connect with the music and so decided to lease the dance hall and start a film company.

I remember watching one of your surf film nights in Porthtowan village hall - did you go further afield showing films?
The first summer I worked with Australian Dave O’Donnell who toured with surf films in Australia and worked as a lifeguard here in the summer. I toured in my camper van screening films like Playgrounds in Paradise, Free Ride, Going Surfin’, A Matter of Style and others. Video had just been introduced and although initially it was just associated with porn it was easy to see what a great innovation it was, and so I put the films I had been screening on video and started a mail order distribution via the surf mags. I obtained films on skiing, shot in Colorado mainly and in winter I would take the whole operation to ski areas and spend the ski season going to hotels and halls screening ski films. In 1981 I released my first 16mm surf film which I called Taking Off which featured Nigel Semmens and Steve Daniels, the first ‘professional’ British surfers. Narration was by Ted Deerhurst and it included the first Fosters event and the European championships in Thurso. I then teamed up with a guy called Tony Mangion and we made I’d Rather Be Surfing which at the time was the first ever film to be made on learning to surf and was fronted by the Bryant twins, John and Nick who started the first-ever surf school at Sennen. We followed that with a film on the fast-developing new sport of windsurfing in waves (originally windsurfing was just on still water) called Funboard Connections. We were screening surf films like Ocean Fever, Ticket To Ride, Many Classic Moments, Storm Riders and even Big Wednesday (in cinemascope!) at venues like the Marcus Hill Newquay, Perranporth Memorial Hall, Braunton Town Hall, Croyde Bay, Driftwood Spars St.Agnes, Polzeath and other surf venues around Devon and Cornwall and at the end of the summer with a succession of buddies I toured the country showing at a different venue each night – Exeter, Bournemouth, Isle of Wight, London (Fulham Town Hall), Lowestoft, Withernsea, Scarborough, Saltburn, Tynemouth, Cardiff, Swansea (Patti Pavilion!), Porthcawl and numerous universities.

Taking Off 1981.

Can you tell us about the origins of Three S Films?
The name Three S Films was originally taken as I was specialising in surf, ski and skateboard but as I told people it is surprising how many pleasurable subjects other than sports began with an ’s’ so we would be happy to oblige! Robin Kewell, a jeweller friend, who ran the local film society teamed up with me in 1984 and together we made Treble Chance which comprised three sports films, Snow Business – skiing in Austria, Winds of La Torche – Britanny windsurf event and The Fosters surf contest which we covered for the BBC as well. When we were working for the BBC at the Fosters, Robin and I attempted to put on a ‘drive-in’ surf movie in the car park at Fistral. We screened Ocean Fever with a big screen on the café wall. Unfortunately the space demanded by the council around each car resulted in us only being allowed 150 cars but it was a balmy evening, the surf during the event was pretty small so seeing the top internationals who were in the contest firing in Hawaii and enjoying the film made it a big hit. We were recognised as the ’break your leg’ merchants and did quite a bit of stuff for the BBC in series such as Duncan Dares and In at the Deep End doing water and aerial camera work in helicopters, micro-lights etc. Robin is an incredibly creative camera-man and with his help Three S won various awards at Celtic Film Festivals. In 1988 we were hired by O’Neill to film the first World Snowboard Championships at Lech/Zurs in Austria. As surfer/skiers we could see that snowboarding was going to be mega so we made a film called Mountain Surfers in which we ‘exploded’ English surfing Champion Steve McNichol into The Alps where he met Austrian snowboarders and learnt how it was done. The film ends with a montage against original music of stunning snowboarding in Austria and surfing in Cornwall. Sadly the film was ahead of its time and it was another 5 years before the sport really took hold.

Mountain Surfers.

Video killed the Surf Film Show as well as Radio, but in 1992 it was revived with Bill Delaneys film Surfers The Movie, the idea being that surfers were nostalgic for the ambience and atmosphere generated by watching a well produced film on the big screen. It had always been my ambition to present a surf film in a way similar to how bands are presented so I made the UK premier of Surfers the Movie at Cornwall Coliseum with live band Wamma Jamma, and merchandising with T shirts, posters etc and guest appearances. We got an audience of just over a thousand but could have done with another one or two! The last film that we screened and toured with was Rolling Thunder with its environmental theme and naff acting but like all of the best surf films it had a great soundtrack – essential and inseperable from classics such as Free Ride, Morning of the Earth and Salt Water Wine - my three favourite films.

Surfers The Movie.

Where can people buy your films?
We still distribute surf films on DVD through the web-site www.surfingdvd.co.uk but as my son Mitch, who now runs the business, is not a surfer we tend to be specialising in the older classics rather than trying to keep up to speed with the latest releases.

Getting Wet 1976.

Are you still getting in the water?
I still surf but not as much as I used to - gone are the days when you knew every surfer in the country.

Finally - what’s next for John Adams?
I regularly play tennis and have taken up golf as well and still go skiing each winter – couldn’t get to grips with snowboards! AND I have three very nice grandchildren!

Thanks John.

Pictures from various sources.


  1. Love it! We had the best childhood in the world, getting picked up from school on friday in the combie then spending all day on the beach then showing surf movies in village halls in the evenings...

  2. Tip top interview, really enjoyed it.

  3. Been reading the blog following a link from Alasdair's excellent Vintage Surfboard Collector's site. Lots of interesting posts here - I particularly enjoyed this John Adams interview.
    I think I can claim the first profile of John, which I wrote back in 1981 for Surf Scene magazine. Great to see the old pirate getting credit for his long involvement in music, surf and film.
    Hope you feature more in-depth interviews like this.
    Neil Watson.

  4. Thanks for the comments - I love doing the interviews and will hopefully be doing some more soon...