Jim White on Friday: Mr Boiled Sweet, the Fizz Bomb buccaneer: Back in 1974 Fred Dobson had his best hunch ever. Now, from his hi-tech factory, he turns out over 90 varieties of sweets like your granny used to make. Well, not quite

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THERE is nothing shy about Fred Dobson. The man who invented the Fizz Bomb, a fiercesomely acidic sweet that has been skinning the roofs of school-boy mouths for several generations, cheerfully calls himself 'Mr Boiled Sweet'.

'I'll have you picked up at Newcastle station,' Mr Boiled Sweet said, making the arrangements for this interview. 'You won't miss the car. It's a royal blue Rolls-Royce, registration number FD 2000.'

And, sure enough, there at the station, bang on time, was the royal blue Roller with its personalised number plate. It was driven by Fred's son-in-law, Michael. He doesn't call his father-in-law 'Mr Boiled Sweet'. Like everyone else in the family firm, he refers to him as 'Mr Dobson'.

Michael whipped the Roller through the outskirts of Newcastle to an industrial estate in Ponteland. As he swung into the forecourt of F & M Dobson's factory, there was an overwhelmingly pungent odour in the air.

'Aye, they're making Winter Warmers today,' explained Fred a few moments later. 'That smell's sarsaparilla. You don't know that down south. But I tell you what, you soon will.'

Last Christmas, by all normal standards, Fred Dobson should have become another victim of the recession. He was supplying pounds 2m worth of sweets a year to a firm that went belly-up after expanding too fast in the Eighties. It was by far his biggest contract and its loss might well have finished him. Instead Fred returned to basics, cut out middlemen and concentrated on selling old-fashioned sweets in jars direct to small shopkeepers. Within six months his turnover had gone up by 64 per cent. This autumn he is expanding down to London.

'It's the northern invasion,' he said, offering a jar of virulently coloured sweets called 'Soor Plums'; items that sell by the van-load in Scotland. 'We're the only people who make them. Well, us and a firm up in Scotland, which I'm not going to name. Not going to make them famous, am I?'

Fred started making sweets in the mid-Fifties. Before that, after leaving school at 14, he had spent 10 years wheeling and dealing, selling everything from plastic ties to sanitary towels. After national service and the war he happened upon a firm making lollipops. He took it over, and once he had dipped his hands in sugar and glucose he only had eyes for the sweet things in life.

'Back when I started we had firms in this area doing 300 tons of sweeties a year,' he recalled. 'Famous names: Vanity Fair, Boy Blue Assortments, Williams' Chocolate Chewing Drops. But they died because everyone did the same. Everyone did a chocolate caramel, everyone did a spearmint chew. You've got to be different to survive in this game.

'There's only so many ways you can mix sugar and glucose, but it's what you do with it afterwards that counts,' he said. 'It's old wine in new bottles if you like.'

Now, from his hi-tech, computerised factory, Fred turns out over 90 varieties of old- fashioned sweets, from Rhubarb and Custards to Northumberland Saucer Toffee, just like your granny used to make. Well, not quite.

'I invented every single one of them,' said Fred as he conducted a guided tour through his factory. Everywhere there were sausages of brightly coloured candy speeding down conveyor belts. Men in overalls trundled huge vats of goo between robot machines, which stamped and pulled and pressed incessantly. Women packed jars of Northumberland Macaroons into boxes. The labels had a drawing

of a wizened old dear in a bonnet attending to a bowl of mixture, across which was flashed the words: 'Contains flavours and colourings'.

Everywhere he went in the factory, Fred stopped and sampled. 'Mmmmm, that's a goodie,' he said, picking a little yellow sweet from a plastic skip brim full of lemon drops. Given his predilection for his products, Fred seemed remarkably trim for 64.

'I live, sleep, eat, drink, think sweets. I love them,' he said. 'I don't have any other interests. Well, my wife, Mary, and I like going out for meals and that, but when we do all I talk about is sweets. It drives Mary mad. I can't sit down without thinking of a new line. Some people might think it's a curse. I think it's a blessing.'

Fred has the capability of turning one of his ideas into a sweet very quickly. While other companies create brands by committee and market research, Fred goes on a hunch. 'It really is suck it and see,' he said. 'Say I get an idea at the weekend, I can ring me printer and get the labels ready for Tuesday. Then we make the sweeties and can have them on the road by Wednesday. If they don't work, well, you find out within a week.'

During the Gulf war he marketed, with his usual dispatch, a small cigar-shaped boiled sweet called a 'Patriot Missile' and quickly renamed his aniseed balls 'Saddam's Balls': 'Our boys munch Saddam's Balls' read the headline in the Sun when Fred arranged for a consignment to be shipped out to the front line. Other parties were less amused by this enterprise.

'That big-mouth MP, what's his name? Tim, Tom something,' Fred tried to remember. 'Tam, that's it, Tam Dalyell. Well he wrote to me saying it was a disgrace that I was exploiting the war for commercial gain. I wrote back and said, 'Why-eye, Tam, I only made pounds 1,050, and I sent two grand's worth to the Gulf for nowt, so I was just doing me bit.' Actually I made a lot more than that, but he wasn't to know, was he?'

Fred's best hunch was the Fizz Bomb, a vivid little ball of artificial flavours and colours that has been creating cavities across the country for years.

'In 1974 I was sitting by the pool in Majorca and thought wouldn't it be great to have a product that sold year-round. I woke up at about three that night and said to Mary: 'What do you think of the name Fizz Bomb?' 'Not much,' she said. 'Go back to sleep.' '

Fred didn't. He immediately dreamt up the label ('corny as hell, but we'll never change it'), which features a comic-strip pilot dropping sweets from his plane's bomb bay. The pilot is called Fizzy Fred: named after the sweet's inventor. 'Who else?' smiled Fred. 'Very autocratic business, this.'

Fizz Bombs took off, went into orbit. Fred devoted everything to them. He made virtually nothing else for six years. 'I don't know what it was, but there's a viciousness in modern kids, they watch telly and all they see is guns and mayhem. A sweet which was a bomb as well, well it appealed to that viciousness,' he said, adding with a grin: 'And hey, we're happy to exploit that.'

Fizz Bombs occupy an extraordinary place in the memories of whole generations. At the offices of Viz comic, the other Geordie institution that has made a fortune out of repackaging nostalgia, the editorial team remembered them well.

'Fizz Bombs used to be bigger than that, didn't they?' said Simon Thorp, one of the cartoonists, confronted by a jar of Mr Dobson's wares.

'No, no,' said Chris Donald, the editor, lifting up a jar. 'It's just yer mouth used to be smaller. But they did used to be much heavier than that. I mean you could never lift a jar of Fizz Bombs as easily as this.'

'That's because they used to be made of glass, the jars, you daft get,' said Graham Drury, another cartoonist. 'And these are made of plastic.'

It is Fred Dobson's greatest ambition that before he finishes with sweets he invents another brand to match his finest hour. His latest stab is called Old Pals, an aniseed 'cough treat'. 'Lovely taste, they'll sell at 20p, a price people can afford,' he said, handing over a small packet with a nostalgic picture of a weather-beaten shepherd and his dog on the front. 'Not at 35p like others I could name but won't. All right, Fisherman's Friend.'

To Fred, Fisherman's Friend is the ultimate triumph of marketing over content. How he would like a slice of its success. 'It's just a bloody fairy story that,' he sighed. 'What a phenomenon. They're making something like pounds 7m profit on pounds 12m turnover. Eh, man, but they taste horrible. It's a rotten bloody sweet, and people buy it by the ton.'

Whatever the success of Old Pals, Fred feels he has achieved something in his life. 'I've turned sugar into bricks and mortar,' he said. He and his wife - he calls her 'Pet' - live in Darras Hall. This is the suburb of Newcastle where, according to Chris Donald, 'you go when you've made a bob or two'. The Dobsons have a large, neat Edwardian house, extended with a variety of sun lounges and outhouses. To the right there is a tennis court, in front and to the left a formal, walled rose garden.

Fred's pride and joy, however, is round the back: his own private park. It is huge, acres of undulating lawns. He is converting part of it into a nine-hole golf course.

'It's nice,' he said, 'when you've got friends round for a drink on a Sunday and you can invite them out here for a knockaround.'

The river Pont runs through the middle of Fred's park, which he has dammed and weired and stocked with trout. Gardening on a grand scale has been in the tradition of Tyneside entrepreneurs since Lord Armstrong, of Vickers-Armstrong, turned several thousand acres of Northumberland into the Cragside estate in the last century.

Standing by his weir, Fred looked back over his grounds. 'I'm surrounded by my family, literally,' he said, pointing at two other houses that back on to the park, neighbouring properties he has bought up over the years. 'That's me daughter's house, that's me son's house.'

His son, Geoffrey, is the company's finance director and will, you would have thought, take over if Fred ever retires. 'I can't retire, I've got so much to do,' said Fred. 'There's 300 ton of boiled sweets eaten every week in Britain and, funnily enough, that's the capacity of our factory. But when I do go, I don't think Geoffrey will take over. Don't get me wrong, he loves the business. But I mean, Paul McCartney's son, you can't expect him to write pop songs like his dad, can you? And Geoffrey, he just hasn't got his dad's flair for sweets.'

(Photographs omitted)

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