He was a familiar face on the local amateur dramatics scene for many years, and is now a front of house volunteer at the Medina Theatre – but Ian Dockray has been a man of many roles in the Island’s business and entertainment arena too.

For someone who recalls being a shy schoolboy with no ambitions or big career ideas, it seems that Ian found his mojo pretty quickly once he was launched out into the working world.

Never particularly academic, he had left Priory Boys School at the age of 16 for a junior position in a local shoe shop – but that apparently ordinary job seemed to ignite a passion for being around people and running businesses.

Ian made an early impact with his employers, quickly rising up the retail ranks and progressing to manager level by the age of 18.  He worked for a number of shops on the Island before a promotion opportunity took him to the mainland, and enabled him to invest in his first home in Salisbury, with wife Shirley.  

The couple had married in 1968, when he was just 20 and she 18 – so the pair of them had to grow up pretty fast, especially after the arrival of their three daughters, Nicola, Claire and Helen.

While Shirley kept the home fires burning as a full-time mum, Ian continued to climb the career ladder, taking on the management of larger stores in Bristol, and then later, Croydon, in south London.

It was certainly a faster pace of life from the one the couple had known on their native Isle of Wight – and one that ended rather quickly after the infamous Brixton riots of 1981.

“It was a horrendous experience” recalls Ian, whose shop had its windows smashed during the uproar.

It was that violent jolt that prompted the Dockrays to move back to the Island that year – even though Ian didn’t have a job to go to.  However, it gave him the impetus to follow the dream that he had long been nurturing – of running his own business rather than somebody else’s.

Right on cue

His first foray into the life of an entrepreneur was in 1982, when, with a friend, he opened the Ambassador club in Gunville as a snooker venue. The sport was taking off at the time, thanks to TV coverage by the popular programme Pot Black and the rise of snooker celebrities such as Steve Davies and Alex “Hurricane” Higgins.

Not surprisingly the Island club caught the mood of the moment and rapidly flourished.  Ian’s business partner then decided to move on and do other things, at which point Ian bought him out and become sole owner.

“The club had a big social side as well as the snooker, so we went from strength to strength” he recalls.

By 1986 his entrepreneurial nose was twitching again when he was offered the chance to buy a piece of land in the centre of Newport.  He went ahead and used it to build the Central Park, a new club over two floors, housing snooker tables upstairs and on the ground floor a “fun pub” – very much the entertainment thing of the moment, incorporating a dance floor and performance stage. 

“It was a huge hit on the Island – everyone seemed to love it, and Friday and Saturday were mobbed!”  By that time, the three Dockray daughters were old enough to enjoy helping out at the club and enjoying the fun family atmosphere there.

They were also able to rub shoulders with the famous snooker players who visited for matches and exhibitions – including Hurricane Higgins, Steve Davies and John Virgo.

These snooker aces were occasionally dinner guests of the Dockrays.

And as if he didn’t have enough work running two thriving clubs, Ian went on to open a third one in Ryde. He jokes:  “I guess you could say I was a bit like the Island’s version of Peter Stringfellow at the time!”

Karaoke king

Ever on the lookout for the next big thing in the entertainment industry, Ian spotted the potential of the karaoke craze that was sweeping the UK in the late eighties – and bought the Island’s first karaoke machine, paying around £8,000 for it.

“I could see this trend was going to be massive, so considered it a good investment” he says. The machine was installed at Central Park, which thereafter became known locally as the ‘karaoke club’.

And to make sure he could spread the fun right across the Island, he bought a van and provided a dedicated mobile karaoke for pubs and other local venues.

It all made for a pretty manic working routine, which came crashing to a head one day when he was rushing about so much that he managed to knock over a whole shelf load of full liquor bottles, and then saw his precious karaoke machine fall out of the back of the van and smash to bits.

The story was picked up by the Daily Mail, who wrote about it in a tongue-in-cheek article that dubbed Ian the unluckiest man in Britain.

It wasn’t long, though, before he was back looking for the next business opportunity, which involved acquiring the cafe at Newport bus station, which he re-vamped and named Doc’s Diner – a meeting place that will be remembered fondly by many Islanders.  He enjoyed the buzz of the place, which he ran for a few years prior to the redevelopment of the bus station.

Frying tonight

Then came a fish and chip shop on Ryde seafront – named Ian’s Plaice in joint honour of Ian himself and the Eastenders character Ian Beale, who had a chippy of that name featured in the TV soap.

“It was damn long hours, and I did a lot of them myself” says Ian, “but I’ve always believed you have to be there and be visible in any business you run. People like to relate to the person behind things.

“It meant late nights of course – right up til 2am sometimes because we were serving people as they came out of the nightclubs”.

In tandem with that, Ian even acquired a fish wholesalers in Ventnor to source the fish for his own chippy as well as supplying other shops on the Island.

Shirley and the girls were also kept busy helping in the various family businesses, which were constantly changing and developing.

Central Park, for instance closed after running into some licensing issues but Ian promptly re-launched it as an indoor laser centre for kids, which was another big success, attracting business for birthday parties, junior discos and exchange student events.

The Central Park venue was a great place for making business connections – and it also led Ian into one of his favourite spare time activities, after local theatre man Ron Good invited him to take part in his latest panto production at Shorwell village hall.

The distinctly unglamorous first part he was offered was as the back end of a donkey – which he was happy to accept because he’d be hidden by the costume.

“There was nothing to blush about so I gave it a go” he laughs.

After that, though, there was no stopping him, and Ian went on to play a variety of panto roles, often the Dame and sometimes the villain.  He loved it and was known for getting plenty of laughs from the audience… mainly because he was notoriously bad at remembering his lines and would frequently fluff them and have to ad-lib, to good comic effect.

Ultimately he clocked up 15 years in panto before deciding it was time to hang up his wigs and retire a couple of years ago.  But not before receiving a theatre award for services to panto, and being interviewed on local radio by legendary author John Hannam.

With such a high profile in both the entertainment and business worlds, it wasn’t surprising when Ian was offered the chance to take on the running for one season of Cowes Marina – a big and complex organisational job that involved managing the busy bars, ordering marquees and running an entertainment programme.  

”It was a bit of a headache so one year was enough” he laughs, “but that was a massive and memorable event for me – probably the largest scale business venture of my life”.

Family support

Having led such a busy and involved life, it was hardly surprising that when Ian and his wife Shirley threw a party to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary at Ryde Castle in 2018, there were 230 people on the guest list, who travelled from far and wide to be there. 

Unlike her husband, Shirley, who hails from an Island farming family, is a more reserved character who shuns the limelight, but it’s clear that the solid, unfailing support from her and their three daughters has allowed him the stage for his bold enterprises.

He’s proud of his family, which now includes eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and he likes it when he sees other people meet “the one”.

In fact he even turned that instinct into a business, by launching the Island’s first speed-dating event to help other couples find love. These were held at The Countryman in Brighstone and the Riverside Centre in Newport – and led to a number of engagements and marriages. He and Shirley even got an invite to one of the weddings.

The final business Ian and Shirley ran together for over a decade before retiring in 2020 was rather less romantic – an ironing service.  But “ironically” Ian rates it as the most successful business they ever had.

They finally sold it on in order to free up time for a more relaxed retirement, including lots of cruises, which they both love. They have quite a few booked, with the next one being a Med cruise aboard the QE2 later this month.

However, even in retirement, it seems Ian can’t bear to sit still or be away from people and activity. Which is why he has now thrown himself into volunteer work, including signing up for front of house duties at Medina Theatre.

He does two or three weekends a month and says it means he still gets the chance to be around a theatre environment, enjoy the action on stage and utilise those  legendary Dockray people skills as a ‘meeter and greeter’.