In the late 1960s my family started holidaying in Great Yarmouth and so my experience of seaside summer shows starts there. Great Yarmouth was the major holiday hub on the Anglian coast, where the main summer show venues were the 1200-seat Britannia Pier Theatre, The Wellington Pier Theatre (seating 1200) and the 1600-seat Regal (built as a cinema but with full stage facilities), as well as the 700-seat Windmill Theatre. As befits a performance-minded youngster, I successfully badgered my parents into visiting them all.
I remember well visiting the Windmill (run by Jack and Peter Jay) , in possibly 1972, seeing Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel “with full TV cast” in NEAREST AND DEAREST (the stage version of their hugely popular TV show which ran for seven series from 1968-73). As I remember, the stage adaptation consisted of a pretty basic plot with nothing very challenging for holidaymaking audiences. The big draw was to see the stars “in person”.
One of the big pluses with all of these types of shows is that to pad out the running time (always under two hours to comfortably get another house in), the shows would insert into the script several specific comedy routines that the stars had been doing for years in their solo acts around the country- these scenes, polished and practised across decades, were things that the stars could drop into a script without needing to learn and rehearse them, which therefore saved a lot of time in pulling these shows together. They not only helped to pad out the running time, but what was a treat for me was to see live the practised interplay between Hylda Baker and her “friend” Cynthia, always played by a very tall male stooge (at least 6’6” to play off of 5’1” Hylda) in terrible drag. Cynthia never spoke, which somehow accentuated the impression of her given by the very audience-acute Baker. I still recall, almost 50 years later, the gales of laughter from the audience this routine induced – far more than any prompted by the flaccid plot. These moments were a true throwback to variety’s heyday and I felt fortunate to experience them.
I also recall seeing at the same theatre Sid James in a comedy play he played for several seasons around the coasts, WEDDING FEVER. I shall never forget walking past the facade of the theatre plastered with a 20ft photo of that famous crumpled face smiling down at passersby. The Windmill, with its huge windmill sails rotating across the theatre’s facade, all lit up with hundreds of individual bulbs, was a real eye-catcher along the promenade.
At the ABC (Regal) I can recall seeing Dick Emery and in other years Freddie Starr and The Bachelors. On the Britannia Pier in 1970 there was lovely comedian Harry Worth, who we met on the pier going in for the first house. He took a good few minutes to stop and talk to me and my family, and could not have been more charming or “ordinary”. He appeared so very relaxed, kind and avuncular, it was a pleasant shock to me – the first time I had seen a “star” up close. I shall always remember that afternoon.
Down at the Wellington Pier Pavilion, the 1970 headliner was Leslie Crowther , supported by the wonderfully deadpan ventriloquist Arthur Worsley (sadly now forgotten but a master “vent”; so very skilful – see here for a YouTube clip of him at work) with “full supporting company”.
Watch a 16-minute film about preparations for 1964’s summer season at Great Yamouth, featuring the Windmill Theatre and glimpsing the Britannia Pier and Wellington Pier Pavilion. If you want to get past the gratuitous chorus girl legs shots skip to about 6 minutes in. Watch the film here
Here’s another 1963 travelogue for Great Yarmouth and neighbouring Gorleston-on-sea, with the shows briefly featured at around 11’30” in. Watch the film here
If you have any memories of seaside UK holiday shows then I’d love to hear about them. Leave your thoughts in the comments box below. Thank You!
Holidays are something which we take for granted as a right in the 21st century. But you may be shocked to know that until 1938 holidays were not available to the UK’s working classes.
The Holidays with Pay Act of 1938 was the culmination of 25 years of hard lobbying by trades unions and other workers rights organisations. For working-class people in Britain, the advent of holidays with pay was a significant step forward in changing the balance between their work and leisure time.
When the Act was passed, entitling all workers to one week’s paid holiday per year, it caused an explosion in tourism. Workers flocked to the UK’s seaside resorts by train, often on special trains chartered by their employers. Boarding houses were run by the often notorious landladies, and everyone crowded into amusement arcades, pubs, cafes and onto the beaches, often in their “Sunday best” clothes. Strange as it may seem to us now, it was quite common for men to wear suits to the beach.
Not all the swarms of holidaymakers could be accommodated in boarding houses, and so new forms of mass accommodation also began to spring up. This was the time of the birth of the Holiday Camps – Butlin’s was the pioneer in 1936 , offering fairly basic accommodation and catering for one fixed price which many families found they could now afford. Customers had their own chalets to stay in, and meals were provided as well as recreational activities and amusements. In its day, it was revolutionary.
Billy Butlin, the founder of Butlin’s had started as a fairground stall operator who quickly rose to running fairgrounds, helped enormously by gaining the exclusive license to operate Dodgem cars in the UK, which allowed him to upscale his business to running entire fairgrounds. He later took the opportunity to work at the UK’s first holiday camp established by Warners in 1932, which gave him the perfect opportunity to observe and research his own offering sometime later.
In his many years observing seaside holidaymakers, he particularly noted their inconveniences, the main one of which was being turfed out of their accommodation during the day (often in the pouring rain!) by the (often formidable) seaside landladies who ruled the boarding houses with a rod of iron. Butlin realised that if people were treated a little better, and given good service in spacious surroundings for an affordable price, then UK holidaymakers would jump at it. He was right – in 1936, the year the first camp-at Skegness- opened, saw the camp hugely over-subscribed, and the size of the camp grew exponentially year on year, as well as encouraging the establishment of many other Butlin’s camps up and down the UK, starting with Clacton which opened in 1938.
Families could get a week’s full board holiday with three meals a day and free entertainment included – all from as little as 35 shillings a week ( approximately equivalent to £99 today).
A massive 10,000 bookings immediately flooded in from eager holidaymakers.
The Skegness resort, mostly built on land which had previously been turnip fields, cost £100,000 to build (around £5million at today’s prices). The camp sported the slogan: “Our true intent is all for your delight”, a Shakespeare quote from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Billy had first seen the phrase painted on the side of a fairground organ and decided to adopt it for his camps, painting it across the front of one of the main buildings facing the pool and lake. He also pulled off a coup by getting the renowned aviatrix Amy Johnson (the first woman to fly solo from the UK to Australia) to perform the opening ceremony in 1936.
During the first season, the camp was a huge success, and within the first year the capacity of the accommodations expanded from 500 to 2000. Every yard of the massive 200-acre site was working hard.
The first Butlin’s camp had dining halls, bars, a swimming pool, a boating lake, gymansium, theatre, funfairs and special events for the children, gardens – and, of course, that bracing Skegness sea air, as well as scheduled activities, entertainments, talent shows and competitions – all designed to satisfy the needs of a very diverse audience who wanted things to do, and pleasant surroundings to do them in. Anything and everything was brought into service as a diversion – from beauty contests to Glamorous Grandmother competitions to Knobbly Knees competitions for the men.
The staff at Butlin’s needed an identity, and so Butlin came upon the idea of dressing them in red blazers, so that they would be easily, instantly identifiable to guests- and so the name “Redcoats” was coined. These folk were everything the customers wanted them to be- minders for the kids, organisers and leaders for events, entertainers for the shows and bars, information finders as well as helping to maintain the general happy atmosphere of the camp and the guests. Over the years, many famous entertainers have talked about starting their careers as Redcoats at Butlin’s.
It wasn’t long before rivals copied Butlin’s idea, including Pontins and several other independents, all with their own take on the successful formula. In their first few years after the advent of paid holidays, holiday camps were massively oversubscribed – at one point, it is reported that Butlin’s itself had to turn away 3 out of 4 applicants! With three meals a day included as well activities and events laid on, it was an inexpensive way for hard-working families to get away for a few precious days.
Of course, the outbreak of World War Two scuppered the camps for the conflict’s duration, but post-war was the heyday of the holiday camps – which then lasted well over 20 years, until a new sort of package holiday began to become available -and affordable- to working-class families. This was the foreign package holiday, where the weather was usually guaranteed and exciting and exotic destinations beckoned Brits to expand their horizons.
The holiday camps could not compete on weather, and began a slow decline in popularity. A few holiday camps still exist today, redesigned and repackaged as resorts (some of the original chalets at Butlin’s Skegness were even Grade II listed), but the age of the holiday camps as a mass attraction had had their day. But whatever age you were when you went there, few will forget their experiences when you could get such value for your family.
Please note that you will need to book for access to each of these fascinating talks which I believe should last around an hour each. The subjects are:
Come round any old time – Brixton’s music hall community Wed 2nd Sept at 19:00BST. At this, the first of the Music Hall Wednesdays talks, Sue Mckenzie looks at how and why Brixton was home to so many people from music hall, early cinema and variety in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She will also tell the stories of some of the performers, their careers and their fortunes in what was a precarious and unpredictable world.
The Empress, Theatre of Varieties:Wed 9th Sept at 19:00BST. Bill Linskey will talk about the history of The Empress Theatre of Varieties. The building on the corner of Bernays Grove opened in 1898 and quickly became one of Brixton’s best-known venues; it was described as ‘one of the finest of London’s suburban music halls’. Bill’s talk draws on a variety of sources including contemporary newspaper reports.
Researching Brixton’s Music Hall connections Wed 16th Sept at 19:00BST. Christine Beddoe and Tracey Gregory share some of the sources they have used to uncover the stories of Glenshaw Mansions, Brixton Road, the one time home of Charlie Chaplin, at the time when the area was a thriving hub for music hall people and when so many fascinating music hall people lived and passed through these buildings.
Music Hall Jugglers of Lambeth Wed 23rd Sept at 19:00 BST. Charlie Holland’s talk on music hall jugglers, featuring original props, posters, programmes and photographs, will draw you into the globe-trotting lives of Paul Cinquevalli, the Mongadors, and Hanvarr & Lee, all of whom were Lambeth residents for several years.
International Music Hall Wed 30th Sept at 19:00BST. A panel discussion on how music hall linked Brixton to the world and how performance names and personas disguised true identity. Featuring Alison Young (British Music Hall Society); Steve Martin, (Brixton based historian and author, specialising in Black British history); Amy Matthewson, (Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London).
If you enjoy Music Hall, you can find other related articles on this blog here, here and here, and by searching this blog on the words “music hall” . Enjoy!
The culmination of a twenty-five year campaign, the passing of the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938 meant that millions of UK workers now had a little time on their hands and a little money to spend as well. Coastal holiday destinations, previously mostly the reserve of the well-to-do, now became more achievable for ordinary working class families.
Your choice of seaside town was usually the one nearest to your home location (saving precious time in travelling) , so that workers of Manchester or Liverpool went to either Blackpool or Morecambe; Leeds workers most often headed to Skegness, Filey or Scarborough; while London workers would head east to Southend, Clacton, Margate, or perhaps south to Brighton, Hastings, Bournemouth or Torquay.
Many Northern industrial towns had local holiday weeks (called wakes weeks or trades weeks) when all factories or mills in one area would shut down for maintenance and all the workers would take their annual leave at the same time.
Transport was by coach or train – often specially laid on by the employers – to move the vast numbers of workers quickly and efficiently to and from their holiday destinations.
Blackpool, already popular with holidaymakers, boomed. It became the northern holiday hub, being well-served by roads and railways – it also had the good fortune of having over 8 million factory and mill workers within 60 miles. Blackpool’s hotels, guest houses, restaurants, holiday camps and amusements of all types prospered.
All the big seaside towns saw a massive uptick in business as they scrambled to cater for holidaymakers with every type of diversion – from a penny deckchair on the beach, ice creams, candy floss and sticks of rock, to Punch and Judy shows and donkey rides for the kids, to amusement arcades and funfairs, to pubs and cafes, souvenir and gift shops, lidos and parks, to theatres and bandstands with their brass bands and concert party shows, as well as every kind of food from cockles and whelks to good old fish and chips.
And of course it wasn’t a holiday without seeing one of the big shows which ran for a sixteen-week season in the huge theatres. The biggest stars of their day played to continually packed houses, two or three times a day. All around the coast, pier theatres and those along the seafronts jockeyed for popular star names to plaster across their marquees for the summer season.
The Seaside concert parties and travelling Pierrot shows which had been popular at seaside resorts in earlier decades had catered to a more middle-class, well-to-do type of holidaymaker, but by the time of the Holidays with Pay Act they were beginning to be perceived as small-scale, “quaint” and rather old-fashioned, although they did not fully disappear from the UK holiday scene until the 1950s. The new thing was the big seaside variety shows where you could see seven or eight acts with a star heading the bill, usually a singer or comedian. It was essentially the well-known variety format taken to the seaside.
The popularity of these new seaside entertainments was easily explicable. Back in the 1930s, radio was the main form of broadcast entertainment. Many of the celebrities- comedians, singers, bands- of the day were well-known to mass audiences – but those audiences had rarely, if ever, seen them. Now, these new holidaymakers were clamouring for entertainment and the novelty of seeing their radio and film favourites proved too good to miss. The opportunity for exploitation was therefore enormous. It was quite usual for shows with an attractive star offering to sell out their entire engagement, regularly turning away business. If customers found that one show was fully booked, they simply moved on to the next show, hoping for availability there. The great thing for the shows was that every week their potential audience was refreshed by the exodus of one week’s visitors and the arrival of the next. Most theatres would have the House Full signs out at every performance.
In the early 1950s, when variety started to decline, it was the seaside summer season shows which helped to keep those same kind of variety acts in work as other opportunities for work became scarcer. In the winter, pantomime would continue to help keep the variety acts working; let’s not forget that at its height, pantomime season could last all the way from the Christmas week through until Easter at the major theatres.
The Summer Show season was early June through to late September. Comics, singers, acrobats, monologists, ventriloquists, contortionists, jugglers, dancers (eccentric and traditional) and speciality acts of every sort padded out these lightweight diversions which slogged their way through the summer, come rain or come shine.
The scheduling of shows was specifically designed to be comfortable to what audiences already knew and accepted with their hometown variety theatres, and so just like variety, the seaside shows appeared twice nightly at around 6.15 and 8.30 Monday to Saturday, with a matinee midweek and often on Saturdays. If that weren’t enough, there was yet more entertainment on offer on Sundays when the theatres ran one-night concerts, where visiting shows and stars would tour the seaside resorts and cover large parts of the UK coastline during a summer of Sundays.
Big cinemas got into the act too – and at all the major holiday resorts, the town’s largest cinemas relinquished movies for a summer season of live stage shows. The vast auditoria of 2000 or 2500 seats were consistently full from one week to the next, as the almost unquenchable flow of holidaymakers took their turn to see the stars “live”.
As to the format of the seaside summer shows, they usually consisted of a headliner with a range of other speciality acts supporting, very much like the variety bills which had been familiar to audiences in their hometowns over the previous decades. From time to time comic plays or musical comedies were presented as entertainment that was a little bit different, but these were more of an occasional exception to the expected variety format. More often than not, different theatres presented the type of shows which their audiences had grown to expect- for example the Grand in Blackpool would usually present a show which was a play format, almost always a comedy with star names filling out the marquee.
Later, as TV intruded into UK homes in the 50s and 60s, stage versions of the most popular TV shows started to appear at our coastal theatres for the Summer. Almost anything -or anyone- that became popular was ripe for the summer show treatment.
To illustrate this point, in 1954 the Blackpool Grand Theatre even hosted a season of Jack Hylton’s stage production of popular radio show THE ARCHERS, then (as now) gathering large audiences on BBC radio. Interestingly, the stage version does not appear to have included any of the original cast- perhaps due to recording commitments. The stage show starred Jack Warner, Joyce Barbour, Charles Victor, Dandy Nicholls and Peter Byrne.
The big producers of the time – George and Alfred Black, Jack Hylton, and later Bernard Delfont, amongst others – rotated a number of shows around the seaside resorts across different years. From the advert below, you can see how the talent was spread around the UK by Delfont’s organisation in 1963.
Because the seaside towns drew such large, ever-changing audiences the shows welcomed the broadest spectrum of acts- those on their way up, on the way down, those at the height of their fame, and everything in between. Just take a glance (above) at the Delfont Organisation’s offerings in Summer 1963, ranging from early appearances by Mike and Bernie Winters; to big stars like Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Vaughan, Harry Worth and Bruce Forsyth; and those in their later years such as Hetty King (onstage since 1890!), Jimmy James (onstage since 1900!) and Marie Lloyd Jr. (onstage since 1896!).
There were also producers who specialised in entertainment at our seaside towns, whose shows returned year after year with new names but under a recurring name and the format of variety – the public seemed to enjoy the familiarity. An example below is Lawrence Wright whose ON WITH THE SHOW ran for over 30 years in Blackpool.
As an alternative to variety-style bills, comedy plays were also popular. These were created for stars who were not singers or comedians, but rather actors known for comic parts they had played – on TV, theatre, film or radio. Being comic actors as opposed to comedians, they were not joke-tellers. The creation of comic plays gave them a format within which to play, capitalising upon their known character type and therefore satisfied the audience’s expectations. Flexible enough to be moulded around different types of star performer, these comic plays tended to reappear for several years at different locations, often with available TV or theatre names slotted into them. Here (below) is an example from the early seventies. In 1971, some of the stars of TV’s ON THE BUSES piled into a comedy called STOP IT, NURSE at the Windmill in Great Yarmouth. The following year, the show had moved to Torquay – but this time out, the stars were from the Carry On fold- Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor and Bernard Bresslaw.
A number of these comedy plays were written by a man named Sam Cree. The scripts were loose enough to flex around different personalities and lightly written with just enough plot to keep the momentum moving forward. These shows appeared up and down the country with varying stars from year to year and kept many a theatre owner happy as well as their audiences, who had come to see the stars first and the play second.
Sam Cree was an Irishman who wrote over 20 plays, mostly for summer show consumption, which in the mid to late sixties were sometimes filmed live in the theatre or restaged for television. The BBC presented these until around 1968. Perhaps those recordings still lie in the BBC vaults, or perhaps they were part of the massive amount of videotape which was wiped for reuse. We may never know.
The stars would also be called upon to do a fair amount of pre-season publicity as well as regular media appearances and charity events , beauty contests and other local events and ceremonies during the Summer season. Above is just one example of the main stars at Great Yarmouth in 1970 turning out en masse for a charity event benefitting the local Round Table.
The UK’s constant flow of seaside holidaymakers began to ebb during the late sixties as holidays abroad became more financially affordable, with the rise of the foreign package holiday. The British summer seaside season died out in the late 70s and early 80s as more people took holidays abroad (where better weather was almost guaranteed) and tastes in entertainment changed.
The coastal holiday shows lasted into the eighties, becoming an ever-diminishing shadow of their former selves. Declining audiences coupled with increasing fees for stars and competing film and TV schedules meant that stars were often reluctant to carve a full four months out of their schedules, as they could earn more money with less hard work elsewhere.
And so the seaside shows simply faded away. Today, just a very few survive with a dedicated band of performers and audiences. Sadly the Golden Age of the UK’s Summer Seaside shows is long gone, but for many of us, the memories will linger.
In the next article I’ll recall my own childhood holidays in Great Yarmouth and the stars and shows I was lucky enough to see.
If you have any memories of seaside UK holiday shows then I’d love to hear about them. Please share your thoughts in the comments box below. Thank You!
Mike Bartlett’s play ALBION, directed for the stage by Rupert Goold, is a tragicomic drama about national identity, family, passion and the disappointment of personal dreams.
Filmed at London’s Almeida Theatre, the play is set in the garden of an English country house. The house has been bought by successful businesswoman Audrey Walters, who intends to restore the ruined garden to its former glory and create a memorial to the son she recently lost in a foreign war.
The play runs approximately 2hours 45 minutes and is available on BBCiPlayer until 16th September
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(please note, iPlayer may not be available outside the UK)