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!