Views: When Summer shows brought spice to the seaside

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.

The 1908-built Windmill Theatre with its iconic sails which rotated.
1973. Hylda Baker at the Windmill in Not on Your Nelly! (Photo courtesy Robe Cope on Twittter)

I remember well visiting the Windmill (run by Jack and Peter Jay) , in 1973, seeing the incomparable Hylda Baker (who together with Jimmy Jewel starred in NEAREST AND DEAREST their hugely popular TV show which ran for seven series from 1968-73) in a show referencing the TV series but without Jewel (they loathed each other offscreen) in a comedy called NOT ON YOUR NELLY! As I remember, this stage adaptation consisted of a pretty basic plot with nothing very challenging for holidaymaking audiences. It didn’t really matter; the big draw was to see the stars “on stage! 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.

Hylda Baker with one of those who played “Cynthia” over the years, Tom Hardy (not that one)

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, and inside was a charming, intimate little theatre where audiences could get close to the stars and feel that they’d truly seen them.

Just an extra note here about the Windmill, which was originally built as a theatre – the “Palace of Light” – as an early endeavour for the famed showman C. B. Cochran, and opened 4 July 1908. It originally had 1,000 light bulbs on its facade, so strollers along the promenade simply couldn’t miss it. It was renamed the Gem in 1910, which is when it became a cinema for some years, with summer season shows returning from the 1930s onwards.

Sid James at the Windmill, Great Yarmouth, 1970. Supporting cast included a young John Inman. Poor old C Denier Warren has his name mis-spelled. And yes, this one’s by Sam Cree (The Mating Season, Stop It Nurse, Don’t Tell The Wife, etc, etc) too. For some reason, Nicholas Brent and Bill Tasker always seemed to reappear in the Windmill shows year after year, it seemed.

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”.

1970 Wellington Pier Pavilion, Great Yarmouth. Enjoy those prices, folks. Top price 67pence!
Leslie Crowther at the Wellington Pier Pavilion with Arthur Worsley, 1970 programme with running order

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 (UPDATED LINK at 19/02/2022)

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 (UPDATED LINK at 19/02/2022)


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!


16 Replies to “Views: When Summer shows brought spice to the seaside”

  1. I spent the mid and late 70s holidaying in Gt Yarmouth with my family. Such fantastic times. We would watch the shows then queue at the stage door for ages to get autographs. I still have entrance tickets to two shows, one at Britannia, Aug 4, 1977 and one at Wellington July 31, 1977. Unfortunately they don’t say what shows they were and we went to at least two every year so I can’t be sure. Searched online but no luck!
    Can anyone help identify them?

    1. Thanks for your comment and enquiry Darren. Wellington Pier 1977 was Marti Caine, according to this ebay programme seller, details here https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/265510263683?mkevt=1&mkcid=1&mkrid=710-53481-19255-0&campid=5338722076&customid=&toolid=10050
      Another ebay seller has a programme from the ABC’s summer show that year which was headlined by comedy duo Dukes and Lee, with Tom O’Connor, listing here https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/313555660656?hash=item49015faf70:g:PpIAAOSwZaNgu07q
      Britannia Pier 1977 is harder to nail down, so any help from readers would be appreciated.

      1. Thanks for the swift response Gary – didn’t think to search ebay. Strange – I don’t particularly recall seeing Marti Caine but it is a possibility! I have a strong feeling the Britannia one was Larry Grayson because I distinctly remember waiting for ages at the stage door with my Dad and when he finally appeared he said he was too tired to sign any autographs. Dad was very unimpressed but I didn’t mind because I at least got to see him!

        1. Hi again Darren. Well you have stirred up an interesting question here- but I have solved it for you! In my continued searchings after your question, I came across a programme for a one nighter on Wellington Pier that Larry Grayson starred in on July 31st 1977 (which checks as a Sunday, when all the theatres dropped in one-nighters) which matches the ticket stub you have! Here is the link to the programme I found https://www.priory-antiques.co.uk/product/presenting-larry-grayson-at-the-wellington-pier-pavilion-great-yarmouth-july-31-1977-souvenir-programme/
          As Larry Grayson was doing a one-nighter on Wellington that suggests he was doing his regular summer show in another town. Perhaps all the travelling caused his unusual tiredness and lack of willingness to sign, as I believe he was very grateful and loyal to his fans- when he wasn’t worked off his feet!
          I do think that we forget how much promotion went into packing seaside theatres twice nightly for 6 days a week (Britannia was a 1200 seater, so that’s 2400 seats a night to fill for 12 to 16 weeks), for which the star had to make themselves available, and then to have to cross the country for a Sunday one-nighter must have been tough going sometimes, with no proper day off. Those agents really pushed them in those days!
          Re the question of who played the Britannia Pier when you visited on August 4th – solved! It was John Inman, in a show called Fancy Free, which also featured pianist Bobby Crush. Programme here https://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=30827079930&searchurl=ds%3D20%26kn%3Dgreat%2Byarmouth%2Btheatre%26sortby%3D20&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title5 I have checked the date and cross-verified it with someone on Twitter who is a John Inman fan, whose tweets confirm this.
          Well that was very invigorating! Thanks for your query Darren and so glad I could sort it out for you. Thanks for getting my sleuthing skills back up to scratch!
          All the best to you – Gary

          1. Brilliant Gary, thanks so much! Once I saw the covers of both of those programmes I suddenly remembered!
            Happy memories, thanks for helping to bring them back.

            Darren

  2. My wife (Girlfriend then)and I had a holiday in Gt Yarmouth in the early 70s and I am sure we went to the Windmill Theatre to see the cast of “Doctor in the House” live on stage. Would this be the correct venue.?

    1. Hello Paul, thanks for your comment. Yes, it was the Windmill that usually took this type of TV-spinoff comedy play. I can also remember seeing this show too, so yes I can confirm that we all saw it at The Windmill. The theatre’s modest capacity was just right for this type of show, and gave good sightlines for those wanting to see the stars “in person”.

  3. Can anyone remember seeing Jimmy Tarbuck. Jimmy Clitheroe. I was a child and I cannot remember the Theatre or year I think it could be the 60’s. I remember we all got a bingo ticket and when the numbers were called everyone in the theatre shouted HOUSE Thank you for reading my question x

    1. Thanks for your memory, Keith. I think because there was much more live entertainment then, that people that people today forget just how hugely popular these entertainers were. To be able to fill a 1500-seat theatre twice a night for 18 weeks was no mean feat, and time and time again these entertainers did it. Sadly I didn’t get to see Jimmy Clitheroe in person but would have very much liked to.

      1. Jimmy Clitheroe , Ralph Reader and Donald Peers were the stars of the Britannia Pier summer season in 1968. I was one of the dancers. I had my 21st birthday during the season. Donald Peers called me out and the whole audience sang happy birthday! I didn’t realise that the theatre held so many people – it makes the memory even more special now I know that more than 1200 people were singing to me!!!! We made a little cast party after the show to celebrate and all the stars came. Somewhere I have a photo with Jimmy C eating my birthday cake!!!!

        1. Thanks for your recollections, Georgina. What a lovely and thoughtful thing for Mr Peers to do. And I’m glad if my writings enhanced your happy memories of that night. PS I’m sure we’d all love to see the Jimmy Clitheroe photo if you find it!

  4. I was RUSS CONWAY’S assistant – in 1972 he played the summer season on the Britannia Pier. I gate crashed the LONDON PALLADIUM in 1970 and met him and became a very close friend. The stars i met was like a fairytale I could write a book. I stayed with him until he went to the theatre in the sky…he left me gold discs and the white steck upright piano he wrote all his hits on……lots of lovely memories.

    1. Hello Dave and thanks for your interesting story. I saw Russ’s 1972 Britannia Pier show and while I personally always preferred comedians over musicians, I hugely admired his music, skill and style.

    1. Yes, Kevin, I saw Arthur live at that 1970 Leslie Crowther show. He was the best “vent” I have ever seen. The dummy did all the talking. Audiences loved him. There are few vents who can really look good up close, in front of TV cameras but Arthur really lead the way as you can see in the TV clip I attached.
      On a related “vent” note, you may enjoy one of my other favourites, Sandy Powell, in his atrocious (and very funny) vent act, filmed decades after he had originated it in variety. You can find it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV-AToMaNhc&t=81s

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