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 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.
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.
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 (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!