Era of the seaside stars
PUBLISHED: 09:15 29 April 2014 | UPDATED: 09:15 29 April 2014
Unsurprisingly, former New Wolsey chairman Peter Phillips loves theatre but as Andrew Clarke discovers, he also has a passion for the good old seaside variety show
Peter Phillips loves to be by the seaside – the former chairman of the New Wolsey Theatre lives in Felixstowe – but it’s not just the sound of surf on shingle that excites his imagination, he loves seaside entertainment too.
He has just written a book, Are There Any Holiday Makers In Tonight?, which captures the spirit of those summer variety shows and their amazing resilience but now even he acknowledges that the traditional seaside show has had its day.
“The shows will live on as the music hall has done in specialist clubs and venues. Cromer still runs a highly successful seaside show but the glory days when a seaside resort used to pull in the crowds has now gone.”
He said he wrote the book to try and capture the magic of those shows and record the huge number of seaside venues he has visited over the years and looks at exactly what attracted the crowds for more than a century.
Peter’s love for the summer show started at a very young age. “I went on a caravan holiday in Cromer when I was nine or 10 and we went to a show there. I remember the name of show today. “Out of the Blue” it was called and it started then really.
“But by the early ‘80s I was aware that the seaside entertainment that I had enjoyed for many years was starting to die out and I wanted to write a book to try and capture of the feel of this type of entertainment.”
Peter said that during the early 1970s, the seaside summer show was relatively healthy. Big name TV stars like Windsor Davies and Don Estelle from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Lenny Henry, Carry On star Peter Butterworth and Golden Shot comedian Charlie Williams all appeared at smaller resorts like Felixstowe while Blackpool and Great Yarmouth attracted bigger names like Cannon and Ball, Bernie Clifton, Mike Yarwood and the Barron Knights.
Being the former announcer at Portman Road and then BBC Radio Suffolk’s football commentator, it is unsurprising that Peter sees the perfect summer show as something like a well structured football team. There would be a lead comic, a second comic, a tenor, a soprano a dancer, a speciality act and they would make it into a show.
“The beauty of the summer show was that nothing lasted very long. A singer would sing a song and if you didn’t like it, then they would be replaced by something else in five minutes. It was fast moving.”
In many seaside towns, the summer show became a major part of the town.
“The summer season used to last from May to September and the performers used to get really involved in the town. They were put up in lodgings in the town, taking part in the carnival was almost part of the contract, they were invited to have tea with the Mayor and opened scores of garden fetes.
“The show ran all week and at the height of the summer show, they would have a change of programme.
“I saw Roy Hudd at Babbacombe, they did five separate shows. Most theatres did two different shows and changed their programme on a Thursday. Larger resorts which had more than one theatre relied on having star names but in smaller resorts, like Felixstowe, there was only one theatre, so the show was the star.”
He said that the holidaymakers would come and go but the idea was to try and get the locals to come more than once or if the holidaymakers were there for two weeks then get them to come twice.
Peter said that the seaside summer show proved surprisingly resilient particularly when traditional variety died in the mid-1960s.
“From the early ‘60s everyone was saying variety was dead and the big variety halls like the Ipswich Hippodrome closed down but summer show carried on.”
He said in some ways the summer show was variety on holiday but instead of each act just doing their own set routine they used to work up a show as a company and prepare sketches together which made the summer show significantly different to normal variety.
“Variety was more of a bill of turns whereas the summer show was more of an ensemble show.”
Sadly, now the age of the summer show has passed as holidaymakers head abroad rather than to the coast.
Peter said that in his mind the seaside summer show breathed its last sometime between 1982 and 1984.
“Today the summer show is a casualty of changing times. It’s a fact of life but I am pleased to have seen this great part of our entertainment heritage and some truly great acts at their peak.”
n Are There Any Holidaymakers in Tonight? by Peter Phillips is available from Waterstones, Troubador Publishing or Amazon, priced £12.95.