Where naughty is nicest: As a new wave of alternative comics hits Edinburgh, Mark Wareham checks out the old-timers still hanging about at the end of the pier

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The Independent Culture
Freddie Starr's manager, Leon Fisk, is explaining the attractions Bournemouth in summertime holds for a performer such as Freddie. 'It's where the people are. There's no point going anywhere else.' The country's legions of 'alternative' stand-ups may at this very moment be boarding the comedy express to the Edinburgh Festival, but the all-singing all-dancing comic entertainer such as Starr has long since been treading the boards of another summer season at Britain-on-Sea.

Fisk was a hardened summer-season campaigner himself with the Dallas Boys before throwing in his Stetson and guiding Starr's career for the past 12 years. When Starr was first playing the resorts in the late Sixties, Fisk estimates there were '20 or 30 major artists' around to fill the theatres. A quarter of a century on and he reckons there are four: 'Freddie, Jim Davidson, Joe Longthorne, Michael Barrymore . . . and that's it.' A former galaxy reduced to the occasional shooting star.

Whereas in the Seventies it was automatic for someone like Mike Yarwood to play a season in Blackpool, it is now unthinkable that Rory Bremner would devote a summer to Scarborough. Les

Dawson and Dick Emery did; Victoria Wood and Billy Connolly don't. Touring one-nighters in between television commitments is more profitable.

A glance at the resorts' summer line-ups confirms this irreversible trend. A syndrome known as 'Third Place in Opportunity Knocks in 1978' has set in, in which a forgotten generation of entertainers holds sway. In Blackpool, this year's star attractions are the Grumbleweeds and Cannon & Ball - not the class of performers that once led to Blackpool being dubbed the Las Vegas of the North.

Compared to some, Bournemouth has fared none too badly. While other resorts have seen the closure of theatres, the Bournemouth International Centre, 10 years old next month, offers a total of three new venues, while the Pier has been extended to incorporate a new cabaret show-bar.

Bournemouth is a typical example of how the summer season has had to adapt or die. With the depletion of the major stars, musicals have started creeping in to the entertainment equation. This year, The Rocky Horror Show is finding an unexpected audience among the town's population of foreign students, while Aspects of Love has proved a good family pull. Down on the Pier, Robin Nedwell, Linda Lusardi and Colin Baker attract a saucier set in Not Now Darling.

The Blackpool Season used to start after Easter and play right through to November, but everywhere the purse strings have had to be tightened. Even Danny La Rue's showbiz spectaculars are feeling the pinch: where once he would have had a dozen or more dancing girls and boys, now he'll make do with half that.

Yet, as recently as 1986, Russ Abbott was breaking seaside entertainment records at the North Pier in Blackpool, pulling in nearly 500,000 punters. He could have played the even larger Opera House but preferred not to, there being 'something traditional about doing a seaside show actually on the end of the pier'. But where is he this summer?

For a support act like Mike Lancaster, there is no alternative but for the show to go on. The summer season is an integral part of his turnover but, he reckons, 'to be honest, it's on the way out. It's nine quid a ticket, so that's a pounds 50 night out for a family. And tastes have changed a wee bit. Plus all the hotels want to keep people in. Even the smallest hotel sticks a piano- player in the corner these days.'

The key to a truly successful summer season is the weather. 'It's absolutely

critical,' says Tony Hardman at the BIC. 'We need rain and we need it at about 5.30pm, just as the families are packing up on the beach.' The previous day's showers had driven 7,000 into the Great Lego Show and this afternoon's rain meant that Freddie Starr's 3,500-capacity venue was 80 to 90 per cent full.

Motorways, or the lack of them, also play a vital role in the success factor. Bournemouth, lacking a major approach road, is not easy to escape from. Should the weather turn nasty, holiday-makers, finding themselves trapped with Freddie Starr, are left with no alternative but to check out the entertainment. In Torquay, a resort well served by motorways, prospective punters can make good their getaway under the darkening skies. Only Blackpool, with a captive audience of some two to three million visitors over a summer, can confidently sustain a season come rain, wind or shine.

The one ray of hope for the summer season has been the emergence over the past few years of the more risque stand-up comedian. Performers such as Roy 'Chubby' Brown and Jimmy Jones have attracted the younger holiday-goer, giving the lie to the theory that the seaside audience is literally a dying one.

Both Brown and Jones are deceptive comics with fat cheery schoolboy faces mixing good-natured filth and an unpleasant line in race relations. Brown is probably the country's biggest-selling comedian, certainly in the North; while Jones, after some initial problems convincing the council that his brand of humour was right for Bournemouth, has been packing them in ever since 1990.

Tony Hardman of the Bournemouth International Centre sees Jimmy Jones as a potential long-term ambassador for what can still loosely be called alternative comedy, not so much in his style of humour, but through having broken out of the club circuit and into the summer season.

'We're becoming more alternative, but there's a long way to go before we could put on a Jo Brand or a Mark Little. The alternative comedian may be classed as a little bit too clever for Joe Public. Your traditional twice-nightly comedian doesn't have a very high intellectual background. It's humour for the masses. An alternative comedians might think a bit too deeply, whereas a Freddie or a Jimmy doesn't want to think too much. A more visual comic like Eddie Izzard might work, though.'

Jimmy Jones is more forthright. Backstage before his show, dressed only in skimpy underpants beneath an overhanging gut, he explains that the political party broadcast style of most alternative comedians would be lost on a seaside audience. 'That Comedy Store in London. It's for the upper crust, people who understand high-falutin words. There's more people around than your college undergraduate.'

The summer season survives, leaner than before, but still the exclusive territory of the working classes. Seaside entertainment will continue to serve up its traditionally saucy fare, oblivious to the last 15 years of alternative comedy. 'The newer comics do come and watch me,' laughs Jimmy Jones. 'But they can't nick none of my act, cos it's funny.'

(Photograph omitted)