As Sir Billy Butlin's holiday camps turn 60, Decca Aitkenhead spends a cheerful but chilly weekend by the sea in Lincolnshire
Friday 29 March 1996
Before the year is out more than one and a half million will have passed through the gates of Butlin's five UK centres, making the company the biggest domestic holiday provider. The British don't only go to Butlin's in astonishing numbers: they come back time after time. This is not simply because it is inexpensive, although clearly this is one of its major attractions (I spent a weekend with a friend in Skegness in a chalet designed for four and it cost pounds 88). It is cheap but also incorrigbly cheerful and for many has an old-fashioned seaside-postcard appeal. It may not be Majorca, they say, but it's quite up-to-date these days and the kids really love it.
The Butlin's of our memories and imagination is over. In the Fifties, the camps were playing host to Anthony Eden and the Earl of Mountbatten and those who were employed as redcoats to lead the entertainment read like a Who's Who of British entertainment: Des O'Connor, Glenda Jackson, Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck. The entertainment that we were offered on a cold weekend in March was of a lesser quality and most holidaymakers, it has to be said, are adept at making their own fun.
As dawn breaks on a grey slick of corrugated iron and concrete spilling up the North Sea coast as far as the eye can see, the pulse does not race. Part ageing industrial estate, part small town precinct, the camp (or "centre" as employees relentlessly remind you) comprises low-level budget huts, two-storey chalets and caravans into infinity. An angry sea is audible, just over the dunes, but few would be ill-advised enough to investigate.
But there are Things To Do. We pick our way, hopefully, through a straggle of Tarmac amusements - Krazy Golf, an empty pool, a few fairground rides. But the cold is sending the thousands of visitors indoors.
Bingo begins at 9.30am. Snooker halls, arcades and the Funsplash waterworld attract a lacklustre trade. But it is in the cavernous, breeze-block night clubs with names like Showboat and Broadway that we and most of our fellow funseekers are left to pass the days in refuge from the cold, picking at popcorn, watching Stars in Their Eyes stage renditions of Gary Glitter.
"I'll not be going near the beach. It's bloody freezing". Andy is here with 25 friends, young men from Nottingham drinking in the early afternoon gloom of the Enchanted Castle. "Just here to enjoy m'sel' - having a drink with me mates". At the next table a dozen middle-aged men sit wearing golden paper crowns, on their faces the expression you see worn by men waiting while their wives try on clothes. The women in front are discussing last night's act, a tribute to Tom Jones. He was all right, they say, but they are disappointed that he didn't look much like Tom Jones. Probably, points out one, because he was black.
We retreat to the Food Court, where we find The Other Beatles, a lookalike variety act, buying pizzas and chips. Their afternoon act in the Showboat is over and the three boys from Oxford will soon be heading off in the van to north Wales for another Butlin's show. Ringo has had a row with his wife and has had to go home.
"I was Brian May in a dodgy Queen band last season for Pontin's," confides Paul. "But it was a bit of a nightmare. The thing is you don't really want a whole season's booking with the camps any more. It's a bit of a myth. You can make more money doing the universities and the corporate stuff. It's only any good for the old blokes with mortgages these days."
"Lunchtime gigs are a pig. We try to get a bit of participation going here," says John, who does, it must be said, bear a startling resemblance to Lennon. "Well, you know, some clapping. But they take a bit of convincing, mind. You maybe get some granny groupies wanting your autograph. Not exactly the big time."
The boys tidy away the pizza boxes carefully and go to straighten up their chalet. "Rock and roll, eh? We must be the only band in the world to trash our room and clean it up afterwards."
That night, we locate a solitary redcoat. He is a bald man, found supervising karaoke with the air of the magician hired for a children's party who has found his audience are just that bit too old for the act. One young man gets up and sings "Fame" so sensationally badly that we wonder whether he is an undercover redcoat up there to whoop things up a bit.
But few others are so inclined. Billy Butlin's dream of the grand-scale communal pursuit of pleasure - the knobbly knee contests and bonny baby shows - is no more, a casualty of a Mediterranean-going generation embarrassed by such things. Only for a fleeting moment does a ripple of thrill unite the crowd. It comes when the redcoat reads out the week's winning lottery numbers.
Such change is not surprising. What is remarkable, however, is that nowhere do we find the feverish excesses of the modern holiday. The frenzied drinking, frantic music and sexual abandon, stock in trade from Blackpool and Benidorm, are absent.
"Who would have thought a few years ago that we would have filled a centre in the winter? You would have said we were mad." Butlin's PR people are extremely pleased with themselves. Over pounds 180m has been invested in the past decade, upgrading accommodation and installing "weather protected facilities". And so a bullish spokeswoman tells me, it has worked.
"I don't think," declares the PR woman, "there is anything else like it in this country. In fact there's nothing like it in the whole wide world".
And on this I am inclined to agree.
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