'Aren't they from the Hilton? says one man, nodding towards the Grand Jury. 'Anyway, I think they're great. The Redcoats swing round the room with ladies sporting perms and cotton floral dresses, who are grinning in a surreal manner as if they are on Come Dancing. Their children are propping up the bar, getting through an inordinate amount of beer; their grandchildren are in another room making balloon animals with Coco the Clown.
'Have you all had a fab day? asks Ashley, flashing a perfect smile to the assembled crowd of about 600. He doesn't wait for the reply. 'Of course you have, of course you have. The Grand Jury swings along to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo as we prepare to play One Line Bingo with 'the hostess with the mostest.
'I've never been abroad and I never want to go abroad, says a woman who has come down from Cheshire for her summer holiday. This is her first visit to London. 'I don't like going away; but with Butlin's, you're not really on your own, are you? As if looking for proof, she turns round: a Redcoat is standing behind her clutching a vast velveteen teddy bear. 'We're raffling Bungle, madam, he says, with a flawless smile. 'For the Variety Club]
Since Billy Butlin opened his first holiday centre in Skegness on Easter Saturday, 1936, his name has become a by-word for a package of funfairs, knobbly knees contests, Wakey Wakey, and 'non-stop fun and games with an all-in price, at Britain's traditional seaside resorts.
Now, the entire experience has been transported to the centre of London. Forget the crime, the grime and the fact that there is no beach. Butlin's has spent pounds 14m making a 'fun-packed adventure emanate from a large Georgian hotel 100 yards from Queensway Tube.
The concept sprang from research indicating that Butlin's 'customers might be keen to go to London, but not until a Redcoat had been there first. The hotel opened in February with three months' worth of reservations; its 324 rooms are now fully booked through the summer, largely by Butlin's devotees eager to experience the capital via table-tennis contests, quizzes and dancing.
'The cabaret is identical to those in our hotels in Blackpool or Margate, says Operations Director Rhett Vallally, who masterminded the move. 'So is the menu. And the decor. The linen, the televisions, the stationery and that famous scarlet livery are the same too. You don't even feel as if you are in London.
'Everything's been arranged for you, says Jane Peters, recently arrived from South Shields, Tyneside, with the rest of her family. This is the first time they have visited London. 'We've all been falling off buses and Tubes, the lot. With our Network Cards. They're great value] We've been to the Dungeons and Sloane Street. She leans over and says, confidentially: 'We'd heard about people living in doorways. And I saw one when I was down in the Tube. With a baby and a box for money. I didn't give her anything, though. She was probably on benefit.
Since most of the guests at the Grand appear to be strangers to London, the Butlin's approach seems a wise one. These are people who would never otherwise have come to the capital on holiday.
'I'd be afraid to come up on my own, says Eva Corns, down from Keithley with her husband. 'All those police sirens going off. I wouldn't have dared to go out. And I still won't go on the Tube. Bomb scares.
For the average Butlin's guest, negotiating the Tube seems to be the biggest hurdle of the holiday. 'Getting them into it is virtually impossible, confesses Fernando, assistant manager of the Box Office, which provides tickets for almost any show in London. 'They are frightened of being underground and of not seeing where they are going. I have to provide them with maps and tickets for everything, so they have a total concept of the event ahead of them. We try to give them confidence.
'We like having someone telling us what we're doing and seeing. We've been on several Theatre Breaks in London, says Betty Lipsham, here from Portsmouth with her husband, 'but the hotels put nothing on specially for you. You're at the theatre one night; but the next night, what do you do? Walk around and look at the shops, and come back to the hotel; but the drinks there are so expensive, so you end up going to bed early. Not here]
Even on the minimum three-night package, Butlin's trundles its guests out on daily bus tours, then plunges them into a pre-paid whirl of events including late-night karaoke, nights out at a 'Cockney Cabaret with Pearly Royalty doing the Lambeth Walk, bingo and, of course, the Redcoat Cabaret, advertised as 'the most exclusive show in the West End. This is always a hit.
By the time Ashley leaves the platform in the main hall, having hosted the bingo ('Ladies and Gentlemen, let's give our fabulous winner a marvellous round of applause), and reappears from behind a red plush curtain in green and gold chiffon arm-ruffles with a backing group of bikini-clad Redcoats all singing Copacabana, the audience are in a state of high excitement.
We clap along to numbers from hit musicals. We have all eaten at the same 'sitting at dinner, where everyone is on the same table each night; through the week, everyone has experienced the same bus trip, Tudor banquet, Cockney cabaret and night-time viewing of 'the London lights. No wonder people say hello to each other in the foyer, a practice unheard of anywhere else in London.
'It's fantastic, shouts Harry Henderson, a large man from County Durham sporting a Johnny Cash T-shirt. He is up on his feet, applauding loudly as bobby-soxed Redcoats perform high kicks around Ashley, who is by now in a pink sparkling jacket, winking and pouting alongside a man in a leopardskin coat. Everyone is singing, Ooh Baby That's What I Like. The number ends with a Buddy Holly-alike, who renders Peggy Sue. Mr Henderson collapses on his chair. He is sweating heavily. 'You canna beat Butlin's, he gasps.
Mr Henderson ('I'm a Country fan) has come down from the North with his wife and four of his five children; the five-day break is their summer holiday, and they have saved up for it for months. None of the children have been to London before. 'I've loved every minute of our holiday, Mr Henderson enthuses. 'And we've paid pounds 960 for the week, all in. He looks delightedly around as his wife hands him a cigar. 'London, he remarks, 'it's the capital of the world. It's the capital of capitals. As a father, I've got to bring my family here. It's part of their education. And I couldn't have done it without Butlin's, no way. It's overwhelming.
The next morning, Mr Henderson is still grinning as he chaperones his brood onto one of the Butlin's double-decker buses which take guests on a four-hour tour around the sights.
Each tour is led by a microphone-wielding Redcoat. Darrin, our guide, formerly a flower-seller in Tooting Bec, has a line in 'Cockney wit that the bus finds hilarious. 'R. Soles], he shouts as we trundle down the King's Road. 'Look at that] A bootmakers called R. Soles] Everyone collapses. 'What's so funny?, pipes up a small girl from Aberdeen. 'I don't understand. More hysterics. We drive down Exhibition Road. 'That's Lord Baden-Powell, informs Darrin, pointing to the eponymous statue. 'Ging Gang Gooly Gooly Gooly Wotcha, he sings. 'Tell you what, he says. 'I could never tie a Sheep Shank. I can't even tie me shoelaces.
We stop for a break at Lambeth Palace and everyone leaps off to buy ice-creams. Some of my fellow travellers look dazed; suffering perhaps from an overkill of London, conveyed by Butlin's as a spinning, glittering place packed with Prime Ministers, red buses, Harrods, Royalty, Barry Manilow and Pearly Kings. But these are the sights, and Butlin's is delivering them.
We climb back aboard and rocket over Waterloo Bridge, through Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall. 'This is where Charles I was executed, shouts Darrin over the microphone. 'Djoo know what his last words were? They were 'Remember'. And I 'ope you do, ladies and gentlemen. Cos I'll be testing you later. The bus-load laughs as we spin on through London.
Butlin's Grand Hotel, 42 Princes Square, W2 (071 229 1292)
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