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World famous in Cromer

High-wires, musical brooms, bell-ringers - `and not forgetting the nimble fingers of Roger Davidson on piano'. Andrew Martin watches Britain's last End of the Pier show.
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Cromer is a small Norfolk resort, full of beige-clad retirees sauntering between morning coffee and afternoon tea. Apart from one tiny, innocent funfair, the only sign of commercialisation along the front are some self-effacing illuminations and occasional signs reading "Crab lines, 35p". For night life, the visitor to Cromer has only one option: a trip to see "Seaside Special" at the Pavilion Theatre on the pier. This show was started 20 years ago by the late East Anglian entrepreneur, Dick Condon, to preserve a genre then already in its death throes. Today it is, more or less, Britain's last End of the Pier Show.

On this Tuesday evening, proceedings are getting underway in characteristically genteel fashion, with birthday greetings from the stage for a St John Ambulance girl on duty in the auditorium. After name checks for "Elsie, Ethel, Fred, Marie and Mrs Richards's party from St Cuthbert's Church", we're into an evocation of 1947. "Remember the terrible winters?" asks the man on stage, eliciting a confirmatory ripple from around the hall. ("Ooh, terrible, they were"). All of which, it transpires, is by way of introduction to a medley of hits from the 50-year-old musical, Annie Get Your Gun.

Next on are the Simmons Brothers, a veteran double act whose skits always begin with dapper straight man Alan delivering some unpromisingly earnest preamble - "Ladies and gentlemen, I really must tell you about something that happened to me yesterday..." - before being interrupted by the childish antics of his wild-haired brother Keith.

They're followed by Graham Rice, a skilful but rather distracted-looking bell-ringer from the Midlands. Then there's a quick spot of ballet ("Pam, Gillian and Alana, dancing to the nimble fingers of Roger Davidson on piano"). Graham Scott comes on to play Dr. Zhivago on his musical broom( three electrified strings, hit with spoons). And now it's golden-voiced Simon Leigh, who has the ladies from the Women's Institute of Rockland St Mary and Langley- with- Hardley - the dominant faction in tonight's audience - positively swooning.

Backstage, 75-year-old comedian Frankie Holmes is recalling the 1950s heyday of End of the Pier Shows. It was then that companies such as Hedley Claxton's Gaytime (to take one of the more dour names), the Fol de Rol's, Out of the Blue, and Brenda Ross's Dazzle sang, danced and joked on piers in almost every English resort.

"I did summer season at Eastbourne Pier in 1969 with Sandy Powell... You remember him. His catchphrase was `Can you 'ear me, mother?' Well, when we finished, someone set fire to the pier. They rebuilt it, but there were no more shows. I'd done a lot with Clarkson Rose's Twinkle company, and I could see the signs of what was happening back in 1963 when Clarkson's wife, Olive Fox, turned to me and just said: `Nobody wants to book Twinkle this year'. She was quite devastated by it."

The decline of End of the Pier shows is not unrelated to the end of many a pier. At the start of this century, there were about a hundred in England and Wales (the rough seas of Scotland never had any truck with such whimsical structures), and now there are about 50. They've always been magnets for disaster. Southend Pier, for example, catches fire, or is rammed by some daydreaming ship's captain, on an almost annual basis. Cromer's pier has had many sticky moments, too, and the central section was blown up by the MoD during the war to prevent the Dad's Army-ish scenario of a Nazi landing.

Of the piers that remain, most have amusement arcades, many have funfairs and nightclubs, but only half a dozen still have theatres, and these - especially at Blackpool and Great Yarmouth - tend to host blue comics such as Chubby Brown, who promise something that can't be seen on television which, along with foreign package holidays, did most to kill End of the Pier shows.

Risque humour was antithetical to authentic End of the Pier shows, which were always "family entertainment", derived from pierrots harmonising on Edwardian beaches. Another characteristic of the shows was the way that all the performers mucked in together, differentiating it from its close cousin, Variety.

The Simmons brothers, whose mother toured the country demonstrating sheet piano music in branches of Marks & Spencer, are musical as well as comedic. And Frankie Holmes sings and does ventriloquism, albeit with a slightly strange grimace on his face.

This intermingling of talents creates an egalitarian atmosphere in which company members are constantly gossiping, arranging day-off jaunts, and lending money to each other. The Simmons are top of the bill, an unaccustomed position, about which they seem rather embarrassed. After the show, I heard Keith Simmons talking to Wayne Denton - one half of the singing duo Spritza - and he referred to "the likes of us", meaning non-stars. No bitterness was detectable.

Seaside Special provides a solid summer's work, plays to near full houses every night, and goes down very well with its jolly, sweet-sucking audiences, some of whose regular members give the cast presents at the summer's end. ("We all had crocheted blankets off Mabel last year," confides Keith Simmons).

Of course, singer Simon Leigh dreams of West End musicals (you can tell by the way he reverently introduces his performance of "That'll Be the Day" as "a song from the hit musical Buddy"), but for now he can practise stardom because he is, as he wryly puts it, "world famous in Cromer". And as for the oldest cast member... well, they say that timing is crucial for a comedian, and this is certainly the case with Frankie Holmes, who had a pacemaker fitted at the start of the season. "The surgeon was telling me what needed to be done, and I was saying, look, can you do it quickly. In fact, can you do it now because I just want to get back to that pier?" Seaside Special runs at the Pavilion Theatre until Saturday, 20 Sept.Box office tel. 01263 512495 Show people (from above): the costume changes are too fast, the dummy is 100 years old, his ventriloquist is 75, and director Robert Marlowe looks back to his days at the Folie Bergere - but they all play to nearly full houses A chorus line: The Robert Marlowe Dancers flank Wayne and Vanessa Denton of Spritza performing their Neil Diamond medley, and Simon Leigh singing `Luck Be My Lady Tonight' and dreaming of the West End