Time for a change as Butlin's says bye-de-bye to the past

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The Independent Online
It has been the butt of endless jokes, sent up in Carry On Camping and the television sitcom Hi-De-Hi. Yet Billy Butlin's vision more than 60 years ago to provide a "week's holiday for a week's wage" transformed the nation's attitude to holidays.

Since then, the fortunes of Butlin's have provided a slice of social history reflecting the leisure pursuits of the British public from the invention of the knobbly knees competition to the modern-day introduction of Haagen Dazs Cafes.

Yesterday, its owners, the Rank Group, announced that the centres are to undergo a multi-million pound facelift designed to take the concept into the new millennium, saying the revamp will once more revolutionise the holiday industry.

Butlin's holiday camps at Minehead, Skegness and Bognor Regis will all be overhauled. with the centrepiece of the new development a "skyline pavilion", a weatherproof canopy the size of Wembley football pitch designed to house anything from comedy acts to West End shows. Holidaymakers will also be able to see a film at the local Odeon, drink in themed pubs or have a flutter at the Mecca bingo hall while packing the kids off to activity centres.The new camps will house of string of high-street names including Burger King and Harry Ramsden's fish and chips.

It seems a far cry from Butlin's beginning. When the first half-page advertisement for the camp at Ingoldmells, on the Lincolnshire coast ran in the Daily Express offering a week's holiday by the sea for between 30 shillings and pounds 3, Butlin's was deluged with 10,000 replies.

Not only was Butlin offering affordable holidays but he also promised that the accommodation would be better than that at home. The Butlin's motto - "Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight" - was no exaggeration. There was waiter service in the dining room, electric light in the chalets and hot running water in the bath blocks - facilities that many people in the 1930s did not have at home.

Before Butlin's, the families who did get away stayed in boarding houses where they were forced to leave after breakfast and stay out all day regardless of the weather. Butlin's was offering a swimming pool and a 4,000-seater stadium for greyhound and cheetah races.

In the best tradition of British holidays, it was snowing when the first camp opened. But there were no complaints from the holidaymakers - for many, it was their first holiday. And because it was, many of them had no idea what to do. In desperation Butlin sent a young worker out to buy a red jacket and encourage people to join in. The Redcoats were born, and the job was to breed a new generation of showbiz personalities: Jimmy Tarbuck, Charlie Drake, Tommy Steele, Anne Diamond, Isla St Clair, Des O'Connor and Michael Barrymore all took their first steps to stardom wearing the famous scarlet jacket.

Inevitably, Butlin's became a victim of its own success.

People became more sophisticated, and as air travel became cheaper holiday firms were able to offer packages abroad with the one thing that Butlin's could not guarantee: sunshine.

Rank is now attempting to revamp Butlin's image in several ways. The traditional chalets are to be replaced by a range of upmarket accommodation; the skyline pavilions will aim to attract an increasing number of contemporary entertainment acts; "oases of calm" will be provided for the older generation; and even the Redcoats are to get a new uniform.

All this will come at a price, however.A family of four could have to pay up to pounds 720 a week during the peak summer months, compared to less than pounds 300 today, under some of the special offers available.

Butlin's two other sites, at Pwllheli and Ayr are to be converted to "Haven" camps - all-action parks offering everything from tenpin bowling to indoor swimming pools.

Business Comment, page 21

History of a very British holiday

1936: Skegness camp opens on Easter Saturday. It snows.

1938: Second camp opens in Clacton. Legislation passed entitling workers to a week's paid holiday a year.

1939: Nearly 100,000 holidaymakers visit. Skegness and Clacton

1945-62: Period of expansion culminating in launch of eighth camp at Minehead.

1964: Billy Butlin knighted.

1972: Butlin's sold to the Rank - takes over a million bookings.

1983-5: Clacton and Filey closed and sold.

1986-96: pounds 180m invested in modernisation.