End of the Pier: Cromer ditches its fruit machines to thrive on laughter: In the first of a series on Britain's piers, Martin Wroe visits a resort where 'family fun' pulls the crowds

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The Independent Online
A SMALL BOY kneels on Cromer pier, dribbling his spit down through cracks in the boards to the sea below.

All around, the railings are covered with small children crabbing. The girders are decorated with abandoned crab lines and a sign says: 'Crab lines 35p each - crab line not included.'

The crabs, presumably with an air of resignation, are hauled in by the minute. Older boys reel them in, barking instructions to younger brothers to 'take the slack'. Small pockets of relatives are hunched over buckets, examining the catch.

There is a peaceful, lazy contentment about the scene at Cromer pier on a sunny afternoon in late July. Pulse rates have slowed, minds are being rested. From inside the Pavilion Theatre, the crabbers and fishermen and promenaders can hear roars of laughter.

'Nice to see your sunny faces,' says Neil James to a capacity audience. 'It is suntan, isn't it - not rust.' The jokes are not new, sometimes they are not particularly funny but the 450-strong 'family audience' bellows with appreciation. 'My wife talks through her nose, ' says the comic. 'She has to, her mouth is worn out.'

The Burnside Residents' Association loves it, so does the Coronation Hall Over-60s Club, and Mrs Plumstead's group cheers particularly loudly when Hope and Keen, the headline acts, give them a personal welcome from the stage. Soon everyone is singing along lustily to 'The Sun Has Got His Hat On', as the cast, dressed as clowns, dance on stage.

The style of Seaside Special 93 at Cromer is as old as most of its jokes and the show is a dying breed. The leaflet proudly declares its pedigree as 'TV's last authentic End of the Pier show' - despite the fact that it is not on TV. But the claim is rooted in history - the title of a mid-Eighties BBC 2 documentary on the pier's summer show.

Sell-out performances eight times a week suggest that other piers might do well to reconsider the virtues of this mix of song and dance, comic banter, sitcom sketches and something called 'family fun'.

The locals, understandably, are very proud of it: 'Cromer's End of the Pier show is nothing less than a theatrical miracle,' said the North Norfolk News last month, without a trace of false modesty. But there's few left like it.

'This sort of show is a dinosaur,' Mike Hope says. 'There's so few left because all the piers have been falling into the sea.'

'It's sad that other summer shows have to revert to vulgarity,' adds his sidekick, Albie Keen. 'We avoid religion or anything that will offend.'

There is a distinctly uncommercial air about the pier, a sense of being unexploited, perhaps because Cromer is not on the way to anywhere, except perhaps the past. 'They don't have motorways here,' Neil James says. 'It's a timewarp, like stepping back 25 years. It's like the Tardis in there during the show.'

If many piers have suffered from the weather over the years, Cromer has benefited. Until four years ago, its broad, bright wooden expanse was rudely broken by an arcade full of fruit-machines and other money- sucking electronic contraptions making bleeping noises. Help was at hand.

'We were hit by a mini-typhoon one day,' Vivien Gough, the theatre manager, recalled. 'It lifted the arcade right up and deposited it in the sea and we all decided it was an act of God and that that was the best place for it.'

The pier was built in 1901, setting off intense rivalry between the Great Eastern Railway and the Midland and Great Northern Railway, which ferried VIPs from different parts of the country. The Royal Engineers blew out its middle section during the Second World War to discourage invading Germans.

Last year, North Norfolk district council refurbished the theatre and 40,000 attended the shows. This year the council has already spent pounds 500,000 on maintaining the pier's structure.

Keeping the pier in good order is expensive, but the enthusiastic appreciation of many capacity audiences repays the investment.

(Photograph omitted)