End of the Pier: Nostalgia meets blue jokes in God's waiting room: Continuing a series on British piers, Martin Wroe finds vulgarity and peace in Blackpool

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The Independent Online
'WHAT is it with Blackpool?' Jim Davidson asks from the stage of the Pavilion Theatre at the end of the North Pier in Blackpool. 'I've never seen so many old people. It's like God's waiting room.'

But his two-hour routine, containing more filth than the EC claims to have found in the sea 100 feet below him, soon reduces the numbers. Within minutes, elderly people are trooping out, red-faced and in a state of mild shock. End of the pier shows were not like this in their day.

'It was awful, not a holiday show, a stag night,' a Mercedes agent up for a week from Essex said.

A Glasgow woman thought he was vulgar. 'Russ Abbot was not like that last year.'

But if a few of them have left, the majority have stayed and the majority of those are younger people who do not normally visit this more staid of Blackpool's three piers. Which is exactly the point.

'At the other piers,' ventures the man on the Lotta Bottle stand, 'you've got your Geordie boys and your rough lads, but we don't get them. We get your geriatrics who don't spend any bloody money.'

There is a kind of history in it, according to Peter Walters, the North Pier's general manager. In days of old 'the mill bosses stayed on the north shore while the workforce stayed on the central and south'.

It's rumoured, he says, that the division even extends to love: you may find friendship on the North Pier, but you're more likely to consummate it under the Central or South Pier.

During the day the North Pier is packed with over-sixties, the men reading newspapers, their wives, generous legs spreadeagled, resting amply in white plastic deck-chairs at 50p a session. If they cannot walk the 1,320ft stretch to the Sun Lounge and bar at seaward end, a tram will take them for another 50p. Here they can listen to Ray Wallbank playing defiantly non-pop hits on his electric organ. 'A resident organist adds to the pleasure of our patrons with twice-daily recitals,' as the official history puts it.

More than a million people pour on to the North Pier each year, most just to sit and think before dropping off to sleep. It is a balmy, lazy, tranquil atmosphere with a faint air of the past and the passing. A holiday for people on full-time holiday.

'My husband here comes for the air,' Emmie Falkingham said, nudging Arthur with her elbow as if he was not quite obvious. 'That's why we walk the pier, for the Blackpool breeze, it does you good.'

Emmie and Arthur, from Bradford and retired, have been coming to the North Pier since they were children. They saw Morecambe and Wise but would never go to Jim Davidson: 'It's possible to be funny without being rude.'

The walk and the air were just what the 20 townsmen who decided to erect the pier in 1861 were aiming at when they wrote in their prospectus of creating 'greater promenading space of the most invigorating kind'.

Apart from Gypsy Petulengro's palm-reading ('As seen on TV and also radio') and a fudge shop, nothing interrupts the splendid span of the pier between the lump of the Merrie England Bar at the shore end and the lump of the Pavilion Theatre at the other.

Beyond the Pavilion are the fishermen, annoyed at the imminent return of helicopter rides - pounds 15 for four minutes - which forces them away from the end of the pier.

'It spoils it for fishing, that helicopter,' Tommy Hall, 66, from Bolton, said.

'Do you know, years ago I used to be a blue comedian?' says Jim Davidson, back at the show, before going into his routine about about menstruation. 'I don't mean to be disgusting,' he says. But he does and he is and most of his audience love it.

The archetypally politically incorrect entertainer, he then leads the house in chanting abuse at the Germans, before gags at the expense of West Indians and Asians. The audience, paying pounds 9 a ticket, does not mind the xenophobia or the crudity, nor that the humour is often prehistoric. The sound of old women cackling and young men belly-laughing skitters around the walls of the theatre and tells its own story.

'Superb,' chorus Martin and Tony Smith from Glasgow. 'Brilliant, better than on the telly.'

'End of the pier shows are easy,' says fellow comic Bobby Davro, in the audience to watch his fiancee singing in Davidson's band. 'The audience are on holiday, they want a laugh.'

Later, after the show, when it is too dark to see that the sea is not blue, and a million lights, glistening on the shoreline, dazzle your eyes, the magic of another age returns. For a second the nostalgia works, which may be what the over-sixties come here to rediscover, from that long-gone time before they were in God's waiting room.

(Photograph omitted)