We still like to be beside the seaside

The salad days have gone but in Clacton, thousands flock to an old-fashioned revue. Meg Carter checks the chorus line
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Clacton on a wet Friday afternoon: the sun is breaking through at last. Puddles glisten before rows of faded seaside terraces. The broad street leading from the railway station to the sea front seems quiet. But there's bustle behind closed doors. Turn right at the pier, pass the bowling green, fish and chip shops and amusement arcade, and head towards the hazy silhouette of the Martello tower. Inland you'll see the West Cliff Theatre, haven to one of Britain's most endangered species: the summer variety show.

Live entertainment has been performed on this spot for almost a century - ever since the London showman Bert Graham started his open air concert party in nearby Agate Road in 1894. Five years later, the renamed Graham and Russell's Concert Party moved to West Cliff Gardens, performing in a marquee to audiences seated on rows of wooden seats. So successful were they that in 1928, Messrs Graham and Bentley applied to Clacton Urban District council to build a permanent "concert pavilion".

The West Cliff Theatre has since welcomed numerous entertainment names: Roy Hudd, Ruthie Henshall - even Will Hammer, father of the eponymous Hammer horror films, who bought the West Cliff in 1934. Since the local council took over the theatre on Hammer's death in 1957, it has battled against fluctuating audiences and regular pressure from property developers - one even wanted to turn it into a dry ski slope. But today, thanks to local support, the theatre approaches its centenary complete with a new roof and a redecorated facade.

On stage, the chorus line of nine young dancers is being put through its paces by the choreographer, who struts the floor counting time, towel casually slung around his neck. Upstage, two singers rehearse their opening number. Stage left, veteran comedians Gordon and Bunny Jay practise their moves, doffing imaginary hats and spinning pretend canes. The 600-seat theatre is otherwise deserted as singing voices merge into pounding hearts and feet. It's the final days before the grand opening of Clacton's Cascade Revue - one of the few surviving traditional summer shows which, against all odds, celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

Cascade Revue's producer for the last quarter of a century, Francis Golightly, 65, describes its enduring appeal: "It's not a good, old-fashioned variety show; it's a traditional show with a modern flavour." "Revue" is his preferred tag - it distinguishes Cascade from the many other seaside productions with little more than a series of individual acts culminating in the headline act, typically a Cannon & Ball, Ken Dodd or Frank Carson, he explains. In contrast, Golightly's production is carefully choreographed and has songs, dance sequences, and sketches involving everyone, as well as solo spots. And it's regularly adapted and rewritten.

Each year he selects a headline act - this summer it's Norman Collier; in previous years Don MacLean and Bernie Clifton have topped the bill. Then he slots in the other acts - the singers, dancers, performing children and comics.

And contrary to popular opinion, he's putting around 50,000 bums on seats each summer. In fact in the last couple of years, bookings have risen, Golightly claims: "It's certainly holding its own." Why? Because it is traditional entertainment with a contemporary twist, he says. And because, though anything but sanitised, it still has family appeal.

Most large seaside resorts still offer visitors a summer show, but many are stocked with fading TV names. One company now runs most of them: Artist Management Group Productions. The director, Nick Thomas, 36, a former puppeteer, co-produces summer shows in Blackpool, Weymouth (where Joe Pasquale and Joe Brown are headlining this summer), Llandudno and Skegness (where Cannon & Ball and the Nolans alternate with the Chuckle Brothers from children's TV). "There's no question about it," Thomas admits, "the number of people visiting British seaside resorts, and as a result the summer show business, is in steady decline." Even so, he insists, for the time being at least there's still a market: "Especially in Blackpool where this summer we expect more than a million people, and where our turnover should be around pounds 1.5m."

In the season's salad days, they could afford to run a single show for weeks on end. Now, AMG alternates a number of different line-ups and formats in a single week to keep acts fresh. "This patchwork approach can make a summer season financially viable," he says; as does AMG's development of new seaside show formats. "The problem is how to keep reinventing Cannon & Ball, Bobby Davro and Joe Longthorne. So we came up with a number of different formats which we could slot acts in and out of, and alternate in different places in different years." AMG launched Rock with Laughter - a live review format which has been graced by Little and Large, the Crankies and Cannon & Ball, and even spun off into an ITV variety series in 1993. It took pounds 1m at the box office back in 1989. And it has recently invented its own Celtic dance spectacular, Spirit of the Dance.

"We've rejuvenated some legendary careers," Thomas boasts. Even so, he remains convinced of the seaside show business's imminent demise. "It's like being a cannonball man - there's just not the demand for it," he claims, blaming the arrival of cheap package holidays and television's declining interest in variety. "TV just doesn't create mass entertainment stars anymore." And you need these to get people to come to the shows. "Today, people prefer to see niche comedy live, like Frank Skinner, or Reeves and Mortimer," Thomas adds. "The trouble is, you'd never get any of those stars going anywhere near a British seaside resort."

Luckily for Thomas, AMG doesn't rely solely on summer business - it has a flourishing pantomime division and a management agency representing top names such as Shane Richie. "I'd not want to get into the business today - you have to have control of the artists," Thomas confides. Even then, however, there's no accounting for acts of God. Such as the precarious summer weather. Or Irish dance. "Riverdance is playing this summer in Bournemouth and that will obliterate everything."

Roll up, roll up, then. Get your tickets while the summer show business lasts.

West Cliff Theatre, Clacton (01255 421479). AMG shows at: The Grand Theatre, Blackpool (01253 28372); Spa Grand Hall, Scarborough (01723 376774); Embassy Centre, Skegness (01754 768333); Princess Theatre, Torquay (01803 290290); Pavilion Theatre, Weymouth (01305 783225)

Pit stop

After the show at Clacton drive a few miles inland to Colchester and make for the Rose and Crown (01206 866677) in East Street

This magnificent, ancient black-and-white 15th-century timbered inn is now a well- appointed hotel and restaurant. It has been carefully extended and refurbished over the past few years and a pubby bar now attracts a busy local trade. It is full of character, with open fires, heavy beams and antique, cushioned pews and settles. Old-world charm extends upstairs into the main-building bedrooms - three of which boast sturdy four poster beds - with leaded windows, wall timbers and uneven floors. Open to non- residents 11am-11.30pm (Sun 12-10.30pm). Children welcome overnight (under 5s stays free in parents' room, 5-12s half price) additional bed and cot available.

From the Egon Ronay guide 'and children come too' (Bookman, pounds 9.99)