Amphitheatre provided holidaymakers with comic postcard fun in Great Yarmouth
PUBLISHED: 16:16 21 October 2017
MALCOLM FERROW COLLECTION
Perhaps it would not have worked in a conventional theatre or a dance hall, but Great Yarmouth’s open-air Marina amphitheatre seemed tailor-made for Neville Bishop and his Wolves, stalwarts there for long summers post-war.
It was a treat for me, and other veteran Yarmouthians, to be reminded of his vast contribution to the resort’s popularity by a recent Mercury feature in which he was described so accurately as “the King of the Marina – a man who stood head and shoulders above the biggest household names in the land” starring in our theatres.
Neville was our equivalent of the Billy Cotton Band Show, favourites on radio and fledgling television with its mix of straightforward renditions and knockabout routines - plus the occasional variation to the style of America’s zany Spike Jones and His City Slickers.
But with this “something for everyone” mix, he endeared himself to visitors who sat in their canvas chairs, revelling in his programmes that included bathing beauty contests, talent shows, children’s novelties, glamorous granny competitions, knobbly-knees fun... Sometimes - at bathing beauty contests, for example - big-name stars from the resort’s other theatres made an appearance, if only to put the coveted sash over a winner’s shoulders.
The atmosphere was light-hearted, comic postcard fun at times, but it was founded on sheer professionalism expertly guided by Neville himself. The schedule was exhausting, although it never showed: morning, afternoon and evening shows six days a week, plus two performances on Sundays.
Sixty years ago I penned a feature about Neville Bishop and his Wolves for the entertainments pages of our sister newspaper, the Eastern Evening News. It was not the easiest of interviews: no-one was reticent, but the musicians were here, there and everywhere, so to speak, in the spacious amphitheatre, wise-cracking, practising a few notes on their instruments, fetching and carrying, chatting among themselves and to the occasional visitor...
To make matters worse, suddenly Neville was nowhere to be found, apparently having left the Marina for an unspecified time - akin to the “Elvis has left the building” announcement across the Atlantic years later.
For a young trainee reporter, it was a tough assignment. My notebook had scarcely a word in it, most of my questions were bypassed or evoked repartee or quips.
How would I succeed in accumulating enough material to compose this feature?
Luckily, I did manage to engage the attention of lead saxophonist Sonnie Lee for a few minutes. He told me: “We do these crazy routines day in and day out during the summer, but I’ll bet we enjoy ourselves far more than the audience. We have a whale of a time up there on the bandstand.”
The instrumentalists had to be adept at varied styles of music: one minute they might be accompanying an operatic aria, the next it’s an up-tempo piece of big-band swing, perhaps followed by a favourite among their older devotees, like In a Monastery Garden, rounded off by the ensemble abandoning their seats on the low stage and marching among the audience, still playing with top-hatted Neville at the fore, keeping time with a scruffy household mop wielded high like a drum major’s staff or mace.
Annually he was guaranteed a full-to-overflowing “house” on one early-season day: that was when Yarmouth hosted the annual outing of members of old people’s clubs across Norfolk.
They arrived in fleets of coaches, many from small isolated villages, and being entertained here, dined (if not wined) and sampling our amazing range of delights was their highlight.
For many, the Marina headed their must-do programme.
When he finally retired, Neville Bishop took over a pub in Thetford. The 3,000-seat Marina, built on its prime Golden Mile spot in 1937 for £42,000, reverted to other offerings, like the Wild West Cowtown, before it was demolished in 1979; the current Marina Centre erected on its site and that of the adjoining outdoor swimming pool.