A real variety of entertainment

ON this auspicious day in the reign of our Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, it affords me – your humble and honourable servant – inordinate pleasure to provide gargantuan stimulus to your intellect to assist your uninhibited reception of entertainment of exquisite variety delivered for your edification and satisfaction by artistes from the pinnacle of Europe’s classic operatic, drama and circus academies whose supremacy of terpsichorean talent, boundless titillation, energetic physical artistry and mellifluous melodic rendition will leave you replete and in a state of wonderment and admiration...

Well, that tortuously wordy introduction proves – if proof was needed – that I would be wasting my time seeking to give up penning this column and become the loquatious chairman of a Palace of Varieties type of show beloved by older generations. If job descriptions had been in operation in those days, verbosity and garroulous avidity and would have been a prerequisite.

The apparently extempore flowery introductions were a famed feature of these shows when they were re-created for television from theatres like Leeds City Varieties, with Leonard Sachs – father of Andrew (the waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers) – a prime exponent of the chairman’s art.

The acts that followed were good old unashamed sing-along variety that would be frowned upon or instantly rejected by today’s trendy TV producers, however popular they might be with many viewers.

Reader Mrs Frances Carter and I chatted about this much-loved form of entertainment recently when she contacted me to say that my recent columns about pre-war concert parties in Gorleston Pavilion – like those featuring comediennes Elsie and Doris Waters and local soprano Helen Hill, all of whom were to become national radio stars – reminded her of the venue’s successful and enduring transition from revues to old-time music hall.

Great Yarmouth Corporation had long been struggling to find a summer formula to attract audiences to the Pavilion, despite ringing changes, and when the 1962 experiment failed, there was a proposal that the building and the Floral Hall opposite should be converted into a ballroom and conference centre.

Gorleston Chamber of Trade, usually at loggerheads with the council – which, it claimed, was too concerned with Yarmouth to the detriment of Gorleston – was anxious to persevere with the Pavilion and determined to find a new idea for it. According to Mrs Carter, of Paddock Close, Belton, old-time music hall was its suggestion, an appropriate one because the Pavilion has an Edwardian heritage.

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There was much discussion in the town hall before the council accepted the chamber’s proposal which, curiously, had brought opposition from Gorleston Hoteliers Association, the very people one would think would have welcomed a change of direction.

In his 2007 book That’s Entertainment: Theatres and Cinemas of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, Caister-based historian and author Colin Tooke reported that the hotels organisation feared that the new format might “lower the high moral tone of the family resort with rowdiness and slight lewdity from the artists and some of the audience”.

Whoever uttered that scathing indictment of old-time music hall was probably unaware that he, or she, had coined a new word. Lewdity? The noun is not in my dictionary, although “lewdness” is.

Colin Tooke added that the Hoteliers Association chairman declared: “We get a different type of person than they get across the water.”

Nonetheless, in 1963 the new-look Pavilion embarked on its change of emphasis, with Don Ellis’s Old Tyme Music Hall opening to a full house, the audience not seated in the traditional rows but cabaret-style at small tables with chairs, with a waiter service for drinks. Many in the audience wore Edwardian-style costumes.

It proved a success, and a commentator wrote that “at last we have found a winner for Gorleston”. For the first time in six years, a profit was made.

Mrs Carter recalled that having suggested the innovation, members of the chamber “thought we would give it a boost”. To demonstrate this whole-hearted support, members in Edwardian fashions hired horse-drawn landaus and went around the borough to publicise the new-look show and encourage folk to give it a try.

Among the chamber members on that excursion to drum up support for the venture were shopkeepers Frances Carter and her husband Robert, hotelier and publican Percy Field, butcher Len Fleetwood and his wife Jean, florist Bill White and his wife Gladys, Bert Hart who was in the caravan trade, Mrs Elsie Botwright, and electrical contractor Bowers & Barr director and sales manager Ron Hemp.

There were occasional departures from old-time music hall: for example, there was an Al Jolson Minstrel Show for one season, a revue, and country and western. But the Pavilion-going public obviously loved the informality of old-time music hall, for local producer and impresario Carl Adams staged it there for 13 summers, and coaches used to ferry patrons in from far and wide. Some came time and time again during a summer run.

In 2011 the theatre has compiled an ambitious and varied programme taking it to Christmas, but there is still room for old-time music hall, albeit on only one night – a show staged by the Grand Order of Water Rats on Sunday, August 14, to raise money for its charities.

The chamber was also active in staging trade fairs at the long-gone Gorleston Super Holiday Camp. Celebrities who performed the official openings included screen actor Donald Sinden, who had just made his debut in the classic The Cruel Sea; film starlet Jill Ireland (later the wife of Hollywood “heavy” Charles Bronson); and Cy Grant, composer and singer of topical calypsos on BBC Television’s Tonight show.

Frances Carter and her late husband were retailers in Gorleston for many years, running Ingrams, a tobacco and confectionery shop in the High Street. The couple were avid showgoers, particularly to London’s West End, and enjoyed a good social life together.

Mr Carter died in 1976. As a widow, Frances enjoyed cruise holidays but is no longer able to go, but still loves playing Bridge, knitting and reading. And she is blessed with two sons, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.