There’s no business like showbusiness of yesteryear
- Credit: Archant
The star-studded seaside variety show, like those attracting many a “House full” notice outside Great Yarmouth theatres for long summer seasons in the Sixties and Seventies, is no longer fashionable or viable.
However fondly we enjoyed these productions and the presence among us of some of the biggest names in British show business, they are old hat, the entertainment of yesteryear. Anyway, very few top entertainers are prepared to spend weeks here in a hotel or rented house doing two shows a night when a national television appearance is comparatively undemanding and probably more lucrative.
Most of those variety stars of yesteryear are either dead or long retired.
Among the exceptions is Jimmy Tarbuck, here in 1965 (Wellington Pier), 1968 (Regal) and last October at Gorleston Pavilion, with a return due in June because he loved the venue and has become a patron.
We still catch TV glimpses of Des O’Connor (1959, 1964 and 1968), and the perennial Ken Dodd (1959, 1963) continues to appear live here and there.
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Last month variety lost two of its stalwarts, both former headliners in the resort’s theatres: magician and illusionist Paul Daniels, aged 77, the star attraction in the Britannia Pier Pavilion for the summer of 1979, and versatile Ronnie Corbett, supporting Harry Secombe at the Wellington Pier Pavilion in 1962, returning here the following year with singer Helen Shapiro when she starred at the Royal Aquarium, and achieving star status in 1971 as bill-topper on the Britannia Pier.
Two years before Paul Daniels’ Britannia stardom, Mrs Peggotty and I saw him here mesmerising a packed audience – all visitors, apart from a handful of us. The venue? Not a traditional theatre but a king-size canvas marquee on Yarmouth racecourse!
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We had never heard of quick-fire Paul Daniels, and I reckon his name meant nothing to 99 per cent of those dinner-jacketed men and their elegantly attired partners in his audience. He was brilliant as he displayed the talents that swiftly were to rocket him to national showbiz recognition.
That big break was soon to follow, it transpired.
His magic and cheeky chatter act were part of the weekend programme of the national annual meeting of Round Table in its golden jubilee year, an organisation launched in 1927 for business and professional men aged under 40.
The focus of the weekend was the formal handing over of a new high-speed rescue craft to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at a ceremony on South Quay. Round Tablers had raised the money, and the lifeboat was named the Louis Marchesi of Round Table in honour of the movement’s founder, a Norwich caterer.
Paul Daniels’ highlight was a hypnotism spot during which half a-dozen “volunteers” sat rigidly on stage and did various uncharacteristic things at the snap of the fingers or utterance of a given word, instantly returning to their seat on another signal.
This sceptical journalist, and many of the audience, suspected that the victims were “plants”. But, on reflection, would he really have brought paid rehearsed assistants from, say, London for a half-hour gig and possibly an overnight stay?
Were Round Tablers and wives in on the joke? I was a Round Tabler once, so I am sure they would have delighted in sussing out his alleged hypnotic prowess, or turning the joke on him. Bluntly, it was baffling and hilarious, meriting his impending elevation to star status.
Diminutive Ronnie Corbett, who died aged 85, enjoyed his summers here for three reasons: he was a favourite with audiences, could bring his growing family here through the long seasons, and he liked spending much of his leisure time on the golf course.
In his autobiography, he wrote that for his 1962 visit here to appear with Harry Secombe, he managed to rent a bungalow at Caister “conveniently close to the golf course”. And he was a good sport, despite his small stature lining up in one of the annual celebrity football fixtures that used to attract thousands to the Wellesley Road recreation ground in summer.
In 1971, the year he was top of the bill on the Britannia Pier after many seasons of being a main supporting act, the Corbett family was in rented residence up the coast at Horsey Rectory – a comfortable drive to Yarmouth and back for his nightly shows, and to the Yarmouth and Caister golf course for his regular rounds.
The household comprised Ronnie, his wife Ann(e), their daughters Emma (4) and Sophia (3), plus a 20-year-old Scottish girl, Jan, to help with ihe children.
Ann Hart was no stranger to the demands of show business, her all-round career having included singing, acting, comedy and dance. The couple met when they were both appearing “in a funny old London nightclub”, and were friends for six years before deciding on marriage.
During that 1971 bill-topping season, the Yarmouth Mercury’s women’s page writer, known as Flapjack, interviewed Ann in the garden of Horsey Rectory, reporting that the comedian’s wife had hitherto worked in every type of show other than circus and was determined to resume her career when family and opportunity permitted.
In previous summers she had managed to appear in Sunday concerts but had ruled them out in 1971 because it was Ronnie’s only day off in a hectic schedule and she wanted to share it with him after the pressures of his elevation to bill-topper.
She told Flapjack: “I manage to help him through watching all his shows from outside. And he asks me to read anything he does beforehand. I miss the theatre a great deal and being slightly involved in it keeps me sane.
“Sometimes it’s very lonely for me. When he’s in pantomime, I don’t see him from noon till midnight and he’s exhausted when he gets home. Television is particularly gruelling. I can see it knocking him into the ground. It’s one of the hardest ways to work, but it’s very satisfying.”
Of course, at that time she could not foresee the greater fame and national acclaim that television was to bestow upon her husband who was elevated to a national treasure.