David Bowie changed his name after seeing my band, Great Yarmouth Hippodrome’s Peter Jay reminisces
Peter Jay, of The Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth, shares his memories of the town’s theatre land.
One of Peter’s earliest memories is selling programmes to people queuing around The Windmill Theatre to see the likes of George Formby. He was a little too good.
“I was eight or nine and was saving the commission to buy a drum kit. I always wanted to be a drummer, my mum wanted me to be a pianist. People used to have sixpence each and I think they felt a bit sorry for me, they didn’t realise my dad owned the theatre. I remember one time the dancers, who were standing inside selling them too, went on strike because I’d sold too many before they even got in,” he laughs.
“Seeing and talking to people, that’s what I like to do. I like to be there every show, ask if they want to look at the museum at the back of the circus where we keep all the props and stuff.”
He’ll never forget sitting in The Windmill with his mother Freda, who produced all the shows, while his father, Jack, was more of a frontman.
“That’s where it sunk in, that this is something I want to do.”
Born in Southgate, London, the family moved to the town when he was about eight.
They bought The Windmill Theatre and The Empire, which they still own; and then The Hippodrome around 1978-1979, originally to stop it becoming another bingo hall.
“We were running bingo at The Empire. I convinved my dad to buy it and we then thought ‘What shall we do?’ In a crazy moment we thought, ‘Let’s have a go at the circus’. It wasn’t my thing at all, my background’s always been in pop music and showbusiness.”
His band The Jaywalkers, which he formed while at Norwich College and who had a Top 20 hit with Can Can 62, used to rehearse in The Windmill.
“It was freezing in those days. The boys used to run up and down to keep warm. I thought that looks really good and we incorporated it into our act. It was easy for me to say because I’m sitting behind the drum kit,” laughs Peter, who also ran the Tower Circus and another circus in Blackpool for more than a decade, driving there and home to Great Yarmouth once a week.
“It took me back to doing what I did as a kid, watching people and saying, ‘Why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?’ It’s funny how it comes round. I watch my youngest son Jack producing the shows, the circle of life is a fantastic feeling.”
Everybody who was somebody performed at their theatres when he was growing up - from George Formby and Tommy Trinder to later the likes of Sid James, Michael Barrymore, Cilla Black, Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson...
“In those days there were six theatres in town, all doing shows twice nightly with a different show on Sundays. There was a lot of competition, it was a tough business.”
Mixing with the famous may sound glamorous to you and I, but not for Peter, who’s writing his memoirs - which includes tales of how former home secretary Alan Johnson once auditioned to be the lead singer of The Jaywalkers and how David Bowie called himself David Jay for six months after seeing the band rehearse in a pub.
“The Jaywalkers were on the road for 10 years. We toured with the Beatles in 1963, we were with them every night, sitting and playing cards; the Rolling Stones in 1966, Ike and Tina Turner were in the show. It just seemed normal. Now I’m halfway through writing a book and sometimes think, ‘You couldn’t make this up’.”
Now 74, and about to jet off to Spain when we spoke for a well-earned break after another busy season at The Hippodrome, he’s quite happy keeping himself occupied in and around Great Yarmouth. Sometimes indulging his interest in gardens, particularly the fabulous ones at East Ruston.
“When you’re showbusiness it’s all about shows, I’ve never been a great one for much else. When I’ve been away and I come back down the Acle road and you come to that fabulous bit with all the windmills, it’s a magical place.”
When Peter was younger, travelling round with The Jaywalkers, Great Yarmouth seemed a bit too quiet. Now, that’s what he likes most. He tries not to leave East Anglia if he can.
“Sometimes local people don’t get it. Me and (my wife) Christine tend to stay in our sphere really, it’s all about Yarmouth. One of the main things I’m thinking about all the time is how can we make Yarmouth great again.
“We’re looking at big ideas for The Empire which we own but isn’t open at the moment. We want to do some kind of big arts project there which will lift the offer of the resort. Yarmouth still has all these incredible buildings that have survived and are ready to go with whatever the current thing is, it’s amazing. I suppose what we’re all looking for in Yarmouth is better road and rail connections.”