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Happy days of our A-list stars

PUBLISHED: 16:56 06 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:42 30 June 2010

Mike and Bernie Winters on Britannia Pier, where they starred in 1967

Mike and Bernie Winters on Britannia Pier, where they starred in 1967

IS it me? Have I become a curmudgeonly grumpy old man? Or am I the only one who finds most television comedians unfunny. Some shout, some dress as though they had been interrupted while cleaning out the shed, some swear needlessly.

IS it me? Have I become a curmudgeonly grumpy old man? Or am I the only one who finds most television comedians unfunny. Some shout, some dress as though they had been interrupted while cleaning out the shed, some swear needlessly. Jokes have been replaced by narrative. Live at the Apollo leaves me Dead at Peggotty's Hut, so to speak.

Mrs Peggotty and I enjoy some sitcoms: Outnumbered, My Family and Not Going Out are three we switch on when possible. Thinking back to Christmas, there was a double disappointment in the much-heralded schedules because the return of the unique Victoria Wood and a prequel to Only Fools and Horses (Rock & Chips) struck us as embarrassingly poor.

These thoughts were flitting through my head as I studied a colourful playbill advertising the programmes on offer at nine of the entertainment venues in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston in the summer of 1967. We will never see a line-up of today's top-calibre performers spending long weeks here playing two shows a night six days a week as stars did in that era and, anyway, there would be few I would be tempted to see in 2010.

Times, tastes, holiday patterns and show business have altered immeasurably in the intervening four decades, but wishful thinking morphed into wistful thinking...

Only recently came another reminder of those big-name years when “House Full” boards stood outside most of our theatres night in, night out, in peak weeks. The holiday season was in full swing and visitors thronged our borough, intent on enjoying every minute of their stay with us. Seeing a show was a highlight for many - and some had saved enough to be in the audience of two or three, spending ages soon after their arrival here to join queues at box and booking offices.

That reminder in April was the death at 82 of Kenneth McKellar, the lyric tenor and popular Scottish artist who graduated from television's The White Heather Club with Andy Stewart in the Fifties and Sixties into the main-stream and spent the summer of 1968 at Yarmouth's leading theatre, the ABC, in a bill topped by comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, also supported by songstress Anita Harris and the Rockin' Berries pop group.

The 1967 playbill was passed to me by ex-Yarmouth Grammar School chum Michael Harvey, of Park Road, Gorleston, who also owns three other summer show playbills. It certainly took me back to the days when the cream of British showbiz A-listers spent long summers in Blackpool or Yarmouth, installing their families in rented houses and mixing charitable work - like opening fetes, and participating in comedy football and cricket matches in front of huge crowds - with playing golf.

Just consider the rest of that 1967 line-up: ABC - Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, Ivor Emmanuel with his rendering of songs from the great musicals, ventriloquist Saveen with Daisy May, and the swinging Eric Delaney Band; Royal Aquarium - Rolf Harris, singer Susan (“Bobby's Girl”) Maughan, and the comedy harmonica trio, the Three Monarchs; Britannia Pier - Mike and Bernie Winters, Joe (Mr Piano) Henderson and impressionist Mike Yarwood; Wellington Pier Pavilion - Irish singing favourite Val Doonican and veteran comic Arthur Askey; Windmill - Freddie and the Dreamers, The Tornados, singers Ruby Murray and Toni Dalli, and comic Joe Baker.

Add to those Billy Russell's Circus Spectacular at the Hippodrome; repertory at the Little Theatre with a weekly change of play; a varied programme at the open-air Marina including Professor Popcorn's Thunderbirds Fun, professional wrestling, brass band concerts and family fun; and Olde Tyme Music Hall in Gorleston Pavilion, plus Sunday one-night-stands at some of those venues featuring stars from other seaside towns...and it becomes evident that Yarmouth and Gorleston lived up to their “The Resorts that have Everything” slogan, at least in the realm of entertainment.

Another celebrity who has died brought pleasure briefly to residents of our borough in that same year, 1967, albeit before the summer season began. That was Cy Grant, a handsome West Indian who sprang to fame ten years earlier when he joined BBC Television's early evening magazine-type programme, Tonight, singing what were described as “topical calypsos.”

He was 90 when he died, and had been a prisoner-of-war, captured after bailing out over Holland from a blazing Lancaster bomber in 1943. Flight Lieutenant Grant and his fellow airmen were under orders to try to reach neutral Spain, hundreds of miles away, but he pointed out realistically that a coloured man would not easily blend into the populace... He was captured, betrayed by a Dutch policeman, and incarcerated, eventually being in Stalag Luft III, later the scene of The Great Escape.

His visit to the borough was to open the seventh trades fair organised by local businesses and held at the long-gone Gorleston Super Holiday Camp, where he toured the various stands and mingled with the public, chatting amiably to them.

Previous show business personalities who had opened the Gorleston trade fairs included young film actress Jill Ireland, who later married Hollywood hard man Charles Bronson, and up-and-coming British screen, stage and television actor Donald Sinden, who had just made his first film, the harrowing war drama, The Cruel Sea.

To bring down the curtain today, I must recall that last autumn I wrote about smugglers' tunnels in Gorleston leading from the High Street area down to the riverside. But I had never previously heard of any tunnels in Yarmouth, apart one beneath the Haven Bridge enabling staff to cross if, for example, the twin leaves failed to close properly, and another 400ft long and 7ft in diameter gouged out 15ft under the river bed a century ago from Quay Mill Walk to Cobholm to carry fresh water pipes to Gorleston.

However, Michael Harvey - whose 1967 theatres playbill I examined at the start of today's feature - assures me that an elderly relative insists that years ago, she was told there was a tunnel under Regent Road linking points roughly between the Regent cinema and the Royal Aquarium. Unfortunately she could supply no further details.


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