The time The Hump came to Yarmouth

PLEASE release me, he crooned plaintively. But they didn’t. And Great Yarmouth benefited, with Engelbert Humperdinck spending the 1969 summer with us, entertaining holidaymakers and residents who filled the ABC Theatre to capacity at most performances.

That is one version of the story, but there is another which claims that the singer’s season-long Yarmouth engagement was cancelled so he could accompany Dean Martin for a stint across the Atlantic in Las Vegas. Perhaps that was another year: as Release Me was Humperdinck’s first and biggest hit in 1967 or 1968, there is a possibility that he might have been booked for Yarmouth in either year but cancelled it in favour of Vegas before any public announcement was made here.

That Yarmouth/Vegas conundrum has emerged because a national newspaper recently told its millions of readers of the star’s alleged dilemma under the headline: “How I took The Hump from Great Yarmouth to Vegas. Engelbert Humperdinck’s former manager reveals how he brought the singer success.”

For me, this topic was prompted by regular correspondent Robin Hambling, of Lawn Avenue, who had just read the feature. He tells me he and his wife booked seats (and organised a baby-sitter for their four young daughters) to see Humperdinck – probably Britain’s most popular performer at that time – at the long-gone ABC but “when we arrived a board announced that he was not appearing but was being substituted by Lonnie Donegan.

“I liked Donny but my wife thought him much too noisy but, as we had made arrangements, we decided to stay. They did offer money back and gave apologies, but we could not hang about as we didn’t want to make our baby-sitter late. The next day I called at the ABC hopefully to re-book at discount price: I didn’t expect a full refund but that’s what I received.

“The manager, Mr Jack Hare, said he was unsure when Humperdink would be back but in hindsight, by his look he had just been informed he was off to Las Vegas to appear with Dean Martin!”

That national newspaper feature in March was topical because the 75-year-old singer is to represent Britain in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. According to the article, when Release Me became a huge success, the star was invited to be on the Dean Martin show on US television. The programme was so well received that Martin asked him to appear with him for a month at a Las Vegas hotel.

Most Read

In the ex-manager’s words, Humperdinck “was already booked for a summer season in Great Yarmouth, but Las Vegas triumphed. Yarmouth was cancelled and Engelbert never looked back.”

Well, he should know best, being at the core of contractual arrangements, but there is no question that in 1969 the star topped the bill in Holiday Startime at the ABC from early June to the beginning of September, doing two performances a night from Monday to Saturday inclusive (best seats 15 shillings – 75 pence in decimal currency). He did miss at least three performances in the July after collapsing in his dressing room – perhaps unfortunately the time the Hamblings picked to see the show.

I believe the ABC staff were ordered not to tell anyone about the star’s absence for fear it would hit attendances. Lonnie Donegan, the main support act, stood in for one show, with Miki and Griff arriving to bill-top twice the next night. Anyway, on July 31 the crooner fit enough to be the big draw at the annual garden fete at Northgate Hospital, signing autographs and posing for photographs in front of a huge crowd.

Tony King, now retired but a long-serving stalwart of the borough council’s entertainments and publicity department who rose to became its head, recalls that there was “a hoo-ha” one year about Humperdinck: “The impression I got was that he had signed up to do the season here, then got this invitation to Las Vegas and wanted to be released, but the management – the Grade organisation, or somebody else – dug their heels in and he had to do the Yarmouth season.”

Four-plus decades later, it is unlikely we will ever learn the facts.

The recent deaths of two well-loved comedians who spent summers entertaining here brought back memories for Mrs Peggotty and me. In either 1978 or 1982 we attended the midnight banquet at the Carlton Hotel to celebrate the winner of the summer’s Yarmouth-based Miss British Isles crown, and we were all in mid-meal when Irish comic Frank Carson began cracking jokes from his table, his food forgotten.

Fellow diners spluttered with mirth, encouraging him to up the tempo. Then another favourite funnyman, Norman Collier (famed for his alleged malfunctioning microphone) joined in to try to out-quip Carson. The two were irrepressible. Any suggestion of formality in the presence of local VIPs and the newly-crowned Miss British Isles was washed away by the machine-gun impromptu banter.

The other death was that of Ken Goodwin, a comedian with a gentle approach and a nice line in crooning. In 1973 he starred at the Wellington Pier Pavilion, but it was an unhappy summer for him. On the Acle New Road one night he took avoiding action to avoid a collision, his car hit a tree and somersaulted, leaving him up to his neck in dyke water.

A Securicor van driver saw his predicament, helped him into his vehicle – but another car ran into the van! Firemen cut the entertainer free of the wreckage and he spent three days in Yarmouth General Hospital after two accidents within a few minutes.

Our 13-year-old son was recovering from an operation in the same ward and still remembers nurses worrying that patients’ stitches might burst because Ken kept them laughing.

Three years later the comedian was in collision with a lorry and wrote off his car in Yarmouth a few hours before his show’s opening night.

He starred in a professional pantomime, Aladdin, here in 1990. And a few years later we saw him on the Wellington Pier, crooning Bing Crosby songs while ex-Ted Heath vocalist Denis Lotis paid tribute to Frank Sinatra and another performer was Al Jolson.