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When a galaxy of stars shone on Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 16:43 28 August 2008 | UPDATED: 11:41 03 July 2010

HUGH AND I: Hugh Lloyd (left) and Terry Scott in their Wellington Pier show in 1966. Hugh died last month.

HUGH AND I: Hugh Lloyd (left) and Terry Scott in their Wellington Pier show in 1966. Hugh died last month.

AS another summer draws to a close, it is hard to believe now that Great Yarmouth was a star-studded resort only a quarter of a century ago. In those days Yarmouth and Blackpool were attracting the top names in show business to entertain their holidaymakers, and in the peak weeks “House full” boards stood outside most of our major venues even though there were two performances six nights a week.

AS another summer draws to a close, it is hard to believe now that Great Yarmouth was a star-studded resort only a quarter of a century ago. In those days Yarmouth and Blackpool were attracting the top names in show business to entertain their holidaymakers, and in the peak weeks “House full” boards stood outside most of our major venues even though there were two performances six nights a week.

Many visitors selected their resort on the strength of its entertainment line-up.

Times, entertainment styles and public tastes have changed, and four of our theatres where the cream of variety artistes brought immeasurable pleasure to packed audiences have either embraced new roles or - in the case of the Regal (or ABC, or Cannon, what ever you usually called it), demolished to make way for a shopping mall.

It is no good weeping about it. At least we nostalgia buffs have our happy memories…and younger folk do not know what they missed.

Inevitably, I was reminded of that stellar past recently when I read a couple of items that harked back to the era of those joyous nights in the stalls enjoying the masters of comedy and popular music.

One of those items was the 2006 Harper biography of the late Tommy Cooper, that droll conjuror and magician whose apparent chaotic incompetence was rehearsed to perfection, producing a routine - punctuated by corny jokes - that had audiences on both sides of the Atlantic laughing until their sides hurt and they found it hard to draw breath.

In Always Leave Them Laughing, biographer John Fisher - a former television producer and light entertainment executive - recalls the first time he ever saw Cooper performing. BBC and ITV were both keen to screen the leading talent of the day, he wrote, and one way the former achieved this was to send outside broadcast crews to the seaside on Fridays in high summer to give viewers he describes as “a grainy black and white sample of what they were missing at one resort or another”.

That scenario brought about his introduction to the performance of Tommy Cooper, broadcast to the nation by television from the end of a pier in Great Yarmouth in the late 1950s. Also on the bill were vocalist Eve Boswell and stand-up comic Derek Roy, a man Fisher claims was “now forgotten”. He was smitten by Cooper's act, presence and approach to his audience in that Seaside Special.

The year was probably exactly half a century ago in 1958, for that was the only season Tommy Cooper spent a summer season in Yarmouth, topping the bill at the Wellington Pier Pavilion with Irish singer Ruby Murray in support. Derek Roy - recalled by older folk for his appearances in Variety Bandbox on BBC radio in the 1940s - and his big dog were sharing the lead billing with comedian Albert Burdon at the Windmill.

I vaguely recall that one year, Derek Roy dashed to Yarmouth at a moment's notice to stand in for a sick star - perhaps George Formby at the Windmill before Tommy Trinder took over during the rest of his absence.

As I cannot find South African songstress Eve Boswell - who had a big hit with her recording of Sugarbush - in any Yarmouth line-up in 1958, I assume she was drafted in from another resort for the television show here. I remember her starring at the Regal in weekly variety in the mid-Fifties, but not spending a summer in our town.

For the record, the other line-ups here in 1958 were: comedian and violinist Vic Oliver, with husband-and-wife singing duo Teddy Johnson and Pearl Carr, at the Royal Aquarium; comic Stan Stennett and versatile singer Joan Turner (Britannia Pier); and “Cheerful” Charlie Chester hosting a stage version of his television Pot Luck game show, the first resident show presented at the Regal.

The biography does refer to the comic magician's summer seasons in UK resorts but does not elaborate on that Yarmouth engagement.

Although Mrs Peggotty and I are confident that we have been Tommy Cooper on stage, we cannot remember when or where, but it was certainly not in Yarmouth in 1958. We did see him, in the flesh, as we were leaving Harrods in Knightsbridge on a Seventies day when we took our children to London: as he and his wife were entering, he asked the doorman the way to the hat department.

All the customers who overheard the Cooper inquiry responded, almost in chorus, with: “He's going to buy a new fez!” (a trademark of his act).

A man whose name was nationally known in showbiz circles, but who modestly would probably have admitted that he was no star, was Hugh Lloyd, whose partnership with Tony Hancock and Terry Scott was enduring, his underdog persona a perfect foil for their dominant characters.

Hugh Lloyd, who died in July at the age of 85, was a versatile actor who fitted snugly into his partnership with Hancock and Scott. It was with Terry Scott that he co-starred through the summer of 1966 at the Wellington Pier Pavilion.

During the run they followed the Yarmouth tradition of undertaking personal appearances for charity and, among other assignments, the duo opened the local Old People's Welfare Committee fete at the Beaconsfield recreation ground where they signed autographs at sixpence (2½d today). At the Wellesley Hugh was in Terry's team for an all-star football match with Donald Peers and the Dallas Boys (Wellington) and Karl Denver (Royal Aquarium), their opponents including Dickie Henderson, Hope and Keen and Teddy Johnson (Britannia) and Frank Ifield, Ted Rogers and the Barron Knights (ABC).

In 1966 the Windmill forsook live entertainment for bingo.

I am indebted to Caister author and historian Colin Tooke whose latest book, That's Entertainment - Theatres and Cinemas of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston (£13.99), listed all stars who appeared in the resort, the venues and years. Consulting that book saved me endless research.

Continuing today's show business theme, since Charles Dickens penned his 1850 novel Davied Copperfield - much of it set in Yarmouth where he stayed briefly at the Royal Hotel while researching it - there have been umpteen cinema, television and stage versions featuring prominent actors, even a musical and a Disney-style animated film. Yet another cinema version is being contemplated, and I cannot help wonder who will be cast as the character Peggotty, from whom I draw my pen-name.

George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon would get my vote, if I had one...

A man involved is Peter Howitt, who found fame as Joey Boswell in the long-running TV sitcome Bread and then achieved international renown with Sliding Doors, a film he wrote and directed in 1998. Names being aired for the cast list include Rowan Atkinson, Julie Walters and Colin Firth.

Another film means another version of Peggotty's Hut, purported to have been an upturned boat on Yarmouth beach. I can't wait to see it up there on the big screen.


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