Seaside vs. Summertime – Part I

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When clocks change and the days get longer, it’s not called British Summertime for nothing. What’s more emblematic of this sceptred isle than humping a load of sandwiches and towels down to the coast on an overly-expensive train, before having to shelter from pissing rain in a theatre playing a matinee bill of terrible variety acts? This most light entertainment of all seasons was celebrated by both main channels, with BBC’s Seaside Special, which ran from 1975-1979, and ITV’s Summertime Special, launching in 1981. But which was best? Sadly, the only real way to find out is for me to sit through them, starting with ITV’s effort, and an episode from one of the later series.

It’s the summer of 1987, and we’re coming from Bournemouth, with opening titles rich in the picture postcard charm of the British seaside; a child eating ice cream, speedboats, a dog with a frisbee, hot bikini ladies with lollies… a zoom into a crawling baby’s bare bottom? Our host at an absolutely heaving venue is Michael Barrymore — last seen in his 1996 live show — bidding us an “awright?!” Having to boil down his trademark bits to fit within the sparse stage-time of an MC really underscores how Barrymore’s act is a patchwork of pilfered material. John Cleese’s walk and voice; Freddie’s Live Aid call-and-response gibberish; the speech rhythms of Stanley Unwin; some very Cosby-like faces. It’s weird to think of Barrymore as having a ‘routine’, outside of ejecting audience members from the studio, but here, we have the rare experience of some actual Barrymore stand-up.

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In form, it’s a bit Lee Evans, using his physicality to act out the skimpy material, which is absolute nonsense about going to the football with 40 mates, all wearing Doc Martens and “parkas with The Who written on the back cos we’ve forgotten who we are,” and acting like hooligans — “throw dart in head, on floor, ahh!” His thinking is clearly “I need some local flavour. What do they have in Bournemouth? In 1987? Ah yes, Mods!” Like that one kid in your junior school, he runs round the stage making engine noises, pretending to ride a moped, kicking imaginary old ladies as he passes, and narrowly avoiding a Spinal Tap moment, when fumbling for the right venue as he acts out a ride “through the town of… Bournemouth.

First act is a singer called Grace Kennedy, accompanied by the appallingly titled Nigel Lythgoe Dancers. Like the show’s other group, Alan Harding’s Summertime Special Dancers, this thing of naming an energetic young dance troupe after their offscreen svengali is something I hope to bring back, eventually branching out into auditions for the Stuart Millard Swingers. Nige’s crew give a very upbeat, very 1980’s rendition of Dancing in the Street; big pink skirts flying and old men pulled from their seats for a ho-down in the aisle; all cut with footage of them jigging through Bournemouth highstreet while bemused shoppers look on, like La La Land directed by Su Pollard. All of Summertime‘s performers showcase the classic variety tics, and there’s a lovely one here, with Kelly arbitrarily repeating the final word at the end of the song, like a climactic full stop — “…dancing in the street. Street!

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Thank you, your grace,” jokes Barrymore, before introducing the next act by instinctively doing the arms-out mime for an overweight person, with the words “…a big man, i’m sure he’s gonna go very big with you….” Out comes Dave Lee, who you may recognise as one of the main culprits in Jim Davidson’s mucky pantos. But eight years before Sinderella, and with a strictly family audience, there’ll be no gags about fingering his arsehole here. The young Lee’s in a spectacular silver suit and tie, like something you’d read in a farmer’s eyewitness report from a 1974 book about UFOs. His opening joke is a knowing “I’ve not been well, I just got over anorexia,” and along with Barrymore’s intro, you might be imagining him to be enormous. However, Lee’s no Manning or Eddie Large, or even Peter Kay, and a routine about being big and fat plays weirdly when he’s merely Tarby-shaped. Were there no tubby comics then? Such a novelty, you could be 13 stone and build your whole act off it?

It’s a poor showing which doesn’t go down great, ending on that old gag about an elderly streaker — “whatever he was wearing, it needed ironing.” The best part is his textbook sign-off, a cheery “good night, god bless, be lucky, thank you!” Be lucky? Wish you’d told me that before I had to watch you doing a slash on Jim Davidson. Though Lee never made it on the national stage before his death in 2012, he was so beloved in his hometown of Canterbury, having raised over £2m for the disabled and under-privileged with his Dave Lee Happy Holidays Charity, that a bronze statue was erected on the bench outside the Marlowe theatre, where he made over a thousand (non-adult) panto appearances. I’ve a feeling that’s where they’ll find me dead someday, sat like Edgar Allen Poe, my cold fingers clutching a tattered programme for Boobs in the Wood.

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Tragically for the live audience, and for me, Lee is the best of the night’s three comedians by some distance, though his outfit’s one-upped by New Faces contestant Rudi West, in full gold foil suit, shoes and all. His extraordinary look’s topped off with a bleached flopping mullet and football manager tash, as he immediately takes a header off the stage, with an energetic act that’s extremely Davro/Pasquale/a Binbag Filled With Shitty Nappies. As evidenced on here many times, this was the era of pretending you couldn’t pronounce Arnie’s name for a funny joke, and Rudi adds to the list with “Arnold’s Wets-his-knickers,” before doubling down with the surely the worst gag I’ll witness this decade — “what was that Hulk fella, that Lou Fishfingero?

The rest of the act involves a literal joke shop Reagan mask, whipping off his shirt and slinging on a sash of bullets to stagger round as Reagan/Rambo, before serenading us with “a typical American song,” namely cancelled Confederate anthem I Wish I Was in Dixie. Note that West has a strong Sunderland accent, as he slowly croons out lyrics like “I wish I was in the land of cotton,” and wringing the mask’s comic mileage dry by puppeteering it into slurping up bogies. Inexplicably after all the sweaty silliness, Dixie segues into a Yarwood Earnest Finale, albeit with another beautiful example of the terrible variety goodbye; “[singing] look awaaaaay Dixiiiiiie… [speaking, in a non-silly normal voice] goodnight [singing again] …laaaaaaaaaand!

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There’s a couple more musical acts, with Chas and Dave’s Margate, over clips of them sat on deckchairs at the beach — the highlight of the show — plus Errol Brown miming to Personal Touch. As he takes his bow, Barrymore adds “Errol Brown with his Personal Touch, and very nice it is too, Errol — wahey!” flinching like Errol’s just goosed him. But soon he’s saying those magic words, “it’s off to our disco championships with Nino Firetto.” Disco championships in 1987? how long have they been going on for?! It turns out he misspoke, and this is just plain old dancing, on a bright yellow stage on Bournemouth beach. Firetto’s hair puts me off my dinner, the tousled mulled draped over the shoulders like a mink scarf which Falcon from Gladiators would take right into the nineties.

The dancing on display once again raises the question ‘was everything naff back then?’, genuinely, at a level that wouldn’t get past the pre-auditions for Britain’s Got Talent, unless the contestant had an obvious learning difficulty they could edit into a funny montage. Don’t misunderstand, most things are bad now, but never so jarringly inept as on old telly. Is it because, at some point, we begun to take everything far too seriously? Telling ourselves we need to be successful; need to hustle and grind on 3 hours sleep if we want to be the best? Because moves like these on a TikTok would never leave your drafts folder. Michelle from Scunthorpe’s curly perm bobbles along to Axel F; Douglas ‘Fresh’ does forward rolls in a Kung Fu outfit; Garry — with SGT Funk embroidered on a cheap Michael Jackson outfit — is forced to hop around the karate slippers of ‘Fresh’, who kicked them off mid-routine and just left them on the stage.

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But there’s something wholesome about the haphazard nature, with no sob stories of dead nans or dramatic zooms on the appalled/amazed faces of judges, who are merely nice and give out points, neither destroying the contestants nor informing them they’re about to become the most famous and beloved person in the world. Summertime‘s ad breaks are likewise a scrapbook of the time, filled with strong women in power suits, Morecambe’s Wild West theme park Frontierland, the Daily Mail slogan “a newspaper not a snoozepaper,” and Bobby Davro being chased by a lion while shilling Sunday Mirror bingo.

We return for more Nigel Lythgoe Dancers, prancing in old timey sailor suits onboard a ship to Step in Time from Mary Poppins, in a real sexless “this bit’s for the nans” display of campery, with an actual knees up outside an 18th century mariner’s pub while puffy-sleeved men doff their tricorn hats. In hindsight, a few more minutes would’ve been okay, as Barrymore then introduces Northern Ireland comedian Adrian Walsh, “a man with his own unique sense of humour.” I don’t know if unique’s the word, as this your basic oldschool stand-up, but it’s certainly the worst performance by a comic on these pages since the atrocity of Just Adger on Craig Charles’ Funky Bunker.

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An opening routine about asking “lovely ladies” to dance at the ballroom plays to polite chuckles, before a man who’s been paid to perform on television, and whose job description is ‘comedian’ says this; “Is it any wonder our kids are confused? Have you looked at the pop charts recently?! We’ve got two footballers… Hoddle and Waddle. I thought it was two ducks!” Sorry, but I’m not having that. Waddle, yes, but have a little self-respect. And what’s something you’d say if you were playing the comedy character of a hacky out of touch old stand-up? I’d wager something like: “have you heard the names of these pop stars these days? UB40? I thought that was a German submarine!

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it gets worse — “Feargal Sharkey. Have you ever had that on your feet?” You what, mate? Walsh’s other examples of the wacky names young pop kids have these days are Boxcar Willie (b 1931) and Julio Iglesias, of whom he does that most rancid of dullard’s punchlines, “that’s worth 7000 points in Scrabble!” As a high-level Scrabble player myself, let’s finally put this hoary old chestnut to bed. At 8 points, the J is the highest value tile, on what’s such a low-scoring selection of letters, you’d be better off skipping a turn to risk a swap, plus you can’t lay two words at once, and you’re not allowed to put names down anyway. In a selection box of rank jokes, here’s a few more Walsh bangers.

At least in the 50s and 60s our pop stars had proper names, right? Earth, Wind & Fire, what a wonderful name for an Indian restaurant!

On the notion of Samantha Fox doing Romeo and Juliet: “she’s not much of an actress, but boy can she hang over a balcony!

And on Richard Branson: “Would you fly in a balloon called Virgin? He should’ve known it wasn’t gonna go all the way!

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Then we return from another break and something… happens, which I was not prepared for. Barrymore’s back out, but sans jacket and mic, and he’s dancing; gangly body flailing, polo shirt tucked into his trousers, and miming to a backing track of his own singing. What I said before about naffness, if your neighbour got up and did this at a BBQ, someone would be leading them back to their seat within seconds. What’s he miming to, you ask? I’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves. “There’s a crab called Valentino, he really knows how to dance… a little quickstep down by the ocean, with a sexy sideways motion...”

Recognise it? One of Jay-Z’s isn’t it? Or something from The Fall’s extensive back catalogue? No, this is Michael Barrymore’s own novelty single from that very summer, Doin’ The Crab, which sits in the song category of ‘doing The X’, with lyrics comprised of instructions for the dance moves – “you move to the right, then to the left and you wiggle your toes…” Popularised by The Time Warp, it’s a well-trodden format for the pop culture cash-in, like The Bartman, The Urkel, and The Office‘s parody of the trope, The Scarn, plus — once I get that troupe trained up — The Millard Shuffle.

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Note that the single’s sleeve gives Barrymore’s catchphrase the official spelling of a hyphenated “al-wight!” As he’s joined in doin’ the crab by a group of backing dancers, we should all be overwhelmed by the deepest collective shame at having slept on this, especially after the long-fabled gospel cover of I’ll See You When You Get There and his Backstreet’s Back both recently resurfaced. It’s a long ol’ song though, joined by a row of children — “1,2,3,4, walkin’ sideways ‘cross the floor” — and with a dance breakdown that’s punctuated by Barrymore’s rather un-crablike cries of “Yo!” As soon as it’s over; signalled by him triumphantly hoisting a small boy into the air; it veers into familiar Barrymore territory, with characteristic crowd bants and directionless piddling about. He gives a copy of the Crab 7 inch to an old lady in the front row, before making her pay for it, and squatting down to count out the change. Then he asks “by the way, have we got any ladies in tonight?” and on a response in the affirmative, excitedly thrusts his dick at them, with a horny “awright!

But banter with the gals in the balcony doesn’t work, ruined when they have to repeat where they’re from three times and he still can’t hear, soberly blaming it on a perforated eardrum. In his prime, big Michael Barrymore was considered one of those talents, like Robin Williams, where you’d give them a mic and stand back to watch ’em go, but in hindsight, this is just poor quality time-filling; the mortifying sight of somebody unable to stop showing off. He serenades a pensioner in the balcony with Are You Lonesome Tonight — “would you like some tonight?” — with another hip thrust and three quick little awrightawrightawrights like he’s just fired a volley of cum into his slacks. The lyrics get changed to Strike It Lucky references, before he’s anarchically ripping up the flooring, and pointing out someone in the audience as “Odd Job” — though as they’re not shown, you couldn’t convict him in a court of law for being racist.

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After pretending to be a child doing a shit, in what’s his trademark closer, as seen on his live tour a decade later, he leads everyone through an arm-waving sing-along of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, repeatedly and very sincerely, sharing his hopes that we all do (meet again). We might have started out in the summer of ’87, but the ending feels like we’ve gone back four decades, especially with such a strict rationing of jokes. How can the BBC possibly counter this? As it turns out, the only way to retaliate against Michael Barrymore… is with more Michael Barrymore, inadvertently turning July’s blog content into a themed month. I hope that’s awright.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.

~ by Stuart on July 7, 2021.

3 Responses to “Seaside vs. Summertime – Part I”

  1. […] In part one, we examined ITV’s Summertime Special, so now it’s the BBC’s turn, with Seaside Special. However, I must begin on a devastating note. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, certain footage just refuses to be found. Often — like Backstreet’s Back — it surfaces eventually, but on occasion, I will fail you, as I have in locating Seaside Special’s Ronnie Corbett Go-Kart Challenge Cup. Exactly what it sounds like, this was an all-star racing tournament, and what one must assume was the most electrifying sporting contest of all time, with competitors including Mike Reid, John Inman, Windsor Davies, Tony Blackburn, and most crushing of all, Noel Edmonds. I imagine this is what they based Mario Kart on, with Frank Butcher dropping a banana skin onto the track, causing little Ronnie Corbett’s car to spin round and round. But I’m afraid that’s for another day. […]

  2. “ITV’s Summertime Special, launching in 1981”. ITV’s (TVS) series of this name actually started in 1986. As you acknowledged earlier in the text, the BBC confusingly had two series in 1981-82 also called “Summertime Special” so perhaps you’re confusing the two. Also the singer’s name is Grace Kennedy and not Grace Kelly.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Kennedy_(singer)

    • Thanks for clearing that up. When I wrote it, I was losing my mind trying to untangle the various iterations, and even IMDB didn’t seen sure about it. I’ve amended the singer’s name too. Cheers.

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