Seaside vs. Summertime – Part II

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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.

01

We start with an episode from August 23rd, 1975, and the most British sound of all; an audience clapping along in time to a theme tune, that of Summertime City by Mike Batt. The opening sequence is a picnic basket of summery moments; a circus big top, a lovely lady sliding down a slide on a doormat, and a donkey chariot race along the beach, where the poor things are being whipped by laughing men. Inside the tent is Tony Blackburn, alongside an audience decked out in tiaras (the ladies) and feathered musketeer hats (the fellas), which he describes as a carnival atmosphere, although seeing so many people tightly crammed together like that nowadays just gives me anxiety.

First act out is New Edition, but not the R&B band, rather a troupe of a dozen dancers singing Shirley Ellis’s Clapping Song (“3, 6, 9, the goose drank wine…”), leading to close-ups of some wonderfully off-rhythm clapping from old ladies in the audience. With their bright red outfits and minute after minute of relentless hand-claps, the scene has a huge Suspiria feel, as though everything’s rising to a demented crescendo, audience hands raw and bleeding, as sound and body and will shall part the sands and summon the Great Dark God of British Seaside Variety.

02

Evidently their foul beach magick works a treat, as Blackburn reveals he’s not actually the host, and roused up from Hell into the big top comes Rolf Harris. “D’ya feel like singing?” he asks, teaching the audience the chorus of his latest novelty song. As is the nature of these disgraced paeds, everything from his mouth seems loaded with perversion, and the lyrics “up a tree, fiddly-diddly, up a tree” are suggestive of a ditty about your neighbour sunbathing without her top on. Although the actual song does have a bit about a nudist camp. Young Rolf’s got a very Max Wall manner, with a lot of high-kneed marching, and has me holding my breath with the question “is there anybody here from South Africa tonight?

I’m tempted to put it on pause and do the washing up for a few years, but let’s press on. Rolf says whenever he tours a new place, he likes to create a song especially for the country. Fuck it, see you in 2055. No, come on, hear him out. In a jokeless monologue, he describes penning a tribute song to Dr Christiaan Barnard (who performed the first heart transplant), and that, to his shock, South African audiences hated it, before strapping on an accordion with a “I still think it’s a good song, let me sing it for you.” Must you? A surprisingly moving power ballad on the wonders of modern medicine — no, not really; it goes “who’s got Sidney’s kidney? Well, he said we could use it, didn’t he?” He doesn’t bounce back when introducing the next act, an impressionist, with an honest-to-God “he’ll make an impression on you!” and promising “the mad, mixed-up comedy of Johnny More.” More was a player in both Copy Cats and Who Do You Do? and my balls retract into my abdomen when I spot a table of glasses and beards, from which he’ll take props while dramatically turning his back on the audience before spinning around COMPLETELY CHANGED, now under a hat.

03

This is the gold-standard of shite impressionist routines, opening with a literal “what if Les Dawson hosted Film Night?!” and running straight through the gamut; waggling his glasses as Eric Morecambe and “imagine that Kojak being in London.” In a spectacular example of awful segue plus a ‘this is who I’m doing,’ he brings up “that big fat fella, Cannon” before putting on a tash, pushing out his gut, and saying “my name’s Cannon!” Outstanding; ten Eddie Larges out of ten. After a thick Irishman joke, he ends on a high-kicking medley of Johnny Cash, Sinatra, and Rex Harrison, and you have to admire the bravery of going into showbiz with an act like that and the name Johnny More, which is practically begging for reviews of “Johnny Less, more like!”

Most interesting act of the evening is Tony Blackburn, as himself, chatting with carnival queens and princesses, taking one out of her seat by the hand — “come over here and talk to me, my darling.” He genuinely hits the young lady with “if I said you had a nice figure, would you hold it against me?” causing her to awkwardly laugh with an “I don’t know.” Mate, you know this is going out on TV? Then he gets Miss Poole to stand up, taking her hand too, and getting all coy and flirty like Partridge judging Miss Norwich, as she tells him she’s been visiting local hospitals with her princesses. “That sounds rather gorgeous, doesn’t it?” simpers Tone, still clasping hold of her, “that sounds absolutely lovely…

04

Footage of Poole carnival is a nostalgic jolt back to the rubbish town carnivals of my childhood; marching bands of young cadets who all grew up to be angry at newsreaders for not wearing a poppy in September; breweries waving from the back of trucks done up like Alice’s Wonderland; scouts and papier mache, and — hang on, a load of women dressed as mermaids with crepe paper wigs and nothing covering their boobs but two seashells?! I’ve changed my mind, bring back the great British carnival! Wait, no, changed my mind again. Ban ’em.

05

Following a nervous Blackburn commentating over footage of a hang glider — “ooh, I bet that sea’s cold!” — we’re treated to the debut of a brand new double act, teaming two solo performers for the first time, in a Megapowers of variety, with the combined talents of Stuart Gillies and Bernie Clifton. It’s another early days shocker, seeing Clifton without his usual partner, and I feel bad watching Gilles, knowing he’d be ditched for an ostrich. Scotsman Gilles was known as the Singing Coach Driver, a winner of Opportunity Knocks, and singer of the theme for Love Thy Neighbour (which your dad wants played at his funeral). However, paired up, the structure’s all wrong; Gilles is out first, earnestly belting out Neil Sedaka’s Sing Me all the way through, without Bernie interrupting once, like Eddie Large or Bobby Ball would do. What sort of double act is this?! Thankfully, during Gilles’ Rabbie Burns poetry, Bernie’s dicking around with a stuffed cat. But like seeing both of Rod Hull’s arms, Bernie Clifton walking about on solid legs is very unsettling, until he disappears backstage, returning with an enormous rubber fish. This is a prototype of the ostrich routine, flailing around as he tries to control it, its mouth bouncing up and down, and biting at the crotch of a woman in the front row as he takes it into the audience.

The short-lived Gillies and Clifton end on a duet of Judy Garland & Johnny Mercer’s Friendship, (“if you’re ever in a jam, here I am”), before New Edition do Sloop John B, halfway up the rigging of a ship, and Rolf gives us our second Irish thicko joke of the night while introducing the final act. “The three best known Irishmen in showbusiness… they were telling me the other day Eartha Kitt was a set of gardening tools!” God, the Irish had it as rough as the Scottish back then. It’s amazing England wasn’t just walled off by its neighbours, with Russ Abbot crucified atop Big Ben as a warning. As it’s all we xenophobic bastards deserve, we close on the blue jacketed Bachelors, singing about Cigarettes, Whiskey, and Wild, Wild Women, but no mention of the rippin’ and the tearin’.

06

Compared to Summertime Special, Seaside definitely feels more, well… seasidey, having grown up on the beach myself, with memories of my grandad dressed as a pirate on the float from his working men’s club, and the marching band of Spider-Mans chasing a tattered Green Goblin into the grounds of the local convent as the nuns scattered. Although Seaside is too heavy on music, and didn’t have Barrymore Barrymoring all over the place, the nostalgia takes it. Up your arse, ITV. After ending in 1979, the BBC revived the series for a couple of summer runs through ’81 and ’82, confusingly ditching the Seaside branding for the Summertime Special title as used by ITV. For completion sake, I’m also watching an episode from this run, dating from August 22nd, 1981.

Brighton beach. Children on donkeys. Blonde models licking Kiss Me Quick lollies and munching on candyfloss. Sweeping shots of a promenade. Police horses being stroked. God save the Queen! The exuberant in-house dance group serenade us from an open topped bus, as a girl dances out of an antique shop holding a still-live lobster, and singing a plaintive prayer, which seems to cry straight from the aching hearts of every noble countryman and woman, 40 years in the future — “I’ve never needed summer more than this!” Jazz hands raised high, we end outside another massive circus tent, brilliantly listed in the credits as “the big top tent of Captain Bill Lewis.” As the show proper begins, each dancer’s got their name printed on their shirt, like the Pink Windmill kids, mugging, flexing and pushing each other out of the way as we’re introduced to our performers, who are phenomenally on-brand. It won’t make up for the Ronnie Corbett Cup, but it’s a start.

07

Hosting is Paul Daniels, during the wig years, and though I normally like magic, he comes out holding a newspaper with coloured fabric threaded through it. Like the linking rings, I can’t get excited about cloth magic, unless there’s 500 miles of it being pulled out of Piers Morgan’s anus. Half the routine’s him holding the newspaper in his mouth and mumbling, solely to set up a segue into the next act, who you can understand while his lips aren’t moving! It’s ‘friend’ of the blog, Roger De Courcey and Nookie, and like the Bye Bye Man, once I summoned Roger by saying his name, he’s now in everything I watch; Royal Varieties, blueys, lurking in the background of a VHS from my 6th birthday party.

As usual, Roger’s routine is endearing in its balls-out laziness, with a fair chunk of stage-time padded by having Nookie keep saying “pardon?” so Roger has to repeat himself. There’s an admirable use of the decrepit old gag about sea weed — “did it?” — and another about Roger “going for a paddle in the water,” which the piss-obsessed Nookie rebukes as “not very hygienic!” As a commenter recently reminded me, before the pair hit prime time, Nookie was called Bollocks the Bear, and he embraces his anarchic roots by slipping in a “bloody,” plus a joke about going to the “nuddy” beach. “And what were the gentlemen doing?” asks Rog. Nookie: “Hanging about, mostly.” Lovely stuff. But then there’s this.

Roger: “Did you know, you can get iodine from sea weed?

Nookie: “I get mine from the chemist.”

08

What? That’s not even a joke (until someone explains it and makes me feel stupid). But it’s hard not to warm to them, with their heartfelt, and slightly mucky sign off “we hope you live as long as you want to…” “…and want to as long as you live.” It seems like we’re in for an all-time great crossover when Nookie introduces The A-Team, but sadly it’s not Mr. T and his mates, but a load of awkward white dancers spinning round in satin shirts and tight trousers, taking the odd choice to sing Stevie Wonder’s I Wish; “looking back on when I was a nappy-headed boy…

Then Joe Brown’s marching on to sing “pop songs of yesteryear,” in an actual pearly king jacket (though they’re just white plastic buttons) and accompanied by a piano sat centre of stage, like the corner of an East End boozer. Even in his resting state, the Roddy Piper-looking Brown is exceedingly cockney, but the pearls and piano amplify his powers ten-fold, and I keep the volume low in fear of waking Barbara Windsor’s ghost, with a medley which plays like 3am ads for a compilation CD of GREATEST GOR BLIMEY COCKNEY KNEES UPS. Brown treats us to Where Did You Get That Hat, All Me Life I Wanted To Be a Barrow Boy, Wotcha (Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road), Any Old Iron, and a song that teaches rhyming slang, where we learn that kippers are “Jack the Rippers.” It’s the setlist Dave Courtney polishes his knuckle dusters to, and the audience are super into it, knowing all the words to all the songs. Joe introduces the next act as someone who “walks, talks, whistles and sings.” Any ideas?

09

Barrymore’s back! Now both the ITV and BBC shows are perfectly Barrymore-balanced, they can be judged objectively. This is an early appearance for the big man, before he’d been given his own show, and was known entirely through guest spots on Who Do You Do?, Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, and Blankety Blank. Some of his standards had yet to develop, and most notably, he opens with a jarring “good evening!” rather than “awright?” But then he’s out into the audience, mic cable trailing behind, to pick on an old bloke in the front row. Standard. Things get genuinely interesting when he hops back onstage and asks us to imagine that we’re not here (inside Captain Bill Lewis’s tent), but at a place called Fawlty Towers. It’s a real college-improv-team-setting-the-scene intro — “What has happened is, the cabaret hasn’t turned up for the evening, so Basil has to cover, and it could turn out… well, we’ll see what happens!

Considering how much of the Barrymore stage persona was an unattributed Cleese/Fawlty, it’s fascinating to see him doing the same schtick as an outright impersonation, which — as with every impressionist — is just the funny walk and the “Right! Right! Shut up!” which he did for years as himself anyway. He gets huge laughs pelting back and forth across the stage with all the bandy-legged physical gymnastics, clattering himself in the head with the mic and so on, but when asking, as Basil, if it’s “alright with everyone?” it hits me that Fawlty might’ve been the genesis of “awright?” having evolved out of the recurring tic of “Right! Right! Right!

10

Hoo boy, his act whole is wretched, with that joke about an astronaut landing on the sun, where he hops about like his feet are burning, and the ‘classic’ Barrymore move of throwing an audience member out of the theatre. An elderly man who laughs gets the treatment too — “You found that funny, did you, Rumpole? Come on, up you get!” — literally dragged up onstage, far too quickly for his old legs, and leaving him to try to find a way off through the wings while thousands of people shake with hysteria. As we’ve learned, “I hope that one day we meet again” was the closer throughout his career, leading the audience into a sing-along of Dame Vera’s hit, with everyone swaying their arms, though to be fair, it always brings the house down. Perhaps the only way to follow that is with another truly unhinged dance number, and an appearance by Kate Robbins, sadly from the period before she took did comedy impressions and was just a straight singer.

11

We close with more of Paul’s magic, bringing up three volunteers, and unable to stop doing an accent after one turns out to be “not English.” It’s a ‘prediction in an envelope’ trick, and if he’s written “I’ll do a funny accent at a foreign woman while awkwardly holding her hand for ages,” then magic is confirmed genuine. The volunteers all have different props — coloured discs, a clock, place names — from which they’ll select one at random. The Swiss lady given the clock reveals herself to be Swiss-German, leading to a gag about it usually going tick-tick-tick, but as a German, “she vill have vays of making it tock!” Very funny and normal to bring up Nazi war crimes to a confused holidaymaker, Paul mate.

He’s usually great value, but this is Daniels at his worst, over-explaining every miniscule aspect of the props to demonstrate they’re ‘real’, and being hugely patronising, in a fucking appalling showing. He seems in a worse mood than when Louis Theroux filmed him in a huff on Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook, and when nervous Sheila’s selecting the place name, he jokingly admonishes her for sitting down without being told, ad-libbing “where I come from, women wait till they’re told before they move,” yelling to the audience “is that right, men?!” The tent fills with deep-voiced cheers, and a single, higher-pitched “no!” “That’s a woman,” says Paul, “shuttup!

12

Prediction tricks like this stink, as you know what the ending’s gonna be as soon as it starts. He gets the correct answers — colour, number, place — from an envelope secured away in a magic wooden pagoda with MADE IN HONG KONG written on it, before a model in a bathing suit (wearing the right colour etc) emerges from it too, so all the lads get some magic and a look at a cracking bird. It’s weird that this isn’t Debbie McGee. Is her absence related to his rotten mood and red-pill outbursts? Next to the tiny Paul, this non-Debbie looks eight feet tall. So who takes it, out of ITV and the BBC? Perhaps it’s the coward’s route, but I declare a tie. Both series are as dreadful as they are wonderful, which is a pinpoint metaphor for summertime on these shores. It’ll either be baking hot or pissing down, and what’s more inherently British than that? Plus, Michael Barrymore will be there for some reason.

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.

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~ by Stuart on July 18, 2021.

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