MEMOIRS of a BUTLINS SKEGNESS
The Job Interview
It was early 1973. I had been invited to the Midland Hotel, Manchester, to be interviewed for a position as a Butlins Redcoat. The lady at the reception desk directed me towards the Interview Room. I knocked, and was told to "Come in." I expected to be walking into a hotel room, but it was just a small, plain room, with a desk and my interviewer sat behind it. "Tell me why you want the job," he opened with.
"I want to become a comedian" I blurted out."
"And when do expect to become a comedian," he asked.
"Within a year," I said confidently.
"So, if I give you some stage time and you get a few laughs, is that going to make you feel as though you don't need to do any work?"
"Oh no! I want to mix with the guests all day. I like sitting and talking to people, and organising things. That's why I want to be a Redcoat."
"Well," he summed up just a few minutes later, "I'm Alan Ridgway. I'm the Entertainments Manager at Skegness. Normally, I make applicants wait about 6 weeks till we've done the allocations for all the camps, but I'm telling you now you've got the job, and I want you to come and work for me at Skegness."
I couldn't believe it. I'd had a week's holiday at Butlins Pwllheli in 1966, and it was the best holiday I'd ever had. And only the previous year, 1972, I'd had a week at Butlins Filey. And now - I was going to be a Butlins Redcoat.
I thanked him profusely, and virtually floated out of the room. Once outside, I just wanted to tell anyone and everyone I was a Butlins Redcoat. I was approached by a placard-bearing Christian, peddling the merits of Jesus. I told him I'd just got my dream job. "Jesus gave you that job," he asserted.
"No! It was a Mr. Ridgway," I retorted.
The fifteen mile bus journey back to my hometown of Atherton, situated roughly between Wigan and Bolton, took an eternity. As soon as I descended I ran the rest of the way home, and burst into the house. My mum was sat there with her sister, my Auntie Mildred. "Mam! I did it. I'm going to be a Redcoat."
Before the feeling of deep joy could spread, and the congratulations pour in, my Auntie Mildred chipped in: "YOU - A Redcoat? I thought you had to be talented to do that."
Cue mental picture of a boy jumping up in the air with joy, and a ceiling fan cutting off his head.
You can always rely on your family to bring you down to earth.
ON THE FACE OF IT
It was June 1974, partly in to my second season as a Butlins Skegness Redcoat. Paddy and Irish Jesson suggested to Ents. Manager Alan Ridgway that I deserved to be given my own competition to compere. He agreed and, on Thursday 6th June, I was assigned to the "Lovely Legs Competition." Assisting the young ladies was Chief Redcoat Norman Cox. Secretly, I think he'd been sent to make sure I didn't get a bit too risque with my comments. If that were so, the logic behind this was well-founded, as the devil within me soon materialised:
Girls were very reluctant to raise their skirts, and rightly so, for fear they might reveal a little too much. I came up with a war cry, designed to put the fear of God into them. I would say to the audience: "On the count of three, I want you to all shout, at the top of your voices: 'Get 'em up!' Are you ready, one two three ... " at which several hundred males voices, and a few that hadn't yet broken, yelled "Get 'em up." Some used a different preposition to "up" and had to be admonished.
The tactic paid instant dividends, and the girls began raising their skirts higher than they would otherwise have chosen to do. As the spectacle continued, with one set of eight contestants being replaced by the next eight, my ad-libbing skills came in to their own. As the audience yelled: "Get 'em up" one young lady raised her skirt above her waist, then immediately realised she'd exposed something she didn't want us to see, and immediately lowered it. But I'd seen it, and was going to make sure the audience knew exactly what it was she was hiding. I approached her and, with a little bit of coaxing, got her to raise her skirt again to reveal - a CLOCK FACE imprinted on the front of her knickers. The hands were set at 7.20.
"Twenty past seven," I blurted out, "What's that - OPENING TIME?"
Time stood still, while I awaited the reaction. My spell as Redcoat Compere could live or die on what happened in the next split second. The Chief Redcoat looked me straight in the face. He didn't know wether to kiss me or kill me. But then came a burst of laughter like I'd never experienced before, as the whole of the audience in the Empress Ballroom erupted.
Ken Dodd once said that "the art of the comedian is not to offend," and I hadn't done so. I'd chanced a comment that I thought was funny, and the audience had gone with me one hundred per cent. Irish and Paddy had been secretly observing me from behind a pillar. They immediately left, but they too were giggling. They took their report back to Mr. Ridgway and, from then on, I was given the Lovely Legs competition on a weekly basis. Only four weeks later I was offered the "full" Compere's at Skegness, but chose instead to take over the vacant compere's job at the Butlins Metropole Hotel in Blackpool.
In 1975 I turned full-time professional Comedian, a vocation I pursued for fifteen years. But it had all started with that one quip about the lady with the clock-face on her knickers. You might say: "I'd been in the right place, at the RIGHT TIME."
THERE'S A BABY CRYING
Remember the "Baby Listening" service patrol they used to do at Butlins? The nursery staff would ride up and down the chalet lines, listening at the doors of those who had registered for the service, to search for any babies that might be crying. They looked quite a sight, with their laundry blue uniforms, and their blue capes blowing behind them as they cycled along. They gave campers the same reassurance that the residents of Gotham City got from knowing Batman was patrolling the neighbourhood (on the day he couldn't start the Batmobile.)
Whenever the ladies found a crying child they would write down the Chalet number, and take it to the venue the parents had listed on the registration form, and put up the Chalet No. on a specially made board, stage-side, then flick a switch to make the lights flash - and thus attract the audience's attention. They would also pass a written note to the compere, whose responsibility it was to read it out as soon as he had finished the particular song or spiel he might be in the middle of.
One night, Bobby got a note passed to him by one of the nurses, but put it in his pocket to read later - then forgot. The following day there was a complaint by the parents, who were very irate that their baby had been left in a very distressed state for far longer than need be. So, Alan Ridgway (the Ents. Manager) issued a directive that, in future, all notes must be read out IMMEDIATELY, regardless of what any comperes were doing at the time.
The following night, whilst he was in the middle of singing "Is This the Way to Amarillo?" Bobby was passed a note on which was written the Chalet No. where there was a baby crying. Without missing a beat he sang:
Is this the way to Amarillo
Show me the way to R129
THE PAY OFF
In 1973, the weekly pay for a Redcoat was £10.50p. So, over nineteen weeks of working 14-16 hours a day, six days a week, I earned the gross sum of £199.50. Fast forward to September 1988: I was in to my fourteenth year as a professional comic, and had just finished touring in the Gary Wilmot Show. My old buddy pal Barry Cheese had been doing weekly cabarets at Butlins Barry Island, and Butlins Skegness for the season, but couldn't do the last week, so I was put in. I duly went to Skegness and did 22 minutes in the Pig & Whistle Bar (which I was told was the record length of time a comedian had lasted in there, all season). I then went across the road, and did 40 minutes in the Roman Bank Bar.
For my total of 62 minutes of comedy I received £250, which was £50 more than I'd got for the WHOLE of the nineteen-week 1973 season. That more than made up for the end-of-season bonus I never got in '73, even though it had taken 15 years before Butlins paid up.
JUST LIKE THAT
Around the second week of the 1973 season at Skegness, the Late Night Cabaret was comedy showband "The Barron Knights." When they were due to arrive, Alan Ridgway sent me to the gate to get them cleared to come in, and then escort them backstage at the Queens Showbar. Duke d'Mond, lead singer of the Barron Knights, informed me that they had some guests coming to see them, and would I see that they got in OK. So, I went back to the security gate and brought them through. It turned out they were the singing group "Design," who were in summer season on Skegness Pier, in the Tommy Cooper Show.
I looked after them during the show, then took them backstage, for which they expressed their gratitude by inviting me to their show. The following week, on my day off, I duly went along and watched the show, in which Alan Randall, and Ray Alan & Lord Charles were support acts to Tommy Cooper. In the bar after the show, Design, Alan Randall and I were stood talking in a circle, when in walked Tommy. I was holding the audience so Tommy said nothing and quietly joined the circle. By now I was getting some real good laughs from my "circle of friends" when suddenly the little old dear behind the bar shouted: "TOMMY! Don't get them them laughing at this time of night. I'm trying to lock up and go home."
With a chastised child's look on his face he turned to her and said: "It's not me - it's HIM getting all the laughs."
What a boost that was to an apprentice comic's ego. I flew for miles on that.
A similar story to the Tommy Cooper one happened when Ken Dodd was our Late Night Cabaret star. I got chatting to one of Ken's regular writers. After Ken had finished his act (about four in the morning) the writer took me backstage to meet him. There were several people around Ken, but I gradually got in on the conversation, and began to extract some good laughs.
The writer looked at Ken and said: "You'd better watch it, Ken - he's sharp."
To which Ken replied: "I can see that. I'm keeping my mouth shut till I can think of something funny."
It's comments like that, which convince wanna-be comics to take the plunge. It worked for me.
Late in 1975 I was touring the Cabaret venues as a stand-up comic. One night, while staying in Derby, I went to see Ken Dodd at the "Talk of the Midlands Cabaret" venue. Again, after the show, I was taken to meet Ken. He signalled to me to wait while he dealt with a man and wife couple from the audience. As he went to greet them, the lady opened the conversation with:
"Hello Ken. Hey! We went to see Tommy Cooper last night. Now HE was funny!"
Ken and I exchanged glances, and I just shook my head in disbelief. Ken had just come off stage after holding the whole audience in fits of laughter for over two hours, and here's a woman making no comment about him, but telling him that someone else was funny. She didn't mean it to sound like that - it was just her naivety.
THE INDOOR POOL IS NOW OPEN
One night I was patrolling the Princes Ballroom dance floor, greeting and smiling at people, which was the ritual when not actually dancing, when I came upon a pint of beer that had been knocked over. This was a common occurrence, as people would place their drinks on the floor then, when they stood up, the tip-up seat would return to a vertical position, and knock the glass over. I politely informed them that, if they reported it at the bar hatch, someone would come and mop it up.
On my second circuit, the beer still hadn't been mopped up, and the culprits were still sitting there, watching it spread. By the time I did a third circuit, the pint of beer had spread to the size of a duck pond, and was on obvious hazard. Annoyed that those responsible had not bothered to go and fetch a cleaner, I sarcastically enquired: "Are you opening your own indoor pool?" and walked on
The next day I was informed that a party of TEN guests had reported me for insubordination, and were about to form a deputation to get me sacked, unless I apologised. If I didn't, they threatened to leave the Camp immediately, never to to return.
On the Wednesday, the Ents. Manager Alan Ridgway called me into his office and informed me that 10 guests had been in to his office, complaining about a comment I made, regarding a spilled drink. Thinking he might insist that I apologise to them, or that I might even get sacked, I simply said: "And ............. ?"
"And ............ ," he said, "they've left the Camp."
And that, was that. I never heard another word about it. Alan Ridgway had weighed up my value as a Redcoat against the complainants, and judged that it was better to get rid of ten horrible guests then get rid of me. Thanks! Alan. Good call!
To be continued.