If you know Scarborough today and think that it gets crowded in the summer that may well mean that you never knew it during one of its heydays in the late sixties and seventies. One of the best ways to illustrate this is to think back to the summer shows of that time. The two main venues, the Futurist theatre and the Floral Hall both held around two thousand people. Right through the summer, twice nightly, both venues would run a single show starring some of the big name entertainers of the time and they never lacked an audience. Work the numbers out, add in the visiting Sunday shows and those who went to the show at the Spa or smaller venues in town, and you will see that it’s a lot of people. An awful lot. The announcement of which star names would be coming to Scarborough for the summer was big news, keenly awaited by the crowds who would be holidaying or visiting later in the year. The shows were expensively produced, full of sparkling dancing girls, music and laughter. The pattern of them varied only slightly to suit the strengths of the headliner, who would usually make a short appearance in the first half and then be onstage for most of the second half, after the interval. Each one was a party, with a holiday atmosphere among the crowds who had come straight in from the beaches, cafes and arcades. If the audience was asked whether they were enjoying themselves, as they often were, there was only one possible answer- they would roar back a loud YES! on cue. Going to Scarborough was a much bigger deal back then. It wasn’t just somewhere that you nipped over to in the car if the sun was shining. It was an event. Money was spent, treats were had, and the biggest treat of all was going to a show. Not enjoying it was out of the question.
My parents and I always went to the first house of both shows when we were on holiday in Filey throughout those years. It was always the first house, because it was earlier and we could get the last bus back. It was also cheaper, and my mum thought that there was less chance of my little ears being shocked by a comic daring to be too suggestive. (I got my revenge years later by taking her to see Dave Allen live at the Futurist, she told everyone for weeks afterwards how “blue” he was.) I would arrive in my seat after a day of noise, colour, excitement and fish and chips, hardly able to believe that the best was yet to come. Afterwards, as we left, we always had to walk past the queue waiting to get into the second house. They would be watching the faces of those coming out, anxious to know whether it was a good show or not, and they would be told. My favourite venue of the two was the Floral Hall. There were always plenty of flowers, as promised, and it was lighter and airier than the rather ugly Futurist. It was often the better show too, the Black and White Minstrels were regulars at the Futurist and they were for oldies as far as I was concerned. Not that I ever complained about being taken along. They were the glamorous Saturday night television entertainment of their day (the Futurist was even bought by their management as a summer “home” for them) and the colour of their faces was never questioned. It seems strange now, but that’s how it was. I can remember absolutely loving their main comic, Denny Willis but sadly time has completely erased the reasons why.
We saw pretty much all the big stars of the day. The best of them were Bob Monkhouse, who was one of the sharpest live comics I have ever seen, Les Dawson, who had masterly timing and a face made for stage comedy, Tommy Cooper, who made me laugh as much as anyone I have ever seen on stage- a joyous, overgrown, childlike presence- and Des O’Connor, who was much younger and sexier than those who have only seen his later chat show career on television would expect. The only act who it was definitely best to book second house for was Ken Dodd. He was surreal, quite anarchic in his way, and absolutely hilarious. I don’t know what time the diddymen went home but it was well known that when he got on stage for his main set after the interval of the second show he was very unwilling to come off again, and value for money has always been important in Yorkshire. When Michael Barrymore jumped down from the stage and caused chaos giving away free ice creams from the stall at the start of the second half of his show my dad’s only comment was “I bet they wouldn’t have let him do that before t’interval”. I always enjoyed it most when a comic was top of the bill rather than a singer. The bands who I thought were cool at the time wouldn’t have been seen dead doing summer season. I didn’t want to see Frank Ifield live yodelling I Remember You, or the Bachelors still crooning out I Believe, I wanted the Osmonds, The Carpenters or the Jackson Five. The chances of any of them whiling away a whole summer among the donkeys, ice creams and deckchairs along the foreshore were pretty slim.
Along with the big names there might also be newer faces who would surprise everybody. The first time I saw Cannon and Ball they were just starting out and they completely stole the show, both funny and charming. They were the ones that we told the second house about on our way out. Spit the dog was also a revelation to me before he became a TV star. A simple idea (can a dog be a one trick pony?) but if you’d had a day out in the sun and a few lucozades it really worked.
I feel lucky to have been around to share in the era of the seaside summer shows. There was a real goodwill and a shared purpose among the audiences which must have lifted the performers and helped them to keep going for a whole summer. You would have to look hard to find audiences as wholehearted and unsophisticated as that now. If only Morecambe and Wise hadn’t played Blackpool for their summer seasons each year my joy would have been complete.