The end of the pier

Entertainment - Stephen Smith laments the decline of a British institution

Whenever I read that a company which makes saucy seaside postcards is to close, I think of the evergreen print of a blonde admiring a leering oik outside a pair of factory gates. A sign above his head reads, "Joe's Tool Works". Well, not any longer, it seems. Bamforth's of Scarborough is being forced to shut down after running up debts of £1m. The announcement caps a dismal summer for traditional seaside entertainment.

On promenades up and down the country, the din of rain and gale and herring gull cannot quite muffle the sobbing of impressarios. In Bournemouth alone, no fewer than five theatres went dark prematurely this year. You could be forgiven for thinking that you've read the obituary of the end-of-the-pier show before. Has it really expired, or will it somehow manage to cheat death yet again, like a magician's assistant emerging from the sword cabinet in one piece? More importantly, would it actually matter if the final curtain was brought down on the summer show?

In Great Yarmouth, there is a theatre at the end of Britannia Pier, but nobody seems quite sure what it's there for, including the management. Is it a loss leader for the amusement arcades? The problem with this idea is that the one-armed bandit crowd do not appear to be very tempted by what the theatre has to offer. It has moved away from the traditional variety bill: a comic or two, a singer or two, the "boys and girls" of a dance troupe. There were 150 shows of this type at the seaside a generation ago, but now there are barely a handful. What the Britannia Theatre provides instead is a kind of repertory of variety: if it's Wednesday, it must be the foul-mouthed comedian Roy "Chubby" Brown - that's the idea.

On Tuesday evenings, alert holidaymakers may have caught sight of the American Drifters, setting out from a family-run hotel on the Yarmouth seafront with their spangled working clothes over their shoulders. Singers who once charted with "Under the Boardwalk", they have been appearing at the end of one. The American Drifters are pros, note-perfect, and good value for £10 a head, but they've been playing to houses scarcely a third full. In their dressing room, where it is possible to catch a whiff of the North Sea through the fug of panstick and cologne, Harry Lyons, the molasses-voiced frontman, says he thinks resort theatres could make a comeback. "A few years ago, they were saying that the cinemas were dead, weren't they? And look at them now." But downstairs in the box office, their manager, Bert Coe, takes what looks like a consolatory drag on his cigarette and says, "There's going to come a time when the owners of this place say, 'Enough's enough'. And I can't see that being too far away."

Just along the coast at Cromer, however, the end-of-the-pier show has been enjoying an Indian summer. An unashamedly old-fashioned production has been packing 'em in. The secret is that it is tailored to the theatre's bedrock audience of locals, mainly elderly. Out-of-towners and coach parties represent bonus bums on seats. Of course, it doesn't hurt the theatre's percentages that it is a smallish auditorium. Managers of other theatres are studying Cromer's winning formula. But several people unconnected with showbusiness have wanted me to know that they can't see what all the fuss is about: seaside shows are tacky, aren't they, full of TV has-beens, or never-were's? This has made me wonder whether those of us who are well-disposed to the end-of-the-pier show are merely being ironic, postmodern - in other words, condescending. Do we like it because it is so bad? Respectable works penned in appreciation of the seaside tradition include Orwell's hommage to Donald McGill, the Rembrandt of the mucky postcard; John Osborne's The Entertainer; and Kenneth Tynan's rave notices of Morecambe and Wise. Many writers have found something compelling in the figure of the variety performer. Could it be because he seems to inhabit his role more completely than, say, an actor, who exchanges one part for the next?

During the period when variety was king, my family ran a hotel in New Brighton, the would-be Mersey Riviera. The Hazeldene was a short stroll from the Floral Pavilion Theatre. The dinner gong that my aunt sounded would from time to time summon acts, turns and artistes to the table. I like to think of the performers in the Smith digs, surrounded by the props and costumes that won them a living, and which stealthily took over their lives: the man who "filled the stage with flags" as he ironed his Stars and Stripes, perhaps, or a line-up of harmonica fools knocking the dottle out of their instruments.

In Yarmouth, I met John Bouchier and Charlie, who have appeared at the Floral Pavilion (but not the Hazeldene Hotel). A vent act, they have been together for 40 years. "But his hair's new," said John. "Five hundred pounds, that cost me. And those are genuine false eyes." Charlie turned his unblinking gaze on his master. There are many theories about what killed off the end-of-the-pier show: foreign holidays, the loss of the theatregoing habit. (When John took Charlie on to the pier, children bolted - they had never seen a vent act before - although they were fast beguiled.)

"Do you want to know my opinion?" asked John. "It's the roads. Before, people came here by train. They were kicked out of their B&Bs at ten o'clock in the morning and the first thing they did was walk down the prom and book tickets for the shows. Now, if they don't like where they're staying, if it starts raining, they just get in the car and go home."

John, Charlie and friends now spend half the year working the cruise ships. "You should see the looks I get when my trunk goes through the X-ray machines." He wheeled his trunk off the pier. It was a treasure trove; putting it another way, it was like something you might find in the attic. We arrived at John's car. His numberplate is A1 ACT.

Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter. His book Cocaine Train is published by Abacus (£7.99)