The History of The Summer Show
Back in 1894, when it all began, Clacton-on-Sea was a fairly new seaside resort. With a growing number of visitors, there was a need to lay on entertainment. One of the many groups who came to Clacton was the London Concert party. It was owned and directed by Bert Graham.
Over the next few years their reputation grew and Graham took his friend, Bernard Russell, followed by fellow entertainer Will Bentley into full partnership. Over the winter of 1898/99, they erected a stage and rows of seating with a pay box at the entrance of their newly leased space known as West Cliff Gardens.
This is the earliest known photograph of the West Cliff Theatre and shows the seating being laid out. It was taken in late 1898.
in 1902, it was decided to build a covering for the theatre and a small wood and canvas building was erected to house the stage and seats. It was built in such a way that during warm weather the canvas side could be rolled up to allow in the air, or rolled down if it rained.
In 1914 Great Britain was plunged into the First World War, but this didn’t stop Graham and Bentley as the Summer Season continued throughout the War. In 1921, the husband and wife team of Fred Gibson and Nance Haines joined the company. They were to appear throughout the 1920s.
As the audiences grew ever larger, Graham & Bentley realised that they needed a much better theatre, so in early 1928, plans were submitted. The new theatre was officially opened on 25th May 1928 by local M.P., Sir Frederick Rice.
Having been involved with the theatre for over 30 years, Graham & Bentley handed over the summer season to Murray Ashford for the 1931/2 season and then in 1933 John Berryman & Adele Wesseley took charge. This was to be the last Summer Show under the ownership of Graham & Bentley. In 1934 they put the theatre up for sale.
Almost immediately they received an offer from William Hinds, who already owned a string of seaside theatres. Hinds was a keen amateur thespian as well as a businessman and when acting or producing, used the stage name, Will Hammer. In 1934 he also founded a film company, known to later generations as the Hammer House of Horror.
Hinds soon dropped the word Gardens from the name of the Theatre and by 1936, it had become just the West Cliff Theatre.
As part of the Summer Season, Hinds introduced special “Star” concerts on Sundays. And some of the entertainers who headlined these shows really were the top variety stars of the day. Names like Robb Wilton, Harry Tate and Albert Whelan.
For the 1939 season, Hammer relinquished the production side and handed it over to Gordon Marsh.
Unfortunately, proceedings came to an abrupt end, when, on 2nd September, all theatres closed on the outbreak of the Second World War.
When the War finished, Hammer and Marsh were quickly back in action, producing the 1945 Summer Season with a show called ‘The Victory Vanities of 194”V”’ starring Ernie Moss.
The late 1940s and 50s were a boom time for Clacton. Will Hammer lost no time in providing first class entertainment at the West Cliff for those families looking for a good time by the sea.
In 1947, he produced a show for the Summer Season called “For The Fun Of It”. It starred one of the top names of the day, Nosmo King, but it also included a new young up-and-coming comedian having his first-ever Summer Season, one Frankie Howerd.
In 1949, the star of the show was a man who was himself to have a big influence on the Theatre some years down the line, one Bunny Baron, who starred with Ivy Luck in “Sunshine & Smiles”. Baron and Luck returned in 1950, by which time, Hammer had taken on a new co-producer, the well-known band leader, Jack Payne.
In 1953, Hammer brought in a new producer, Renee Paskin, who put on that year’s season, “Come to the Show” starring Jack Francois.Yet another new producer, Mildred Challenger, masterminded the 1955 and 1956 Seasons, which starred Joe Black in “Joy Bells”.
Sadly, there was to be an abrupt end to the “good times” that the West Cliff had enjoyed when in 1957 Will Hammer was tragically killed in a road accident. As well as a string of theatres, Hammer also had chains of jewellers, bicycle shops and hairdressing salons. The Hinds organisation he left behind had no interest in theatres and put them all up for sale.
With the building being over 30 years old and in need of repair a buyer could not be found. There was, however, one last flourish as the 1958 Summer Season at the Pavilion “The Rayker Revue”, was doing poor business and Clacton Council, who owned the Pavilion, leased the West Cliff so they could transfer the show there and replace it with a show starring Harold Taylor.
With no buyer coming forward it looked as if this would be the end, but thankfully the theatre was saved by Cllr Jo St Clair.
As well as being a Clacton Councillor, Jo St Clair was also a founder member of the Clacton Amateur Dramatic Society (CADS). Jo’s idea was that the Council should buy the West Cliff itself to enable it to continue. In spite of some opposition, she eventually got her way and on 24 August 1959, the West Cliff Theatre was signed over to Clacton Council for the sum of £7500, including fixtures and fittings.
Because discussions had taken so long, it meant that for the first time since 1894, the West Cliff was dark for a whole year with no 1959 season.
Because there were a number of other Summer Variety shows taking place in Clacton, it was decided to put on a different type of Summer Season and 1960 saw the Penguin Players in a repertory season. This proved to be successful and so the repertory season continued for the next few years with the Galleon Theatre Company following the Penguin Players and then, finally in 1966, the Brian Rix Organisation putting on a season of farces starring Jerry Desmond, George Moon and Bill Treacher, Eastenders’ Arthur Fowler.
By 1967, the Savoy and the Band Pavilion had ceased putting on Summer Variety Seasons, so the Council asked the former star of the 1949 and 1950 season, Bunny Baron, to produce a new show at the West Cliff to be called, “Starnite Spectacular”. For his first season in charge, Baron signed up and young up-and-coming comedian he had spotted playing in Felixstowe the year before, Don Maclean.
Following Maclean, Peter Kaye and Ken Roberts, amongst others, took on the lead role. However, in 1972, Bunny Baron decided on one last throw of the dice in an attempt to stop the ticket sales dwindling further and signed up Tommy Trinder. The Council invested in a big publicity campaign to win holidaymakers and residents back to the shows. Tommy threw himself into the campaign and made personal appearances all over Clacton, opening fetes, bazaars, jumble sales – pretty much anything. As he said himself in a newspaper interview, “I’ve opened everything in Clacton this year except a hole in the road.” Sadly things didn’t improve and at the end of the season, Bunny Baron decided to call it a day and again there was talk in the press of the Council closing and demolishing the Theatre. Salvation came in the form of an amateur producer from Braintree called Francis Golightly.
Francis felt that what was lacking from the show was “the glamour, the feathers, the tinsel” and that’s what he intended to bring back. His show, he said, would cost just £828 per week and not rely on a ‘Star’ name.
The Council jumped at the offer and, in 1973, Francis Golightly staged his first Summer Season at the West Cliff with a show called Swingin’ 73. It starred Ted & Hilda Durante plus well-known local comedian, Wally Dunn. Francis had a flair for publicity and in just the first year, the box office broke all records with the local paper using the headline, “The West Cliff is reborn”. This was the start of a new lease of life for the Summer Season and, in spite of Clacton’s ever-falling number of holidaymakers, Francis’s shows, full of “glamour, feathers and tinsel” continued to pull in the crowds. Some of the other headline acts of this period included Gordon & Bunny Jay, Kenny Cantor, Joe “Mr Piano” Henderson and Malcolm Vaughan. These shows were given different names, such as Swingin’, Holiday Startime and Summer Showtime, but always featured the Cascade Dancers.
As the Summer Show began a new decade, Francis did start to bring in some better known names. 1980, for example, saw Billy Dainty headline the show. While 1983 starred Norman Colliier (complete with chicken outfit and broken microphone!) and in 1984, Don Maclean returned for his second season. Right from his first season, Francis’s dancers had been known as the Cascade Girls. In 1985, he had the inspired idea to name the whole show and season after them and so, Cascade Revue was born. As well as finding the right stars to appear, Francis also had the knack of spotting and then bringing on new young talent. Ruthie Henshall, for example, made her professional stage debut in the Cascade Revue as did Gary Wilmot. And of course Andrew Robley became the shows most popular male vocalist when he joined the show in 1986.
In 1995, the ownership of the West Cliff changed hands as the West Cliff (Tendring) Trust bought the freehold of the Theatre from Tendring District Council. However, this was done on condition that the Council lease back the Theatre for the Summer and that Francis continued to produce the Summer Show. 1995 was also a bumper year for star names as both Bernie Clifton and Freddie Davis appeared that year once again to sell-out audiences.
Towards the end of the 1990s, local Councils everywhere were under enormous pressure from central Government to ensure that they were spending Council Taxpayers money wisely, resulting in the Council deciding to cut the grant it was giving to Francis to produce the Summer Season. The cut was so big that Francis and his long-time partner and Musical Director Roy Clougton felt they could no longer continue to produce the show without sacrificing the high standards that had made the shows so successful. And so one year short of celebrating thirty years they ended their run in 2001.
The Council then agreed to hand over the running of the Summer Season to the Trust, with just one proviso, that they had to have a recognisable star name to headline the show. The Trust turned to Openwide International, for the 2002 season. They brought with them as Director and lead comedian, Richard Gauntlett. While for the “recognisable star name”, they looked to pianist, Bobby Crush and “Summer Follies 2002” was ready to go.
Sadly, it did not prove to be a great success. The Trust lobbied the Council to drop their insistence on a “recognisable star name” which was agreed, and Openwide and Richard Gauntlett returned in 2003 with “Summer Spectacular” but with audiences still dropping, Openwide decided they could no longer continue to produce the show and pulled out, leaving the Trust once more to find a new producer.
While considering the future, the Trust was approached by the Derek Grant Organisation which offered to put on a different type of Summer Show. The idea was that the season would run from 21 July to 11 September, four days per week (Wednesday to Saturday) but with a different star appearing on each night, so that every Wednesday saw Joan Regan; Thursday, Vince Hill; Friday, Maggie Moone and Saturday, Stan Stennett. The show was called “All Star Summer Showtime 2004”. The idea was not a great success and after just one season it was decided to go back to the old format and a new producer in the shape of former Black & White Minstrel singer, now turned producer, John Warwick, offered to stage the West Cliff’s Summer Season. His first season saw Bryan Burdon star in Summer Special.
As part of the Summer Season, John also staged one-off “Sunday Specials” throughout the season with names like Bobby Davro, Chas & Dave, Mike Reid and Roger de Courcey.
Summer Special continued for four years and saw a couple of old West Cliff favourites return to headline the shows with Jimmy Cricket and Bernie Clifton. While, in 2008, Fat Man & Tenor (Mike Jerome and Paul Kaye-Jones) took on the lead. Although John had decided on a return to the “Glitz and Glamour” approach not seen since 2001 the numbers were still falling and after much discussion on the Trust, 2009 saw no Summer Show staged at the West Cliff.
Following this hiatus, the Summer Season returned once again to the West Cliff in 2010 when well-known show producer, Chris Gidney, and musical director, Michael Wooldridge, offered to revive the Summer Season with a show starring Jimmy Cricket called Summertime Special. Jimmy threw himself into advertising the show and publicising it whenever and wherever he could to try and win back the audiences. Chris Gidney left the production team after three seasons, leaving Michael Wooldridge to continue on his own.
With Michael now in sole charge, he changed the name of the show to Summer Variety Special and, in 2013, put on his first solo production with Martin Gold starring (see photo).
Michael continued to produce Summer Variety Special with Martin Daniels in 2014 and Neil Hurst in 2015.
But audiences figures were still falling and after much discussion on the Trust if was felt that the West Cliff should once again take charge of producing the show. So for the 2016 production the West Cliff joined forces with AJL Theatrical.
Over the years there have been so many names linked with the history of the Summer Show, and we salute each and everyone of them for keeping this great British tradition alive – long may it continue.
This is an edited version of a much more detailed article written by the Chairman, Norman Jacobs, in April 2020 during the Corona Pandemic for our Facebook account.