The End of the Pier Show in Bournemouth
PUBLISHED: 09:21 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013
Household names have trodden its boards, the IRA tried to blow it up, but the show isn't over for Bournemouth's Pier Theatre, as Jeremy Miles reveals
Battered and careworn with its peeling paint and ancient decor, Bournemouth's Pier Theatre is a relic from a bygone age. Where once holidaymakers flocked in their hundreds to see Arthur Askey's latest summer show, this year finds Little (minus Large) seeing out the twilight of his career and Russ Spencer, from those Eurovision failures Scooch, staging his latest comeback
It's not perhaps the most auspicious way for a venue to celebrate its 50th birthday but this mini palace of varieties has survived many knocks in its half-century of existence, not least when the IRA tried to blow it to pieces back in the 1990s. Among those on stage at the time, appearing in the farce Don't Dress for Dinner, were some of Britain's best-known comedy talents including Les Dennis, Su Pollard, Lionel Blair and 'Allo, 'Allo actress Vicki Michelle, who says the thought of hundreds of pounds of explosives strapped beneath the pier as she performed in front of nearly 800 people back in August 1993 still makes her blood run cold.
"You kind of push it to the back of your mind but with hindsight the reality is really shocking." she told me. "The fact is I was on that pier and there was a bomb underneath me. You think 'Oh my God, it might have gone off'. It's just too awful to think about."
The following day the terrorists issued a chilling statement saying only 'a technical difficulty' - a malfunctioning detonator - had prevented the total destruction of Bournemouth Pier.
This Summer the theatre celebrated its 50th birthday - a birthday that some believed it would never see because during its checkered history there have been a number of occasions when it looked as though its days were numbered. The future looked particularly bleak when in 2000 the farce No Sex, Please, We're British starring former 'page three' girl Linda Lusardi and Hi-de-Hi actor Barry Howard did such disastrous business that it had to close mid-season. Shocked producer Brian Hewitt-Jones, who had previously staged productions like Run For Your Wife and See How They Run at the theatre, with the likes of Bobby Davro and Britt Ekland, declared end of the pier farce to be dead in its traditional seaside home. Maybe farce isn't the thing for Bournemouth any more," he told journalists at the time.
It was a far cry from the popularity the theatre had enjoyed in the years following its grand opening in 1959. For the next three decades it was a sure-fire attraction for household names of the post-war era, offering summer seasons to performers like Thora Hird, Dick Emery, Sid James, Bob Monkhouse, Terry Scott, Eric Sykes, Les Dawson, Roy Hudd, Dora Bryan, Danny La Rue and John Inman, and full-cast stage versions of popular TV sit-coms like Doctor in the House, Hi-de-Hi and 'Allo, 'Allo.
A man who remembers the Pier Theatre's glorious past is comedy actor Brian Murphy who, together with the late Yootha Joyce, appeared in the theatre's most successful production ever back in 1977 - a stage spin-off from their massively popular TV sitcom George and Mildred.
"We did 10 shows a week from June to September and it was absolutely packed. There were queues along the pier as far as you could see," he told me.
Three decades later the George and Mildred box office record still stands, but 76-year-old Murphy who these days is best known as Alvin in Last of the Summer Wine, is under no illusions. We were in the right place at the right time. It was at the absolute height of its popularity, 20 million people watched us each week and seeing television stars live on stage was still quite novel. It was also just before package holidays abroad started taking families away from British resorts in seriously large numbers."
By the turn of the millennium the audiences simply weren't there any more. Never has a theatre seen by so many been visited by so few. Every sunny summer's day thousands of holidaymakers crammed on the beach surrounding the fading venue which, despite gaudily advertising its latest show, would report ever more depressing audience figures.
Things were about to change, though. For the past three seasons new management, Openwide International, have been working hard to ensure that the Pier Theatre lives on. It may not boast many current household names and budgets are clearly limited but this summer comedian Syd Little headlined a variety show that packed them in two nights a week and there's an ongoing programme that includes perennial favourites like Chas and Dave, Ricky Tomlinson and South African dance show, Zambezi Express.
Theatre manager Ian Goode believes that the credit crunch may actually help the return of old-fashioned seaside entertainment. "We may not offer great sophistication but we do offer a damn good night out for all the family, and it's affordable," he says. The key to future success, he believes, is simply getting people through the door. "It's incredible how many people say they never realised there was a theatre on the pier, even though it was right under their noses. Now we're finding that once you actually get them here they are delighted. Audiences are beginning to grow again."
Syd Little and theatre manager Ian Goode (on the right), with the cast of Syd's summer spectacular
Vicki Michelle and Jeffrey Holland: Vicki was performing in Don't Dress for Dinner the day the IRA tried to blow up the pier and its theatre