Seaside theatre boasting longest running summer variety show celebrates 125 years

A SEASIDE theatre boasting the longest running summer variety show in the country is celebrating 125 years of entertaining audiences.

Clacton’s West Cliff Theatre is gearing up for a spectacular year with performances including from comedians Jim Davidson and Jimmy Cricket.

The theatre holds the record for the longest continuously running summer variety show and plans are under way to ensure next year’s event is better than ever.

There will also be a special anniversary event on May 12 and it is also hoped past stars will return including Don Maclean and Bernie Clifton.

Clacton historian and theatre trust chairman Norman Jacobs said the theatre’s origins can be traced back to 1894, when Bert Graham arrived in Clacton with his London Concert Company.

Its first performances were given to audiences upwards of 1,000 on a patch of ground in Agate Road.

In 1899, the London Concert Company of Bert Graham, Bernard Russell and Will Bentley moved to a recreation ground off Tower Road. The site still houses the theatre to this day.

Norman said: “To begin with their shows were still given in the open air. However, they soon enclosed the ground with a wooden fence and built a timber and canvas covering so that shows could continue in wet weather.

 “At this time the company only performed during the summer season with special one-off concerts on Sundays.

“Tragedy struck the company in 1910, when Bernard Russell died at his parents’ home in Camden Town at the age of 34.

“Following his death, Graham and Bentley continued to put on their shows under the heading of Graham and Bentley’s Concert Party.”

The next big step forward came in 1928 when Graham and Bentley opened a brand new 800-seat theatre with outside toilets on the site, designed by architect G W Gould, of Station Road, Clacton, and built by builders Canler and Sons.

The new theatre, called the West Cliff Gardens Theatre, was officially opened on May 25, 1928, by the town’s MP Sir Frederick Rice.

Norman added: “Although there have been a number of significant changes made to the theatre since then, it is basically still the same building patrons enter today.”

“In recognition of this fact and in honour of its founders, the letters G and B - for Graham and Bentley - can still be seen picked out above the proscenium arch.

The West Cliff was sold in 1934 to theatrical agent Will Hammer, who also ran film company Hammer Productions.

Norman added: “Will Hammer’s first innovation at the West Cliff was to keep the theatre open all the year round with a mixture of variety, concert parties, pantomime and repertory companies.

“Although it was still the summer season which provided the theatre’s bread and butter, he was able to attract a number of the top stars of the 1930s to the West Cliff for one-off shows, including Bennett and Williams, Albert Whelan, Harry Tate and Robb Wilton.”

The West Cliff closed when the Second World War threatened although it did re-open during the war to stage a number of shows for the thousands of troops billeted in Clacton.

Will Hammer re-opened the summer season at the West Cliff in 1946 with a show called Victory Vanities while in 1947 Nosmo King starred in For the Fun of It with a young up-and-coming comedian Frankie Howerd having his first summer season.

By the time of Hammer’s death in 1957, the theatre was falling into a state of disrepair and audience numbers were declining.

Councillor Jo St Clair, a leading light in the Clacton Amateur Dramatic Society, led a successful campaign to get Clacton Urban District Council to buy the theatre, which then decided to put on a repertory season in 1960.

Norman added: “This proved to be so successful that the repertory seasons were continued for several years.

“With other theatres in the town closing during the 1960s, the West Cliff returned to variety in 1967 with Bunny Baron being asked to produce the summer season. This he did with a show entitled Starnite Spectacular, starring Don MacLean.

“With audiences dropping year on year Baron decided to bring in a top name star in an attempt to win back the numbers and so, in 1972, he signed up Tommy Trinder, but even he failed to draw the crowds.

“However, the council decided to keep faith with the idea of live theatrical entertainment and appointed Francis Golightly to produce the summer show.

“Francis breathed new life in to the theatre with shows such as Showtime, Holiday Startime and, perhaps best remembered of all, Cascade Revue.”

“Some of the names who appeared in Golightly’s time included Rosemary Squires, Don Maclean, Norman Collier and Bernie Clifton.

“He was also responsible for discovering some of Britain’s brightest young entertainers and giving them their first taste of success at the West Cliff. Names in this category include Ruthie Henshall, Gary Willmot and Alex Bourne.”

Following fears Tendring Councilwould close the theatre in the 1980s, a trust was formed to run it outside the summer season.

Norman added: “After nearly ten years of showing it could run the West Cliff as a successful all year round theatre and arts centre, the trust contacted the council with a view to buying the freehold of the theatre outright. “This was agreed and in 1995, the West Cliff Trust became the new freeholders.”

The West Cliff Theatre will be holding an open day on Saturday, January 26, from 10am until 4pm.

Book in advance by calling the box office on 01255 433344 or go to westcliffclacton.co.uk.