Dear God, but it was a baptism of fire! Totally overwhelming to a young (16...I lied about my age!) year old organist taking his first tentative steps into Butlins at Bognor on 3 May 1973. That cavernous reception area with its ASK ME stand, and me, suitcase still in hand and wondering what the hell I had signed up for. You see, the audition wasn't really meant to happen. I was just staying in the same hotel that Billy Forrest was running auditions at and just sat down at the horribly clapped out organ he had brought along for the day and played. The next thing I knew it was "sign here cocker", and off I went to Bognor.
Of course, when I approached the Redcoat at the ASK ME stand, I wasn't quite expecting the welcome I got. "'Scuse me, where's the entertainment managers office. I'm the new organist" This was greeted with a hung-over glare and a "Fuck off.. we don't employ kids." And that was my first meeting with Janet Pierce who was House Chair and used to run the whist drives. (Jan sadly died about 20 years ago now. Another old red gone) Then I met Doug McLeod and got my first weeks schedule.
Blimey! That first year was a learning curve and a half. Births, deaths.. it all happened on that site. But what was it, I wonder? What was it that got so deeply into my blood that first year? Must have been something because 21 years later I was musical Director at the Ocean Hotel.
So many characters. "Bingo George&. One of the most loveable and charming rogues imaginable. Children's entertainer Johnny Watson, almost blind then through retinal detachment and truly hated the kids. There was a double act in the Blinking Owl bar called Don & Tina.
And it was at Bognor that I first met the legendary Paddy & Irish Jesson. By that time Paddy had lost his larynx to cancer, not that he let it stop him for a moment. And Irish... just WHAT did they feed that woman? Boundless energy and the epitome of what a redcoat should be. A truly amazing pair and now, both gone.
I read the obituaries here recently. I also knew Bryn Peters and his magnificent impression of the Bognor MD Rob Charles. So sad to hear he died. But I think I was really shocked to hear of Jackie Brown's passing. Anyone know how? Why?
I remember the storms when half the camp flooded, the wonderful Gaiety theatre, now torn down and part of that awful plastic tent. (And redcoats who seem to think taking the P out of the punters is a good thing. Oh, I know it was done back then too, but NEVER where a punter might see.) Johnny Watson's little children's theatre is now a car park, and the only original theatre left on the camp is the long disused playhouse. The old gaiety holds my affections though. I learned my craft there, and had some amazing things happen along the way. Like the Sunday morning when an altar was set up in front of the No1s for the Sunday Service. The Sunday evening show being set on the revolve behind it. Oh what a nightmare when, one Sunday much to the surprise of the Priest, (the rather nasty little Rev. Carey-Potter) the revolve started to turn... to reveal two male stagehands,... er.... busy... with each other. They didn't wait to hear what Doug had to say. Exit stage left. Then there was the terribly hot day when the People's Talent show auditions had overrun and a VERY old lady said "'ere love. I'm too old for t'competition, but eeh, I'd love to get up there and sing through t'microphone." She clambered up there, got two bars through The Miller's daughter, and dropped dead on the stage.
The husband was found and the young camp manager (whose name I will omit) bustled into the backstage area. Taking the dazed husband to one side he said "I am so sorry for your loss. You understand, we can't refund today, because she had her breakfast"! Such tact!!
I hold one record though, and I don't know if I should be proud of it or not. I may well be the only 16 year old employee to do a full summer season and leave with his virginity intact!
From Bognor, I went pretty much to the Ocean Hotel. Not the new one on the camp, the old one in Saltdean. Now, THERE was a hotel. Majestic, and clearly, in her day, something rather special. I remember the mural on the wall of the Marine bar, painted by a redcoat Reg Siger. A magnifcent work that really added atmosphere to the bar, which also served as the Old Time Ballroom. Every musician should spend a couple of seasons doing that. It's musical suicide, of course, but you learn to hit all the dance tempos spot on. Then, when Pat Redmund left, I got the hotseat downstairs in the Ocean Ballroom. Dances, cabaret, revue shows. Never knowing what was coming through the door... no rehearsals, everything played at sight and right first time. You can't buy that kind of training these days.
Jimmy Noon, now long gone and buried in the churchyard in Rottingdean was a legend in the sing song bar. It seemed there was no song he didn't know, and nothing bothered him. Always a smile, always cheerful. Now, the Ocean herself has gone. The swimming pool was initially covered over, then shortened, because it was considered too expensive to repair the leak they found. Into the vast expanse of concrete at the far end, someone decided to put two spa baths.... unfortunately neglecting to mention that the filters needed cleaning out regularly, and welcoming legionnaires disease into the building. We had our share of excitement too, when a rogue security guard kept setting fires. Finally, (and I won't go into details) too many managers thought not what the guests wanted but what they could get out of the place and numbers fell dramatically. The "old lady" closed, and three years later, the bulldozers arrived. The "wings" and pool are gone, but the main building remains. They built flats on the rear of the site and the car park and the main building looks like it has been embalmed. The Old Lady is dead, but at least people will be living there again.
In the early morning, as I walk down Longridge Avenue, if I stand very still I can still here the laughter and the music that used to come from within. I can still feel the oppressive heat from the stage, and she still hasn't quite lost that "Butlin smell." I would advise any old Ocean Red to take a trip back. Pick your moment, early morning or late evening. Stand by the wall near the pond and just let your mind drift back over the years. You might even here Lynda Noon jangling her many bracelets and saying "You said you could do it when you wrote in."
One weeks holiday for one weeks pay. The old man started something magical, and in turn it attracted some magical people. Friendships were forged there, marriages were forged there. People were born, and sadly died there too.
But one day, in late July in 2010, an old musician came back and remembered.