Archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. Melvyn Bragg looks back to the 1950s and the heyday of the British seaside holiday.
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Just over a century ago the motion camera was invented
and changed forever the way we recall our history.
For the first time, we could see life
through the eyes of ordinary people.
Across this series, we'll bring these rare, archive films
back to life, with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.
We'll be inviting people with a story to tell
to step on board, and relive moments they thought were gone forever.
They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time,
come face-to-face with their younger selves,
and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.
This is the people's story. Our story.
Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967
to show training films to workers.
Today, it's been lovingly restored and loaded up with remarkable film footage,
preserved for us by the British Film Institute
and other national and regional film archives.
In this series we'll be travelling to towns and cities across the country,
and showing films from the 20th century
that give us the Reel History of Britain.
Today, we're pulling up in the 1950s...
..to celebrate the heyday of the British seaside holiday.
We've come to Blackpool, the biggest seaside town in the country.
All day we'll be showing archive films from the 1950s
about British seaside holidays,
with people who have experiences of those holidays at that time.
Coming up: The British knack for having a good time, whatever the weather.
It was a typical summer's time - freezing rain, gales blowing!
Comedian Les Dennis salutes seaside entertainment.
It's popular culture. You don't come to see an art gallery,
you come for the kiss-me-quick and the candy floss,
the donkeys on the beach, and, for me, certainly for the shows.
And one former resident is transported back to her youth
to see herself as she was in 1957.
It seems a lifetime ago.
You know - am I still that same girl on that ride?
We've come to Blackpool today because it's still Britain's most visited seaside resort.
It's currently undergoing a multi-million pound facelift,
and up to 13 million visitors flock here every year.
This is a special place for me,
because I used to come here as a boy.
In the 1950s, a week, or two, beside the seaside
was the highlight of the year for the British working class.
The Holidays With Pay Act in 1938
had recommended an annual week's holiday for workers.
It was an important landmark in British social history,
recognizing the benefits of a break from the rigours of work,
and it meant that holidays were no longer the sole preserve
of the upper and middle classes.
ARCHIVE: 'Holidays with pay will help to turn many dreams into realities.
'The odd day's excursion of a few years ago
'will become the regular week's holiday for the whole family,
'for young and old alike.'
World War Two stopped most people taking advantage of holidays,
but in 1945, six years after the war had begun,
the British public were in great need of a holiday,
and seaside resorts enjoyed an explosion in popularity.
'Doing battle with the British weather here today in Blackpool
'are people from all over the country
'with stories to tell about their holidays, and our seaside resorts.
'Many of them
'will be seeing the films we're about to screen for the first time.
'They'll be showing us family photos,
'and revealing what life was really like
'for millions of holidaymakers at that time.'
'Roger Billington grew up in Oldham. His dad was a sheet metal worker.
'His family used to wait all year
'for the annual wakes week holiday from the factory,
'and they enjoyed every minute of it.
'Roger's passion was holiday camps - as was mine.
'And he's come to share those happy boyhood memories with all of us.'
Can you tell us how you fell in love with Butlin's?
I think it goes back to my mum's days.
My mum went on holiday when she was a youngster in 1936,
so it's in the blood.
I used to go to Butlin's, to Ayr, with my mother.
We went for four or five years.
And everything was free, was the great thing -
roller-skating was free, you'd go dancing free.
It was fantastic.
We're about to show Roger rarely seen footage,
as factories closed and workers headed off
for the annual wakes week holidays he loved so much as a young boy.
What memories will our film bring back to him?
I mean, you needed that break -
your dad were doing a hard job, sheet metal worker in the factory,
they closed the factory down for two weeks...
and it was wonderful!
The machinery would fall silent,
and chimneys stop belching smoke, as the whole town headed for the coast.
Roger loved going to Wales best of all.
We got on the train, me and my older brother,
finished up in the luggage rack, falling asleep.
Woke up in Pwllheli, and the Redcoats would meet you there
and I thought, "Wow, Redcoats! Superstars."
This BBC holiday programme
is reviewing holiday camps across Britain.
The Butlin's adverts promised, "A week's holiday for a week's wages."
That was around £35 for Roger's family in 1951.
The film puts Roger right back in the little chalets of his childhood.
'The chalets measure 12 ft by 10 and take up to four of you at a time.
'They all have hot and cold water,
'all have a standard Butlin pattern of ships on the curtains,
'and have rough cast walls painted yellow, and corrugated iron roofs.
'In some chalets, the pipes go "gurgle" all through the night.'
Butlin's at that time was all full-board -
it was four restaurants, on two sittings...
'10 million eggs disappear into Butlin's campers every year.
'3,000 tonnes of potatoes,
'1.5 million pounds of bacon,
'280,000 pounds of boneless leg of lamb...'
This is Radio Butlin calling...
The Radio Butlin announcer was the main person.
If she didn't get up in the morning, nothing happened!
It was 7:30 - "Good morning, campers! The time is 7:30."
And a lot of people, after experiencing that,
used to come along with cutters, and cut the cable in the chalets!
"Come along to the Princess Ballroom at 2:30, we have the Holiday Princess...
"Bring your swimming costume, get your mum to get involved..."
There were bonny babies, knobbly knees,
glamorous grandmothers - it was something for everyone.
Now, I entered the Young Tarzan competition.
I thought I was fit enough to be a seven-year-old Charles Atlas.
I never got anywhere, it was a great disappointment.
I don't think I've uncovered my body since then! No, no, no, no...
Roger's memories are brought even closer to home
by this amateur film, shot by Eric Bolderson at Butlin's in Filey
in 1957, when home movies were becoming all the rage.
Seeing the films themselves, it's just a great feeling,
to see people on holiday in the '50s enjoying themselves.
But it was the Redcoats who were the real stars for Roger.
The Redcoats were your friends.
In fact they had a saying - "a friend, philosopher and guide."
You ate with them, you had drinks with them.
The Redcoat would probably dance with your mum -
you thought, "Ooh...!"
It was something which always appealed,
and they looked a happy lot, you know.
The Redcoats, I worshipped them.
I thought, "One day. Maybe, maybe."
But you had to be 18 to be a Redcoat.
And that day happened, actually,
because I became a Redcoat in the end.
And it was wonderful.
One thing I have brought, because I've got to give it you...
1955 - Butlin's, Pwllheli! Just for you.
-Somewhere or other, I've got my Ayr badge.
-Have you really?
That was a piper.
-Oh, yes! Pretty collectable.
-Are they collectable?
I'll have to find it, it's in a drawer somewhere.
-Thank you very much for this. I'll look after it.
Today on Reel History we've brought our bucket and spade to Blackpool
and parked our mobile cinema in the shadow of its iconic tower.
The Tower was completed in 1894, five years after
the famous Parisian landmark that the Northern town copied.
'Entertainer Les Dennis has come to talk about
'his lifelong relationship with the town,
'not just as a comedian
'but as a childhood holidaymaker from Liverpool.'
What are your own first memories of Blackpool?
The first memory I have of Blackpool is coming here with my family and I can remember
like all kids, we were like,
"Dad, are we nearly there yet?" "No, we're not nearly there yet."
Look out for the tower, you'll know we're there. You'll see the tower.
Obviously every pylon we saw - "Dad, is that the tower?" "There it is!"
And when we saw it was so exciting to see it from that distance.
For a kid, it was amazing.
The lovely thing about Blackpool is, it's unpretentious.
People do jokes about guys on the prom selling seagulls,
a pound a go.
Which one's mine? That one!
It doesn't take itself too seriously.
It knows what it's about.
It's popular culture.
You don't come to see an art gallery.
You come for the kiss-me-quick, the candy floss,
the donkeys on the beach, and, for me, certainly for the shows.
So how did you feel the first time you performed here?
It was like reaching the Mecca of entertainment.
I didn't get to get on to the North Pier until 1979
with Russ Abbot and the Black Abbots.
But I was thrilled. I was bottom of the bill,
but I'd arrived.
I'd got to a summer season at the North Pier.
'People came here,
'to places like Blackpool to be entertained above all else.'
The biggest wheels, the biggest rides,
more slot machines than anywhere else, donkeys on the beach.
I had a great time here when I was a kid.
'But the season meant unremitting hard work
'for the people whose income depended on the seaside tourist trade.
'I'm meeting someone who knows all about the tremendous effort
'that went into ensuring holiday makers had the time of their lives.
'Dame Sandra Burslem grew up here in Blackpool and went on
'to become Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University.
'Her parents ran a small hotel here
'and she's come along to give us a glimpse of life behind the scenes.'
You were brought up in a boarding house here in Blackpool?
My parents owned a small hotel on the North Promenade,
near Cocker Square.
My grandfather was the licensee of the Derby Hotel
which was just round the corner from that.
What were the 50s like for you?
Growing up in Blackpool is quite unique in a lot of ways. I've got an older brother,
and my brother made himself a wooden carts on wheels.
And he used to go to the train station every Saturday morning
and offered to take people to their hotels or their boarding houses,
and charge them less than a taxi would charge.
So he showed his entrepreneurial skill acquired young age.
Sandra's got another reason for coming along today.
She actually appears in a very special film from 1957
that we're showing today.
How will she feel about watching pictures
that capture the days of her youth?
Journey's End is also a beginning.
Sun and breeze bring a first reviving whiff and promise
of the world of Holiday.
The young Sandra became involved in the filming
due to a chance encounter.
I remember the day exceedingly well.
I was walking to get the tram at the Pleasure Beach.
And a man came over to me
and he said, "I'm making a film. Will you come and be part of it?"
I said, "Come on, pull the other one."
And he said, "No, I'm serious, I'm serious. I'm making a film."
So he got this camera attached to this car on the little dipper,
not the great big dipper.
But as we started
he said, "Come on, shout, shout! scream, scream!"
"You're having a great time, come on!"
So I obliged,
and sort of laughed and screamed for him,
and he did about three takes of it.
And I got off, and he said, "Thanks very much", and I walked to the tram
and I thought no more of it.
In one way, it doesn't seem like well over 50 years ago.
In another way, it seems a lifetime ago.
Am I still that same girl on that ride?
With her poppets round her neck.
I remember those poppets, they were the latest fashion.
The film was made by British Transport to promote holidays
and the cinematographer, David Watkin,
went on to win an Oscar for his work.
In this film his team used a hidden camera in a cardboard box
to capture unselfconscious images of the visitors at leisure.
But while the holiday makers relaxed Sandra's family worked non-stop
to cater for their guests.
It's not all fun. People have to work very hard.
We had a waitress and chambermaid.
They were probably paid £2.50 or £3 a week.
That wasn't a lot of money, and there was no day off.
They worked six and a half days a week.
So they had a half day off during the season.
People have forgotten that's what work was like then really.
Blackpool became a well-oiled Lancashire machine
set up to cater for the mass of visitors.
People saved up 50 weeks of the year
in order to be able to afford to come to Blackpool for two weeks.
You'd have a room with two double beds in
and two families, who'd never met each other before,
would be sharing that same room.
Can you imagine that happening now?
How much times have changed.
The landladies and hoteliers made sure holidaymakers
ate their tea in time for the evening's entertainments.
Well, the meals were at a set time, and yes,
you did expect people to be there at 5:00pm.
If they said, "We're going to the first house of the Opera House",
that would start at 6:00 or 6:15pm, so they made sure they went out.
Many of the shows had two performances a night,
so the people in all of the shows worked incredibly hard as well.
There was something to do 24 hours a day if you wanted it.
Today on Reel History, we're on holiday in Blackpool
and we're going to the Winter Gardens -
one of the great entertainment venues on earth, in my humble opinion.
The Winter Gardens was built on a six-acre estate more than 130 years ago
and it's been added to ever since.
I'm meeting the historian, Professor Vanessa Toulmin, for a guided tour.
This was the original dome.
So the first thing you saw when you came off North Station was this dome
to make people realise where the Winter Gardens was
and it was opened in 1878.
I've been here two or three times but I've never wandered round.
I had no idea of just the size of it.
It's the largest entertainment complex of its kind in the world.
It has a capacity of 16,000 when everything's opened.
So it's quite amazing.
This has just been renovated by the council.
In the '50s, there was a huge fountain here
and there was fernery all the way around.
So the term Winter Gardens was to bring the outdoor indoors.
This is the Floral Hall, and this is the original 1878 framework,
so the idea was that you came in here when it rained,
which often it did,
and you could perambulate and meet your social betters,
so the mill girl and the lady could mingle in the Winter Gardens.
'Blackpool was Britain's biggest show town outside London's West End
'and the stars performed to packed houses
'at the Winter Gardens Opera House.'
What's the seating?
Just over 3,000.
And so Sinatra's been here?
Sinatra was here in 1950 and 1953.
Judy Garland was here, Sammy Davies Jnr, Bob Hope,
and then we had the Royal Variety performance,
the first one outside London, in 1955.
It's completely unchanged since it was built in 1939.
That's absolutely original, everything there.
Blackpool may have been the biggest resort in the '50s
but you could escape to the seaside wherever you lived.
Each part of the country had its own resort.
The Lancashire mill towns headed for Blackpool or Morecambe,
while Yorkshire went east to the likes of Whitby and Scarborough.
If you lived in the south, you went to Bournemouth or Brighton.
My next guest, Elaine Greerley,
remembers how people enjoyed those holidays a couple of a generations ago.
Elaine's come to remember one holiday in particular.
Now you went for your honeymoon to a seaside resort.
Oh yeah. We went to Rhyl, yeah.
In a little caravan that somebody lent us.
It was typical summer's time, you know.
Freezing rain, gales blowing.
We went for a walk on the prom and as we were walking,
we looked across and we could see these people sat
and it was where they had these Piero shows
and the next thing, the music starts up.
# Having a wonderful time! #
It was like an in-joke with us both for years afterwards.
If anything was going wrong, we were a bit down,
I'd come out of the kitchen going, # Having a wonderful time! #
We're going to show Elaine captivating footage
from the National Archives.
What memories will the films evoke for her?
It was amazing because it brought back memories that I'd forgotten.
Sitting on the deckchairs with their suits on!
And jackets and ties, you know, all buttoned up!
The nearest they'd get to disrobing was taking their socks off
and rolling trousers up, you know!
You do forget things like that.
But standards of service in some of the boarding houses
could leave a little to be desired.
The landladies did have a bad reputation
for not being very friendly.
The worst one I ever remember was, we went to the Isle of Man.
And the first morning, she served us kippers.
I didn't want kippers and my little brother didn't want kippers
and so very begrudgingly,
she brought us some toast, I think it was like one slice each.
And that was it.
But my parents didn't complain! My mother never said a word, neither did my dad.
Families like Elaine's helped make our resorts so popular at peak times
that the Government felt compelled to make propaganda films encouraging staggered holidays.
'If half took holidays in June...
'..then everyone would get away with a comfortable holiday.'
The Government hadn't reckoned on the British fighting spirit.
Elaine remembers how holiday-makers made the best of it,
come wind, rain or even shine.
It was a common sight to see them sat in their deckchairs with their umbrellas up.
That was hilarious but people didn't care.
So it's raining, we're on our holidays, we're having a good time.
Whether we get wet through freezing cold, finish up with pneumonia or what!
We're having a good time. It's our holiday.
We're going to enjoy it.
And I think that attitude is fantastic.
Today on Reel History, we're in Blackpool.
If you didn't come for the rest, the food, the crowds, the weather,
or the shows, you came here to Blackpool to dance.
Jack Reavely was a Scottish ballroom dancing champion,
who first came here in 1950.
My mother and father were dancers
and they brought me with them to be a spectator.
From then on, I was hooked on the ballroom dancing.
Is it true you've been here every year since?
I've been here every year since 1950, yes. At the same boarding house.
-Can I have a look at your...?
This is a photo taken after the first round of the competition.
We were lucky because my wife and I are just there, in the middle.
Oh, yeah. Right there.
Jack's about to relive the romance of the ballroom,
where he began two life-long love affairs -
with his wife and dancing, as the past comes flooding back.
Seeing the films brought back so many memories from my own youth.
I saw all of these people dancing around in the ballroom
and I thought, "wow!"
All the men had suits. They saved up for them.
£17 made to measure.
The mill girls used to come over from Lancashire mills,
beautiful girls, dresses down to their ankles.
Wide underskirts, ten yards of net underneath the underskirts.
They just wanted to dance and dance.
In its heyday, the Tower Ballroom was a magnet for up to 1,000 dancers
at a time and Jack remembers how many matches were made.
The girls went to the ballroom
hoping that perhaps the man of their dreams would walk in,
ask them for a dance, whisk them away and they would feel like a princess.
It brought back so many memories.
It was like seeing yesterday today.
'We can't leave the Tower Ballroom without remembering
'an attraction that was built beneath it - the Tower Circus.
Blackpool's most famous clown in the 1950s was Charlie Cairoli,
'who turned on the slapstick here for nearly 40 years.
'His son Charlie Jnr has come to share his memories of the father he idolised.
'The clown they flocked to see at one of the country's oldest permanent circuses.'
Can you tell us what sort of audience he got and what effect he had on them?
People laughing. It was like a crystal bell.
It was the pure sound of people laughing.
Our job, and is still is now,
is if we can make people forget their problems for five minutes,
we're doing our job.
Today Charlie is about to see his father in a holiday film from 1950.
He's never seen the footage before.
What memories will it bring back for him?
He came to Blackpool in '39 and he stayed there till 1979.
People used to come every year and they loved it!
That's how I remember my father when I was a kid.
He was making people laugh.
Charlie the Clown dedicated his life to making others laugh.
He died in 1980, just a year after he retired.
It was only when he died that you realised what effect he had on people's lives.
Charlie Jnr remembers vividly the moving tributes from his father's fans.
Things that people wrote was incredible, it was really nice.
"I took my wife on the first date to the Tower and we laughed."
You know, "Charlie, you proposed to my wife for me."
A lot of people called him famous. He was just my dad.
Charlie Cairoli. Worked in Blackpool for 39 years.
Fabulous dad and I think a fabulous clown.
I've not seen the like to match him yet.
You must've enjoyed seeing your dad on film?
It was fantastic actually. It brought back many memories.
The real critics were the landladies.
-They came in for a preview, free of course.
Then they gave you the thumbs up or thumbs down.
The landladies and taxi drivers.
The taxi drivers used to pick the people up from the shows.
They used to listen at the back of the taxis,
they'd say, "That was an awful show"
Or, "never laughed so much in my life!"
People would ask the taxi driver, "What's the good shows?"
"I picked someone up from the North Pier, they were fantastic!"
They could kill a show - or make it.
It wasn't until the '70s that the popularity
of British seaside resorts started to wane,
as cheap flights offered the promise of foreign travel and sunshine.
But there'll always be a place beside the British seaside in my heart
and in those of millions of others too.
I've had a terrific time here in Blackpool.
These places, these resorts which people like us could go to
for the first time to really take part in a big leisure life,
which was fun and intense and wonderfully enjoyable
and we were determined to enjoy it.
That was a massive part of my childhood
and I'm very grateful to it and very grateful to Blackpool.
And that's it from Reel History.
In this series, we've travelled from seaside towns
to industrial riverbanks.
And from sleepy fishing ports to London's biggest tourist hotspots.
We visited museums, coalmines, villages and city centres.
I'm grateful to everyone who's given their time and their memories
to Reel History and I hope you've enjoyed it too.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Email [email protected]
Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.
Melvyn is in Blackpool looking back to the 1950s to celebrate the heyday of the British seaside holiday.
Elaine Greeley shares her memories of a honeymoon spent at the British seaside and shows the British knack for having a good time, whatever the weather. Les Dennis talks about his lifelong relationship with Blackpool and salutes seaside entertainment which inspired him to become an entertainer. And Dame Sandra Burslem is transported back to her youth, when she appeared in a 1957 film shot in her home town of Blackpool.