Pier Theatre celebrates its half century

Bournemouth Pier and its theatre viewed from the East Cliff                                                    Picture  Jeremy Miles

By Jeremy Miles

Battered and careworn but defiantly clinging to life, Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre is like a relic from a bygone age. 

With its peeling paint and ancient decor it has seen old troupers come and go. 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 and Lionel Blair. 

Also in the cast was ‘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 attempted attack came as part of an IRA bombing campaign that specifically targeted holiday resorts. 

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. 

Intriguingly when I mentioned the bomb to Les Dennis recently he initially claimed to have completely forgotten the incident  but then added: “Yeah I remember it now. It was absolutely the weirdest thing. They found enough Semtex under the pier to blow the entire theatre into the Channel." 

This apparent amnesia perhaps has much to do with the other bombshell that was about to rock the comedian turned actor’s life. For it was during that same summer season that he met Amanda Holden and embarked on the relationship that would lead to their tempestuous and ultimately doomed marriage.

The summer of the bomb is one of the main focuses of a new exhibition being staged as part of the theatre’s 50th birthday celebrations. It’s a birthday that some believed it would never see.  Not because of the IRA but because, during a checkered history in which it has celebrated success and survived failure, 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 declared end of the pier farce to be dead in its traditional seaside home.  “It is a good show but people won’t come and see it. Maybe farce isn’t the thing for Bournemouth anymore.”  he told journalists at the time.  

This was a wake-up call that had been a long time coming. Hewitt-Jones had previously staged productions like Run For Your Wife and See How They Run at the theatre but, despite popular names like Bobby Davro and even Britt Ekland, audiences had continued to fall.  

It was a far cry from the popularity the theatre had first 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 featuring performers like Thora Hird, Dick Emery, Sid James, Bob Monkhouse, Terry Scott, Eric Sykes,  Les Dawson, Roy Hudd, Dora Bryan, Danny La Rue, John Inman and full cast stage versions of popular  TV sit-coms like Doctor in the House, Hi De Hi and ‘Allo ‘Allo.

By the turn of the millennium the audiences simply weren’t there any more. Negative publicity was generated by increasingly poor attendances while a series of calamities that included actor Gareth Hunt collapsing on stage from an apparent heart attack added to the theatre’s woes. 

Following Hunt’s dramatic departure from the stage door by ambulance on just the second night of the 2002 summer season, Barry Howard, a regular at the theatre since 1965, reflected on the situation.  Recalling a number of illnesses and the deaths of Terry Scott, Les Dawson and Marti Caine shortly after appearances at the venue, he declared the theatre to be “cursed”. 

He was only half joking. Never has a theatre seen by so many been visited by so few. Every sunny summer’s day found literally thousands of holiday makers crammed on the beach surrounding the fading venue which, despite gaudily advertising its latest show, would report ever more depressing audience figures.

Things may be about to change.  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 too many current household names and budgets are clearly limited  but this summer comedian Syd Little has been headlining a variety show that’s been packing them in two nights a week and there’s an on-going programme that includes perennial favourites like Chas and Dave, Ricky Tomlinson and a new 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 definitely beginning to grow again.”

He doesn’t expect a return to the giddying successes of 30 years ago though. “Times have changed, there’s too much competition,” he says.

A man who does remember 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 - a 1977 stage spin-off from their massively popular  TV sit-com George and Mildred.

Invited to open the 50th anniversary exhibition, he surveyed the sparsely populated boardwalk and the modest gaggle of fans who had turned up to get DVD’s, videos and old programmes autographed.

 Remembering how different things were 32 summers ago, he told me  “It was extraordinary. 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.” 

Three decades later the George and Mildred box office record still stands, but 76-year-old Murphy is under no illusions that the production was quite as spectacular as its popularity suggests.  

“We were lucky. It certainly was a good show but more significantly we were in the right place at the right time. It was at the absolute height of  its popularity. We were watched by 20 million people a week and seeing people from television 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.”

Murphy, these days best known as Alvin in Last of the Summer Wine, says he is convinced there is still a place for venues like the Pier Theatre.  “It may not be going through a hey-day right now but I truly believe there is still an audience. It’s just a question of getting them into the theatre.”

In fact the pier has a long history of getting bums on seats against the odds. There are still a few old stagers who remember the days when punters braving wild storms and giant seas used a rope to haul themselves along the gale-battered pier. 

While former theatre manager Mike Cooper tells of one woman who was so scared of the walk along the boardwalk that she dosed herself with tranquilisers, promptly passed out in the stalls and snored so loudly during Terry Scott’s performance in The Mating Game  that she had to be carried to the box office to sleep off the medication

© Jeremy Miles 2022