Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sand, stones, pink rock and fading glories - Welcome to the Coastal Apocalypse!

Over the years, nothing has captured our minds and hearts quite so much as the good old coastal holiday.  One or two weeks each year spent relaxing in coastal towns scattered around the United Kingdom.  Bad food, lousy weather and over zealous deckchair attendants after every penny they can get from casual holidaymakers desperate to sit somewhere that hasn't been entirely corrupted by the passage of sand.

This blog entry is not about the history of coastal holidays, although it is a fascinating phenomena based upon changing work patterns in the United Kingdom (i.e. we work less hours and so therefore have slightly more time to relax) and the very human need to escape.  I am writing this as an exploration of my own feelings towards coastal holidays and more specifically, the traditional holiday camp holiday.  I will take in the odd cultural representation of British holidays and coastal towns because they have helped to perpetuate a myth and even to tarnish the glory days of 'kiss me quick' hats and promenades down the seafront.

As a kid, I used to go to the seaside quite regularly.  Initially, as a family, we would go at least once or twice a year to various holiday camps and also to a hotel.  These included Ladbrokes in Middleton, Butlins in Bognor Regis and the Camber Sands Leisure Park.  Eventually, my Mum and Dad purchased a chalet on the Camber Sands Leisure Park, so we went a few times a year.  The aforementioned hotel was the Hotel Burstin in Folkestone.  As an adult, I have only returned to a holiday camp once with some friends in 1996, Butlins in Bognor Regis.

My family coastal holidays are responsible for some of my most enduring memories, some of them long since repressed and others really positive such as the first time I bought an American comic from the local holiday camp shop in 1985, which led to my love of comics growing and an out of control collection!  Holiday camps are a truly weird idea.  You pay money to attend a working environment that is not unlike your daily working life with timed events, structured meals and some of the scariest entertainers outside of a prison camp.  Indeed, when you think about it, the layout of most holiday camps resembles a prison.  You have an entrance gate that normally has a security guard checking passes to ensure that you are allowed to enter the kingdom of pleasures, s/he guards. Then a small Reception office, where you 'check-in' and receive your key.  Depending on the holiday camp, the accommodation is either scattered caravans and/or chalets or blocks on two levels.  To all intents and purposes, holiday camps are prison camps.

As a child, I remember being quite excited by Butlins in Bognor Regis.  It truly offered everything and really, there was no reason to leave the site.  It had a cinema, entertainment for all ages including performers such as The Tumbleweeds, three meals a day, a bowling alley, an outdoor pool, a kids' club and oh, so many other delightful things.  Mum and Dad remind me of the dark side of the holiday, the weather was terrible, the accommodation relied on antiquated meters, which required 50p to be regularly inserted to provide heat and light.  I remember on the one semi decent day that week daring to jump in the outside pool with my sister, only to feel every muscle in my body atrophying and were it not for my ingrained survival instinct, I fear I would have become a frozen sculpture adorning the glorious pool.

When I returned as an adult to Butlins, Bognor Regis with a more jaded opinion of UK coastal holidays, I remember observing how the paintwork was peeling, the food in the dining room was less than wonderful yet something quaintly inspiring remained.  I think it was seeing the happy faces of the children as they were led around by camp entertainers in their colourful coats.  It was at this point that I appreciated the notion of an all inclusive holiday.  A temporary, gentle escape from city life.  An organised series of rituals in a quirky environment far removed from the stresses of family life.

Having spoken a bit about holiday camps, I found it interesting to observe how the Hotel Burstin in Folkestone shared many of the characteristics of the holiday camp, the overly formalised days, structured entertainment, particularly in the evening, which always commences with Bingo that lasts for at least an hour before going on to other more interesting stuff such as talent competitions and slightly iffy cover bands.  Really spending time in the Hotel Burstin was exactly the same as spending time at a holiday camp except you didn't have to walk miles to go to the pool or shop.  Also at one point, a free day trip to France was included within the package deal, so that you could go and get your duty free alcohol, ciggies and bottles of perfume.

Before leading this blog entry to a slightly pessimistic conclusion, I feel that it is interesting to explore representations of the holiday camp within popular culture.  The two most pervasive representations of the holiday camp include The Erpingham Camp by Joe Orton and Hi-de-Hi!  by Jimmy Perry and David Croft.  The Erpingham Camp was originally produced on television by Rediffusion on 27th June 1966 and has subsequently been staged occasionally in various theatres.  It is not one of Orton's best known plays but it does highlight how scarily over-organised holiday camps are Mr Erpingham runs the camp with an iron fist. He knows how best to satisfy the needs of the holidaymakers.  He is ambitious and has no qualms about building:

'Rows of Entertainment Centres down lovely, unspoiled bits of the coast, across deserted
moorland and barren mountainside.  The Earthly Paradise.  Ah...'
                                                                                                             (Orton Page 281)

Upon the unfortunate demise of the former Entertainments Organiser, Chief Redcoat Riley is drafted in to organise the evening's entertainment.  What ensures is an encapsulation of the absurdity of most holiday camp entertainment, dodgy immersive competitions with rubbish prizes.  Riley's entertaining competition has unfortunate repercussions for the life of the camp's staff and residents.  To think all he does is try to get two residents to scream:

'Who's going to scream the loudest?  Loudest scream wins a cash prize.  Just scream.  As loud as you like!  The winner will be given a voucher for the Erpingham Stores.  A voucher that will enable you to buy a week's groceries or, if you prefer, three days' luxuries, free of charge.  Who's going to scream?'

                                                                                                            (Orton Page 295-296)

Riley also gets another resident to strip naked and do the Can-Can when the screaming competition gets out of hand (one of the competitors gets hysterical), he crosses the line and slaps her.

Orton's depiction of a typical holiday camp is both very funny and acutely accurate in its attention to detail.  There is something vaguely disturbing about the idea of 'Redcoats' etc.  Lots of control freaks with their own agendas.  Entertainment that was old, sexist and frankly unfunny when holiday camps were first opened yet still a factor in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.  Without completely spoiling the plot of the play, a schism occurs between the staff in the camp and the residents.

Another iconic representation of holiday camps was Hi-de-Hi! This was a popular BBC programme in the Eighties and set in 1959 and 1960.  A tannoy message, 'Hi-de-hi Campers' was issued several times throughout the programme advising the residents where the day's activities would be taking place.  Perry and Croft's situation comedy had it all, ambitious staff desperate to become Yellowcoats, failed celebrities trying to relive their glory days in a holiday camp as entertainers and all of those horrible competitions we remember as kids, 'knobbly knees' and 'Little Princess' competitions.  It was very funny and highlighted the essential fact that holiday camps have not changed since the first Pontin's holiday camp opened in 1946 at Brean Sands in Somerset.  They are still catering for the same family market who prefer their relaxation time to be based within a drive or train ride from where they live.  Holidays abroad although cheaper than most holidays in the UK have the added problems of customs, potential long delays at the airports and long transfers at the other end to hotels and resorts.

To sum up, holiday camps are an ambivalent and uniquely English phenomena.  Of course, summer camps are a feature in the USA but they are used primarily to give teenagers and parents a break from each other.  Holiday camps in the UK are like factory lines with rigid routines that allow little room for excursions unless people remember that the coastal towns they occupy are actually full of far more interesting places to visit than the camp amusement arcade or bar.  On the other hand, lots of coastal towns although still beautiful are seemingly crumbling at their roots.  Small shops are gradually being forced to close as yet another supermarket crops up.  The high streets in coastal towns are increasingly beginning to look like any old shopping area with non-stop franchises and even the fish and chip shops tend to be Harry Ramsden.  The notion of authenticity has been corroding.  I remember once walking through Folkestone humming Everyday Is Like Sunday to myself as I stared at the closing shops and saw the rubbish littering the streets.  People come for the beach and leave with very little else.  Sand is a constant even when everything else is ephemeral. 

                                                                                                  Barry Watt - 17th February 2013


The quotes from 'The Erpingham Camp' were extracted from 'Orton: The Complete Plays' by Joe Orton (Methuen, 1993).

'Hi-De-Hi!' is available on DVD from the BBC.

'Everyday Is Like Sunday' is a Morrissey song and was originally available on his album, 'Viva Hate' (HMV Records, 1988).


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