6 November 2021 / Grants and Awards

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…

In 2019 Tony Lidington, showman extraordinaire, received one of our Research Grants for original and much-needed research into early Pierrot Troupes. A practical performer as well as researcher, he is driving the revival of traditional seaside family entertainment with exciting training and performance programmes, bringing in the next generation to learn the art of performing Punch and Judy, conjuring tricks, and clowning on the promenades of Britain’s coastal towns. Here he writes about the successful season of 2021 at Teignmouth:

A Summer Season for the 21st century – inspired by Clarkson Rose

2021 was our 3rd summer season for Teignmouth – providing 12 days of family seaside entertainment on the seafront, just a few yards from where ‘Clarkie’ ended his tours of ‘Twinkle’ in 1968. The project ran during the summer holidays, supported by Teignmouth Town Council, Teignbridge District Council and the Arts Council of England. I should say from the outset, that one of the most remarkable features of the project and one which ensured its success, was the positive support and collaboration between the town & district councils, the traders on the front and the Arts Council; such collaborative co-ordination between formal bodies is rare, but invaluable!

As we all know, the previous years – 2020, had been a disastrous summer for the performing arts, but I had managed to work regularly throughout August outdoors on Teignmouth promenade to audiences of 100+ by conforming to simple Covid-aware protocols: social bubbles sitting socially distant from one another, disinfecting the wooden benches and vinyl mats between shows and clear signage and announcements about due care and diligence whilst in public space. As a result, I was invited to return this summer with an enlarged programme which included an Arts Council-funded training initiative for 7 emerging young artists from Devon.

This ‘Outdoor Arts Traineeship Programme’ was a pilot model to teach these youngsters the art of seaside entertainment and self-employment skills. The aim was to provide practical training for young artists by some of the most experienced outdoor arts practitioners in the business and then to provide the trainees with their first, regular, professional contract to perform alongside their mentors on the South Devon coast during the summer season. The trainees were recruited from a variety of different backgrounds in Devon: each wrote a letter of application, followed by a workshop audition, from which the final seven were recruited. The participants ranged from 17-23 years of age. The free training scheme lasted for 3 intensive weeks and took place at 4 key cultural establishments in Exeter – the University of Exeter Drama Department, Exeter 6th Form College Cultural Industries Centre, Theatre Alibi’s Emmanuel Hall and Maketank. Their trainers were outdoor arts practitioners with hundreds of years of experience between them – Mike Bettison brought his blade box routine which they had worked in the 1960s and 1970s in Covent Garden and around the country with ‘The Fabulous Salami Brothers’.

Patrice Starzay and the blade box routine

Alongside honing their performance skills, the trainees learned self-employment best-practice in contracts and invoicing, risk assessments, health & safety issues and self-promotion in order to equip them with the necessary administrative skills to continue such work independently into the future. They were then each contracted at a professional rate to perform regularly throughout August alongside their mentors on Teignmouth seafront providing a much bigger package of activity than had been possible the previous year.

In addition, we looked at ways in which we might help make Teignmouth a more attractive tourism destination – I pointed-out the dilapidated state of what we called the ‘sentry boxes’ beside the pier. With support from a local fund, I agreed to renovate and then animate one of these ‘sentry boxes’ so that it was both an attractive feature for the future and also a performance booth from which could be performed storytelling and music. The pier management agreed and it has become a rather lovely, permanent fixture of the seafront. It is now a legacy of our cultural initiative which enhances the town’s infrastructure throughout the year.

Each day, we provided ‘Professor Gayton’s Punch & Judy Show’ and my own ‘Uncle Tacko’s Flea Circus’, accompanied by short routines performed by the trainees – these trainees were known collectively as ‘The Sunshine Follies’. The work was phenomenally successful, playing to around a thousand audience members each day, of mixed ages and mixed backgrounds, plus many tens of thousands more as we barked-up crowds and demonstrated skills up and down the promenade.

In addition, the training initiative and regeneration of the seaside caught the imagination of the national media and we received an enormous amount of national, regional and local interest from the press and broadcasters. There was an host of high-profile articles, celebrating the way in which young people were being encouraged by this project to engage in high quality, professional performance activity to help regenerate the resorts and reviving a spirit of seaside fun after 2 years of COVID restrictions. The group appeared on national BBC television news, Radio 4’s Today programme & World at One, Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, Radio 5Live Drive, ITV News and even Matt Bellamy of Muse’s Instagram site – this all meant that in just one week, we made contact with over 4 million people and promoted Teignmouth as being pioneers in British seaside regeneration -and you can watch us on YouTube here!

I am already receiving enquiries about how our success has been achieved and how we might help to deliver similar initiatives elsewhere. The project has been a fantastic example of how creative arts activities can revitalise communities and provide sustainable job opportunities in what the government recognises as marginalised communities, as well as developing a sense of personal and civic pride in Teignmouth.

I hope that ‘Clarkie’ would be smiling down on us, as we try to re-invigorate the seaside in the way that his original ‘Twinkle’ show did in 1921. Now that the night are drawing-in, I have returned to the University of Exeter, where I teach part-time in the drama department: my main area of research is popular entertainment and in particular, the history of seaside entertainment and its application to contemporary contexts.

This project and others like it are all part of my ongoing practice as research – the Society of Theatre Research have been a source of inspiration and support of my work for many years and I have been grateful to them for the advice and resources that they have provided. Next Autumn, Routledge will be publishing my monograph on the history of British seaside pierrot troupes and concert parties (entitled “Don’t forget the pierrots!” – the first book to trace the entire history seaside troupes in Britain since those by Geoff Mellor and Bill Pertwee and of course, Clarkson Rose.

My hope is that we shall be able to repeat this model in the coming years, providing a viable means of revitalising promenades and outdoor spaces, with support from the public, the industry, the local and district authorities and our funders… see you on the seafront again soon!


AKA Uncle Tacko!

Have you got a research project that might be eligible for one of our Research Grants? Application forms can now be downloaded from the Research Grants page. Closing date for applications is March 25 2022