An almost balmy night at the height of the summer season at Blackpool's Opera House and an excited sell-out crowd is standing to attention to the patriotic strains of God Save the Queen. Families with children, pensioners and people in wheelchairs are clutching their bulldog-emblazoned programmes and waving Union flags in happy anticipation of the evening's entertainment.
Standing before the red, white and blue of the national flag that fills the entire stage, 83-year-old Belfast-born comedian Frank Carson, veteran of The Comedians, Opportunity Knocks and The Good Old Days and still a stalwart of the live comedy circuit as far afield as Australia, prepares to put the audience through its paces.
Among his victims tonight will be gays, lesbians, and a selection of hapless foreigners including a linguistically challenged oriental gentleman whose inability to pronounce the word “comedian” gets one of the biggest laughs of the night. But Carson also brings his act up to date with a poke at the radical cleric Abu Hamza and women in burqas — a routine which sees him speaking to one veiled caller through the letterbox of his front door. “See how you like it?” he says.
It may be the best part of two decades since they were the highest paid stars in television, but the acts taking part in this summer's Best of British Variety Tour 2008, packing in audiences around the country, say that demand for their unchanging brand of entertainment has never been higher. As ticket sales at the Edinburgh Fringe, with its line-up of achingly hip modern comics, show a 10% decline — the first in eight years — the decision to put the Variety tour together this year is already proving a smart one.
Featuring on the bill, and fresh from capacity shows in Southend-on-Sea and Skegness, are performers many in the Big Brother generation will never have heard of. Among them are some of the titans of 1970s and 1980s light entertainment — Jimmy Cricket, originally from Cookstown, Cannon & Ball, Paul Daniels and The Krankies. Music is provided courtesy of 1976 Eurovision Song Contest winners Brotherhood of Man. To prove there is a ready market out there for nostalgic sing-a-longs and retro-laughs they are about to set off on a gruelling month long tour of the rest of Britain. Many of the shows are already sold out.
Speaking before the show Tommy Cannon says he believes that the world is once again waking up to the old-style allure of traditional British comedy. “This tour has shown all people in TV — at least I hope it has — that this is what is lacking nowadays,” he says. During their 13 years on prime-time television, Cannon & Ball commanded audiences of up to 18 million, the kind of ratings schedules can only dream about today. Some might recall their 2005 appearance on I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! which — aside from cameos on Last of the Summer Wine — provided their most high-profile small screen exposure since that extraordinary run came to an end in 1991.
Cannon & Ball, real names Thomas Derbyshire and Robert Harper, have little time for some modern mores and continue to find ready audiences, performing about 40 shows a year. “You should be able to make a joke about anybody without them taking offence. That's what's wrong with comedy now — it has gone too politically correct,” says 70-year-old Cannon. The magician Paul Daniels says demand for his particular brand of conjuring and comedy remains high. “I have done more television in the past 12 months than when I was the BBC's ‘brightest discovery',” he says. “I have done so much television it is not true. I don't think any of us has ever not been in work.
“But there is that peculiar belief that if you are not on television you must be starving,” he says.
“I suspect that today's breaking news that there are more people over the age of 80 than we have children hasn't filtered through to television executives who have come from media studies rather than actually doing something. When I say this, people say, ‘he wants his show back on'. But I don't because it was damn hard work.”
The Krankies, husband and wife Ian and Janette Tough, have been coming to Blackpool since the 1960s. In their heyday they could pack out the theatre twice a night. The couple met at the Glasgow Pavilion Theatre at the age of 17 and as inheritors of the Jimmy Clitheroe tradition, have been touring their act for the past 43 years. They had their own television show for 12 years, appearing on Crackerjack in the early 1980s, a time when playgrounds and workplaces up and down the land reverberated to the cry of Janette's “fandabidozi” catchphrase.
But they admit times have changed and variety performers appearing in often dilapidated theatres have struggled to meet the challenge of more modern forms of entertainment.
“We are the last of the line of the Vaudeville performers,” says Ian Tough. “There has been no variety on television for the past 10 years, it has just been reality. What is sad is that people have never seen a juggler or a balancing act. They have never heard the street comic.”
Janette, now 61, concedes that four decades spent impersonating a “wee boy” might not be to everyone's taste, but believes there are
benefits for performers still out there. “Audiences have got easier than they were in the Seventies or Eighties. There was so much competition then. But everyone has not got the same taste and people have the right to like what they like,” she says, admitting that television programmes such as Britain's Got Talent have delivered a boost to the industry. For Brotherhood of Man, it has been 32 years since the group's Eurovision triumph in The Hague with “Save Your Kisses For Me” but the moment remains indelibly etched in the memory of anyone over the age of 40. “It is very rare for anyone to get to win a gold medal for their country. Athletes do it but singers don't often so it is a great honour to be doing this best of British,” says singer Martin Lee. As the UK's answer to Abba, the foursome notched up 26 platinum, gold and silver discs during their career worldwide. Today, with the same line-up and still singing the same songs, they continue to perform full time and count all the other members of the tour as personal friends.
“We have known everyone from the beginning. We all came up the same way,” says brunette female vocalist Nicky Stevens. “We are working all year round but when people find out I am with Brotherhood of Man they say, ‘whatever happened to them?'” she says. But they have never gone away. As well as regular live shows with fellow Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz, they also perform a popular musical review of the events of the 1970s.
Lee says: “If someone had said to us when we wrote ‘Save Your Kisses For Me' that people would still be singing it in 32 years' time I would have been very happy with that.”
You've got to be joking... The jokes that time forgot
Jimmy Cricket: “Come here. I rang up the optician. He’s no good. He couldn’t see me. He said have your eyes ever been checked? I said no, they’ve always been this colour.”
Frank Carson: "I went into a toilet and there was a sign saying, ‘beware of homosexuals’. When I came out there was another one saying the same thing. Then I saw a sign attached to the skirting board. I bent down to read it. It said: “You’ve been warned twice.”