Butlins, Skegness, 1974

Butlins

When I was in my teens, Mum took us three boys — Michael, Graham and myself — to Butlins. I think we went a couple of times to Skegness in Lincolnshire and another time to Minehead.

Minehead was awful compared to Skeggy. The entertainments were on a much smaller scale, for one. For another, I took Graham, 7 years my junior, on the big wheel. You know how this works - a pair get off, a pair from the queue get on, the wheel turns, another pair get off, another pair get on, and so on until all the riders have been swapped over and the wheel goes round and round non-stop for a few minutes. 

Well, on this occasion, the operator, probably no more than a lad in his late teens doing summer holiday work, decided for whatever reason I couldn't fathom, not to let Graham and I off. The chairs stopped in front of us, two got off, two got on, the wheel turned, not to stop for us, but allowed the people in the chair behind us to get out. So we had an extra go. 

At first this was quite pleasing. But when that round finished, he did the same thing again. He skipped over letting us out. So around we went again. When it stopped, he again skipped over us and we had another 'extra go'. Well, let me tell you, once is fun, a second round is a treat, but a third is frightening and then a fourth makes you very ill. Needless to say, I didn't go back again to that ride.

If that was a horrible experience, the other experiences I had at Butlins sites were much more fun. From roller skating, to Scalextric cars, to shows, and talent competitions to boating, and rides on the Skegness monorail, they were all great fun. You had the freedom to go anywhere on the site but you had to keep an eye on what time things were on. They even put on wrestling matches in keeping with ITV wresting of the seventies.

Butlins had it's good memories, too. One of them was my brother Graham, dressed in some silly costume and wearing a beret, and he was absolutely brilliant at doing a Frank Spencer impersonation on the stage in the kids talent show. “Mmm betty, the cat's done a whoopsie in my beret!”

When I was 17, in 1974, I went off to Skegness on my own, not for a holiday, but to work there for the summer. It was going to be a summer working holiday, and then I'd go back home to Hemel and start looking for a proper full time job. You had to be 18 to work at serving on the bars, so I put down to be a pot-boy until my 18th birthday. Basically that is what I had already been doing off and on at the Hemel Hempstead Pavilion, i.e. going around collecting up finished drink glasses and then washing them up. It had been a great way to get in for free to see the pop and rock bands.

At Skegness I was allocated to work in the Queens Showbar. The Queens was a vast hall with bars on the edge and loads of people serving. The serving counters had pumps for lager and beer, and behind the barmen and women there were shelves for bottles. Under the shelves were chutes, where they rolled the empties down —  that's all the bottles that had been decanted into the glasses. My job, and that of a couple of others was to sit at the other end of these chutes, collect up the bottles that rolled through, and pop them into their respective crates. When things got slack we'd go around the tables and collect empty glasses and more empty bottles.

As part of the new intake we were shown around the Queens Showbar by someone who was a bit of a queen himself. Can't recall his name, it may come to me, (Charlie?) but evidently he had been working there several years and knew what to do to coin it in. He dressed with glittery trailers down his back, and possibly he had a glittery halo that used to perch above his head. He talked in that gay way that can be so common nowadays, although back in the seventies people were only just starting to dare to "come out". As the head table waiter he obviously had to wait the tables, but by putting on this little gay act, he used to get really big tips.

Once a week the holiday makers had the opportunity to book and pay extra to see a top celebrity act perform at the Queens. This turned out to be a bit of a perk for those of us working at the Queens. These special acts started about 10pm, and were supposed to finish at 12pm. This made Wednesdays special. The bars stopped serving at 11pm, as did our paid hours. But if we wanted to stay and watch the act, we were allowed to. The best ever night I watched was when Bob Monkhouse was on. He was having a great time and just wanted to carry on, and he did, well past midnight. 

The interactive part of Bob's act was to ask a member of the audience to throw out a word. Then he'd use that word in a joke. Very funny. Very entertaining. In fact, I think I stayed watching him until around 1.30 or 2am. I don't know what time he actually stopped. I did hear 3am mentioned. We were meant to get up and be at work at 10am the next morning so I know I would have wanted my sleep.

The routine at Butlins, as an employee, was that inclusive free staff breakfasts were served from something like 7am until 8.30am. And you didn't start work until around 10am or 11am (which was it? I forget).  Well, with our late nights (11pm) at the Queen's, and even later Wednesday night's if we stopped for the cabaret act, getting up for staff breakfast wasn't on. Instead, I'd walk from the staff chalets to the nearest monorail station, get off near a site cafĂ©, meet some others who worked at the Queen's, and order something like beans on toast for 11p and a cup of tea or coffee for a few pence. Shame we had to pay for it, but it didn't break the bank.

The bar staff used to get tips, too, though as a pot-boy you were lucky if you were shown any share of that. I tried asking for bar serving work, but they told me they had no vacancy at the Queen's. Someone had a word with another bar manager, for me, and I was told I could work at the Regency.

So, I moved from the Queens Showbar to the Regency bar where I started serving on the actual bar. It's the only period in my life where I've done a bit of bar-serving. I soon recognised that someone was getting far more tips than I was, and anyone else was, and maybe that's because she was a female, I thought. A bit of more careful observation and I noticed she was under-charging some customers, and the customer knew it, too. So, to keep it going, the customer(s) would tip her every time. Well, two can do that I thought. I did it once. Honest. Once. And I was tipped. I felt so awful, so deceitful. I felt ill. I thought I would die and go to hell. So I NEVER did it again. I hardly got any tips, either.

I hadn't been there long when I was confronted by the supervisor (never been too good with names - was it 'Linda' ?) on the bar. She wasn't a lot older than me. Truth be told I quite fancied her in her blue Butlin's coat. Anyway, she told me that money had gone missing from the bar. It had come to light during cashing up. It was a tenner, or so, short. As I was the new boy, I was under suspicion. Well, it's not me, I protested. I actually wondered if it was her, and trying to fit me up. It happened again the following week and I was accused again. It was quite a trying time. Well, all became clear to both of us the following week, when it happened again. This time the supervisor and myself had both been on our rotation day off, so we were both in the clear. Another girl on the staff subsequently got her marching orders.

Comments