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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Friday, March 10, 2006

This is a sample piece of mine - the first of an irregular series of revisits to archive articles... This one's from 1990:


An ad in a popular British national newspaper caught my eye. “Lose Your Heart To Tony Bennett ...Butlin’s Super Weekend Break.” Mesmerised, I read on:

“Tony Bennett is top of the bill, live on stage at Butlin’s Somerwest World, Minehead. See him perform his greatest hits, supported by a 30-piece orchestra and savour his unique brand of cabaret inside the spectacular, 5000-seater Big Top. All included in the price: your reserved ticket for the Tony Bennett Show; Live Cabaret Every Night; Sub Tropical Waterworld; Funfair; Sports & Games... Book your place now! Call FREE etc-etc.”

I couldn’t help it. I had to call. What a prospect. Butlin’s was the sort of holiday institution that had its heyday in the 1940s and 50s, when the British didn’t go abroad except in wartime. Because the British climate was so terrible, everyone pretended to enjoy cold showers and cold windy weather, and instead of lolling about sunbathing, we were all supposed to play organised games and be jolly. It was ghastly, and in the utterly changed world of the late 20th century it was amazing that Butlin’s survived at all.

And then there was Tony Bennett to consider. Those of us who were reaching puberty when rock’n’roll was new spent our teenage years having to listen to grown-ups and disc-jockeys rubbishing men like Chuck Berry beause they didn’t sound like Frank Sinatra. Tony Bennett was one of their favourites. A world-class crooner, a consummate supper-club artiste.

Now, decades down the line, some revisitation of teenage glee had me relishing the bizarre conjunction of this international sophisticat and Butlin’s.

“It was a coup, certainly,” said Sid Sims, the Entertainments Manager at Minehead, “but I can’t speak to the press. You have to go through our PR people.” The PR people put me onto the promoters. Mike Taylor, who handled all Butlins’ entertainment, told me that these weekend breaks were designed to pull in the crowds just before the summer season began. But the other stars on offer were hardly in the class Tony Bennett thinks of himself as occupying. How had Butlins got him?

“We told his people in the States that Butlins is the biggest entertainment organisation in Britain. Which it is.”

How much were they paying him?

“An undisclosed sum in the region of 300,000 dollars.”


Arriving on the Friday night, I checked in at a vast reception-area that looked like a seedy hoverport customs-hall on its last non-legs. I was given a key and a leaflet and directed to the Free Holiday Bus-Stop. Someone soon told me that the buses weren’t running.

A quarter of a mile away, I found my accommodation amid row upon row of motel-style two-storey blocks. The room and bathroom were clean, tidy and hideous. Unspeakable furnishings and a mellamine wardrobe. No coat-hangers. No towels. No soap. No telephone down which to say so.

Impossible not to think of prison-camps or psychiatric hospitals. The wall between the head of my bed and the opposite chalet was so thin that when its occupant coughed in the night, I heard it as if we were in the same room.

In the morning it was eerily quiet. I found Accommodation Enquiries (“We Are Here To Help You”). No, we don’t provide soap and towels. There is a hire-shop. £2 for a weekend’s hire of towels, plus deposit.

If this is the re-vamped version, the old régime must have been infinitely worse than those of us who never went can have supposed.

The older punters walked the bleak boulevards of the camp, where everything costing money seemed to be open and most of what was “free” seemed to be closed. The newest building was a modern swimming-baths with the usual quota of plastic palm. This was the sub-tropical water-world. Pleasantly humid for spectators, it proved rather cold in the water. This and the Big Top aside, nothing looked recent; most buildings looked like 1960s technical-college cast-offs, their flapping hardboard doors jollied up with yellow paint. Past the shabby little shops we traipsed; in and out of the pubs (plastic beakers instead of glasses); past the open betting-office and the closed fairground rides.

Most people wondered disconsolately why they had come. But of course, they had come for Tony Bennett.

At 8 o’clock on the Saturday night, inside the gloomy rubber Big Top, the 63-year-old star came on stage, accompanied by his pianist and Musical Director, 68-year-old Ralph Sharon. They lolloped through ‘Taking A Chance On Love’.

“Thanks for dropping by tonight,” said Bennett, in mid-song.

‘My Foolish Heart’. ‘I Love A Piano’. Then on came the other members of his trio, to play music that was finger-snappingly bad. ‘Autumn Leaves’ got a pseudo-operatic ending. The audience got excited. Bennett shook his head in disbelieving humility.

It took him just twelve minutes to mention the word Gershwin. At that, a procession of elderly gentlemen crept doubtfully onto the stage clutching violins. Down on the floor, a similar procession of pensioners queued in the aisles to take Instamatic snapshots of their hero in action.

‘All Of You’. ‘Fly Me To The Moon’. On he crooned, glutinous and lachrymose. Occasionally he switched to drum-shuffling, bap-bap-scoobee-doo-bap mode. Nothing could have sounded more weary than these upbeat moments. During one of them, he declared without shame: “Boy, I feel like SINGING! Let’s have a jam-session!” Thank goodness he didn’t mean it.

Near the end he said: “I’ve been singing for forty years and I just love it.” “Thank you very much,” he added immediately, before anyone had actually clapped. He had a happy supply of these gestures of self-effacement.

He was wearing remarkably well for his age. Unlike Butlins.

(c) Michael Gray, 1990.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great piece, entertaining, learned and hilarious. My siblings recently went to one of the infamous 70s weekends at Butlins and couldn't sleep because the music of the 50-something revellers next door was coming through the paper-thin walls. If the contents of your forthcoming book on music is of this class, it will be well worth picking up.

10:36 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thank you - it was kind of you to write in: it's encouraging to read your comments. And yes, it will be in my selected essays book Outtakes: Journeys in Music.

11:13 am  

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