Seaside esplanades and the beaches of the English Riviera were once awash with popular performances, variety shows and songs such as Oh I do like to be beside the seaside. A new research project is currently reviving popular seaside performances of the pierrot troupe, to establish the role that performance might play in the cultural regeneration of seaside resorts in the South West.
Exeter University is collaborating with the founder of the Pierrotters, the last professional pierrot troupe in Britain, specialising in seaside entertainment. Together they are carrying out performance-based research by creating small scale performances across beaches in Devon. Pierrot shows with their distinctive black and white clown costumes, pointy hats and pom-poms were a hugely successful form of open air, family friendly entertainment in British seaside resorts from the 1890s to the 1950s.
The collaborative research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will look at what made the pierrot show so popular with audiences of the past and how and why it might be recreated for today’s holidaymakers.
Dr Jane Milling, Drama lecturer at the Exeter University told the Devon Week: “The pierrot show was a fantastically popular form of seaside family entertainment during the heyday of the British seaside holiday, indeed it is part of the cultural heritage of most seaside resorts. Audiences, and social attitudes, have changed and some of the historical pierrot material may be inappropriate now, yet the pierrot show can still offer live, intimate, and topical entertainment quite different to anything else you’ll experience at the contemporary seaside.”
Following the 20 minute pierrot shows, researchers will ask holiday makers what they think of the performances, which include songs, accordion music, gags, dance and audience interaction. Part of the research is to find out from the audience what this kind of entertainment adds to their cultural experience of the seaside resort.
Tony Lidington, founder of the Pierrotters, is also the last remaining pierrot to perform this unique style of entertainment that was integral to British holiday making. He said: ‘This is a fantastic opportunity to explore the material, ideas and theory of seaside concert parties. Having performed for 27 years with Britain’s last-remaining professional seaside pierrot troupe, we can now learn in detail about an almost forgotten craft.’
This very British style of seaside entertainment goes together with the stripped deck chair and is part of a seaside tradition that used to support around 500 pierrot troupes who would perform up to three times a day.
The style of entertainment encouraged a close bond between the performer and the audience, using jokes, sketches and comic songs about everyday life and social attitudes to create this relationship.
Some of the songs and sketches still work. Gracie Fields, the popular wartime performer, cut her teeth as a comedienne in a pierrot troupe and sang sweet nonsense songs about family life such as Little pudding basin.
However, because it shared the social attitudes of its day, some of the early material was sexist and racist, and this project has developed new material suited to today’s audiences.
This along with other elements of popular performance, are being explored in the project Revitalising the Prom: Popular Performance and History at the Seaside. Identifying what comic monologues or acts will make today’s audience laugh and finding out what family entertainment was then and is now, is necessary research that has potential to support cultural regeneration in South West.
(from a press release)