Barry and the curse of the Pier Theatre

Screenshot 2016-05-03 at 03.19.54 pm

By Jeremy Miles

I was saddened by the recent death of Barry Howard. I will remember him as a lovely man with a sparkle in his eye, a waspish wit and a talent that belied the glib ‘Hi-de-Hi actor’ label that accompanied almost all of his obituaries.

Not, I hasten to add, that there is anything wrong with being associated with the classic David Croft/Jimmy Perry sit-com. It’s just that Barry’s career encompassed a whole lot more than the character of Maplins Holiday Camp’s resident washed-up ballroom dancer Barry Stuart-Hargreaves. Though he was extremely grateful to have played the role of the supercilious dance instructor through seven series of a prime time TV show, he felt a little trapped by it in later years.

As he was laid to rest at a private funeral yesterday I reflected on this gentle, proud man who never really came to terms with the fact that he was loved and admired by so many. He often found life a bit of a battle and believed Hi-de-Hi had limited the roles he was offered, telling one journalist that he found it frustrating and rather boring to always be asked to play “similar limp-wristed, rather fey ‘is he or isn’t he?’ characters.”

Barry was 78-years-old when he died and had been suffering from cancer but until very recently he remained passionate about acting. For though the need to pay the bills meant that for many years summer seasons and pantomime – often as an Ugly Sister alongside the late John Inman – was his main source of regular work, Barry was first and foremost an actor who loved a new challenge.

A few years ago when I was a full-time entertainments writer I used to meet Barry for a coffee in the Bournemouth Pier cafe. Even when he wasn’t appearing at the adjacent theatre it was an almost daily destination for him – a good stopping off point after taking a morning stroll along the front from his nearby home in Branksome Park.

He was a great character: Good company a fount of showbiz knowledge and invariably ready with an eye-catching quote. Back in the days when newspapers were still fun, one of the joys of being the arts and entertainments editor on a major regional daily by the seaside was the licence it gave to hob-nob with the old-stagers and hear their stories about the glory days of variety and music hall.

I have memories of so many wonderful moments with Max Bygraves, the Beverley Sisters, Eric Sykes, Spike Milligan, Les Dawson, Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, Freddie Starr, Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd… the list goes on. To be honest these were people who would never have appeared on my radar had I been doing any other job. My principle interests were (and still are) the visual arts, serious drama and the kind of music played by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker.

I suppose I was a bit of a snob and no one was more surprised than me when I found myself enjoying a good natter with a Beverley Sister or Max Bygraves. These people had been around. They were a walking lesson in show business history. I valued the time I spent with them. I have surreal snapshot memories which still make me smile. Danny La Rue asking me to look after his pet dog while he nipped to the loo with the immortal words: “Hold my Chinese Hairless, there’s a love.” Hanging on Max’s every word as he talked of his time in the USA in the 1950s working with Garland, partying with Sinatra and dining with Groucho Marx. Chatting with Britt Ekland as she spilled the beans about Peter Sellers and Rod Stewart. Sitting in a giant fairground teacup to interview Barry’s longtime panto ‘sister’ John Inman.

For many of these people there was a direct connection to an era when variety shows were huge. When summer season meant three months of packed houses.  The gradual decline of interest in traditional seaside entertainment shocked them. By the turn of the millennium it was clear that the Pier Theatre needed a change of direction. Barry Howard was a member of the cast of an ill-fated production of the farce No Sex Please We’re British. Once a classic end-of-the-pier romp, it died a death.  The show played to such poor houses that it was axed midway through its summer run. Barry was horrified.

It was one of a chapter of disasters for the theatre. In 2002 actor Gareth Hunt had to be rushed to hospital when he collapsed on the Pier Theatre stage after suffering a heart attack during a performance of the Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular. I was in the audience. What had originally been intended as a 250 word review was suddenly a front page story. As the stricken Hunt slumped groaning across a table and the curtain came down fellow cast member Robert Beck called desperately from the footlights “Is there a doctor in the house?” Sensing confusion in the audience, he added urgently: “I’m being VERY serious.”

Two years later Hunt – who would eventually die in 2007 from pancreatic cancer – was back at the ill-fated theatre in the Francis Durbridge thriller The Gentle Hook. He told me that getting back on the Pier stage had been a nerve-racking experience. “If it was any other theatre it wouldn’t be so bad but because it’s the same place… It’s like being on the top board and making a dive when your last one was a belly flop.”

He admitted that after his illness he had considered giving up the theatre completely. ”For a while I thought ‘that’s it.’ But you have to face the challenge.” More misfortune followed when Barry Howard’s old Hi-de-Hi co-star Ruth Madoc was taken ill days before the opening of a production of Sailor Beware.

Barry pondered on the grim situation and reached a conclusion guaranteed to make headlines: “It’s the curse of the Pier Theatre,” he pronounced gravely. He was only half joking. He had memories of the theatre going back to the early 1960s. His very first appearance was during a season marred by the comedian Freddie Frinton suffering a heart attack. He was also working at the Pier when comedy actor Richard Hearne aka Mr Pastry was rushed to hospital after being stricken by a vascular spasm. How Barry enjoyed emphasising those two words. His comic timing was impeccable!

There were others too who died alarmingly soon after appearing there, including Terry Scott, Les Dawson and Marti Caine. But the most deadly threat to the theatre in recent years was one that many people never even knew about. In August 1993 Bournemouth Pier was targeted in an IRA campaign and a huge bomb was strapped onto girders directly beneath the venue. The explosives would have been enough to destroy the theatre which was packed with 800 people watching Les Dennis, Su Pollard, Lionel Blair and Vicki Michelle appearing in a summer season production of Don’t Dress For Dinner. By sheer chance the detonator came loose and the device was safely defused by bomb disposal experts.

Some years later I reminded Les Dennis of the occasion. Astonishingly he said he’d forgotten all about it. I bet Barry Howard hadn’t.

Footnote: Sadly the Bournemouth Pier Theatre is no more. A couple years ago it was closed down and turned into the Rock Reef climbing wall and adventure activity centre. It’s a terrible shame. Curse or no curse we loved that theatre. It always drove some people up the wall but now that particular practise has become the essence of its continued existence. Of course when it was a theatre the powers that be bemoaned the fact that audiences could not be tempted along the pier in bad weather. Guess what? Potential wall climbers don’t much fancy turning out in the cold and wet either.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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