Swapping their campervans for chalets, folk festivalers flocked to Butlin’s Skegness resort for theGreat British Folk Festival. A line-up featuring many of the biggest names in Folk, and the prospect of midwinter beachwalks withguaranteed lungfuls of bracing sea air, proved an irresistible draw to thethousands who filled the famous holiday camp.
Skegness was the first camp Sir Billy Butlin built, back in the thirties. Combining accommodation and entertainmentis their business. So from the welcome at the front gate, to directions for the check-ins and onto the chalet, it was obviously a well-practiced procedure. Several standards of lodgings are available, from the basic room - which has much in common with the original1936 version they have on site- to Gold apartments which wouldn’t be too out of place in a swanky marina.
From the chalets pathways lead past bars and eateries to the Skyline pavilion, the camp’s heart and home tonamebrand food and drink franchises, as well as a stage, cinema, bowling alley and, of course, amusement arcades. With no kids allowed at the event, save for the occasional ‘ping, ding, clunk’ of air hockey the arcades were shunned.
The Adults only policy also meant a quiet weekend for lifeguards in Waterworld, and with no demand for their nightly time chalet patrol service the famous Redcoats were redundant. Instead hi-di hi-vis security managed access to the two main venues ‘Reds’ and ‘Centre Stage’. Good sized venues, holding a thousand or so, the sunken dancefloor and curtained stageof Centre Stage making it the classier of the two venues. Both were very well set up from hosting decades of booze-fuelled nightly entertainment, their central areas packed with tables and chairs, surrounded by tiered booths and flanked on either side by licensed bars. Both spaces created a social club atmosphere which festivalers took to with gusto.
By and large this was an older people’s festival. Mostly grey-haired and likely grandparents, more than a few wearing Cropredy Convention T-shirts – who found the seated arrangements absolutely ideal.Afew hip twenty-somethings struggled to find someplace they weren’t ruining someone’s view of the stage, often incurring a testy ‘do you mind’ for their troubles. To be fair their prime locations had taken time and patience to secure. Two hours before doors opened for The Full English a queue stretched the full length of the pavilion. I shudder to think how long those first through the doors had waited for Bellowhead on opening night. Oddly, no one looked at all fed up with the wait, and indeed for many it seemed a great chance for a chat. Folk classics from the likes of Ralph McTell and Sandy Denny played over the tannoy and kept the line in good spirits. A nice touch, perfectly pitched to the demographic. If the DJ had taken requests some of the queuers would probably have stayed queuing. But that would have been a mistake, inside there was great entertainment.
‘Reds’ was heaving for the Bellowhead’s Friday night show, with standing room only for latecomers. This caused upset so Security cleared front of stage to maintain line of sight for the seated mass. Once good order was restored, the band took the stage and whipped the atmosphere back up again with that theatrically boisterous exuberance they bring to traditional songs. Frontman Jon Boden teased "There’s a lot of jumping up and down in this one, is that alright", and "They sang a lot louder at Centre Parcs last night". Showmanship worthy of the red jacket he wore, perhaps in homage to the Butlin’s icon. Centre Stage would have suited them better, the sunken dancefloor and drapery, well that would’ve been just right. As it was Centre Stage hosted the The Full English revue on Sunday night. The show promotes the newly digitalised archives of the English Folk Dance and Song Society by means of a supergroup. Between them Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Fay Hield and Nancy Kerr brought out the best from this treasure trove of ‘genuine peasant folk singing’ in what wasa compelling show.
In true Butlins tradition,the ‘Come for Bellowhead, but stay for the Full English’ line-up did seem to have been drawn up on the back fag packet. There were bad clashes, beautiful Bella Hardy on at the same time as The Full English a case in point. Treacherous Orchestra on a Sunday afternoon was odd slot. There were some rather bizarre add-ons like Jamie Williams and the Roots Collective, their Americana received unenthusiastically, and Martin Barre Band, perhaps on a BOGOF deal with next month’s Rock and Blues Festival. When it worked though, it worked very well.
The Saturday night Ray Jackson's Lindisfarne audience, if they hotfooted it could also enjoy the end of Eddi Reader's show, in time to catch the sassy chanteuse doing hits from her Fairground Attraction days, including a sublime ‘Find my Love’. If Bellowhead got too much then the mellow celticism of Altan, was a perfect antidote. With the exception of The Band from County Helll – a band few could walk past - the ‘Introducing Stage’ seemed to be more about plugging the gap between afternoon and evening shows than promoting new talent. For that, the Open Mic nights in ‘Jaks’ were a surprisingly goodbet.
Outside of the headline acts there were some real treats to be had. The aptly named The Hut People, a percussion and accordion duo, relished the club atmosphere, getting an eager audience to clap out a‘we:love:fish and chips’ rhythm, and to join in with shouts of ‘hey’ at the right moments. Vocal trio The Young'Uns wassails and war songs were similarly popular with the crowd, as was the lad’s banter, with a big guffaw for "This dancefloor comes in handy for songs of death and misery," referring to the front of stage cordon Security set up on Friday night and which, by Sunday, seemed big enough for the proverbial elephant to stand in. Then there was the ever so glamorous Bella Hardy, in her sparkling dress, who sung of Maria Bockhareva’s Battalion of Death and an ‘Outlandish Knight’s murderous seaside holidays. Superb.
Unsurprisingly for the festive season, there was merchandising to be plugged. The Melrose Quartet’s Jess Arrowsmith drummed up trade for herexcellent children’s songs CD, and both Bella and the Young Uns had tours to promote. If their versions of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ are anything to go on then watch out, they’ve got interesting takes on the songbook. If tie-dyed frocks, polished stones or an LED lanterns were on people’s Christmas shopping list then the collection of stalls in the pavilion this was the ideal place. Little Pot Stove Records bolstered the choice significantly, with some good pickings to be had in the bargain bins.
Thankfully, for this weekend the winter weather was sunny and crisp, in a North Sea gale I could imagine the place seeming much less welcoming. It would have been good to see more interesting use made of the site. The photo garden cried out to be a daytime busking venue, and there were plenty of underused spaces which could have hosted the workshops and classes you’d expect to find at a folk festival. More should have been made of the concessions, though the corporate franchises may well have objections to that. The enormous queues meant a captive audience, but this went largely untapped, only the Costa del Folk promoters and a cider tent savvy enough to set up their shop in reach of this static market.
With their live music weekends Butlins have hit upon a great way to bring in paying guests out of season and they certainly showed professionalism in hosting entertainment events. It would have benefitted from some of the quirky extras you should find at a folk festival, and some more thought on programming. For the most part though, the event came good on the company’s Shakespearean slogan ‘Our true intent is all for your delight’. Like countless thousands before me,I leftdelighted by a smashing weekend by the sea.
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