Memory Lane: The first of the gangs

1988, three young members of the cast pose with Mark Wilson, Keith Winters, Peter Burgeen and Dave Swift
1988, three young members of the cast pose with Mark Wilson, Keith Winters, Peter Burgeen and Dave Swift
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THEY’VE been riding along on the crest of the wave for half a century now.

So doesn’t that make all those involved in the 50th Blackpool Gang Show – and the other 49 that have gone before – true Seaside Stars?

The show began after a visit by a few scouting friends to the Three Counties Gang Show in Manchester in October 1961.

Tony Guy, Les Illingworth and Ron Chattington were on their way back from the show – which featured youngsters from Manchester, South East Lancashire and East Cheshire – when they, along with mates Geoff Bunn, Bill Gossop, Wally Tyres and Bert Bradshaw, decided Blackpool could do with a show just like the one they had seen.

There was certainly plenty of untapped potential and with no shortage of volunteers that is how, roughly 12 months later, the first Blackpool Gang Show took to the stage.

On Tuesday night the Blackpool District Scout Council proudly presents its 50th annual spectacular, running all week at the Pleasure Beach Globe Theatre, home since 2005.

First show in 1962 was in the more-modest surroundings of the Dean Street Memorial Hall, just a stone’s throw away from the South Shore fun park. John Rowland, who was to become the show’s director in 1967, was in the cast.

In 1964, the gang moved to the larger Jubilee Theatre, a much-loved auditorium on the top floor of the Co-operative Emporium in Coronation Street. A novelty for the audience was a model of a plane flown on to the stage in a number called Flying High and a young Stewart Swan, now the longest-serving gang member, made his first appearance.

In 1966 pennants were given out as a souvenir to the gang for the first time and three years later there was another change of venue, this time to the Royal Pavilion Theatre in Rigby Road. A bit of tidying up was needed as the venue was a strip club and – coincidentally – females were allowed into the show for the first time! These included Joan Walters, who was to become Mrs Swan, and Margaret Spencer who was later to marry Steve Williamson – currently the district commissioner – who also treading the boards for the first time in 1969.

Stewart and Joan, who will celebrate their ruby wedding next year, have three grown-up girls, Andrea, Mayone and Joanna, who have all taken and, indeed continue to take, an active part in the show.

Steve and Margaret continue their involvement in the show and their two grow-up children Sarah Jane and Mark have also been involved.

Phil Wheatley, the show’s historian, who is also playing the drums this year, admits: “The Royal Pavilion presented a bit of a challenge. The gang had to tidy the place up before any performances could take place. There was all sorts of graffiti on the walls which needed to be painted over and a few repairs were needed to the woodwork. The strangest part was that the cast had to go through a hole in the wall to get on to the stage!”

In 1970 there was yet another change, this time to the Winter Gardens, which became home for the rest of the decade apart from a transfer to The Grand in 1972 for one year only before it closed down to become a bingo hall. In 1975, the cast was thrilled when Ralph Reader, who staged the original Gang Show in London, wrote a song for them called Blackpool and also visited the show.

In 1980, the ABC was the venue, but its closure saw a move the following year to the mighty Opera House with 3,000 seats to fill nightly – a feat achieved for at least two of the nights in 1982 with the 21st anniversary show.

As this landmark show approached, it was realised that nobody had collated a proper history of the annual spectacular. Phil Wheatley offered his services to produce a history booklet presented to every cast member.

By 1988, the gang was back at the now-reopened Grand, staying there until 1992 when they returned to the Winter Gardens, with the exception of 1999 at Bispham High School and 2000 at Collegiate High School.

The Globe has been the show’s home since 2005, presenting a challenging stage for the cast, although no one was prepared to take to the sky on a rope, echoing the spectacle of Vladimir, star of the former summer show Eclipse for which the theatre was built.

In 2007 it was something of a 3D Gang Show, when the Blackpool members were joined by those from Wyre and Fylde to mark the centenary of scouting.

Phil Wheatley says: “Looking back over the years we seem to have a record of closing down theatres, but we hope to be at The Globe for some years to come.”

- This year’s show opened on Tuesday night and runs nightly at 7.30pm until Saturday when there is also a 2.30pm matinee.

Tickets are £8.50, children and concessions £6.50. To book, call 0871 222 9090 or at the Globe box office.