“The theatre is the heartbeat of the pier and the pier is the heartbeat of Cromer” - Pavilion Theatre manager on why the venue is so special
PUBLISHED: 07:00 21 November 2017 | UPDATED: 08:34 21 November 2017
Archant Norfolk 2017
Cromer Pier is one of the town’s most iconic landmarks and its stage is home to the last end of pier variety show in the world.
Arts correspondent Emma Knights finds out more about Cromer Pier Pavilion Theatre.
There are not many theatres these days where you can enjoy a stroll along the pier and beautiful coastal views before taking your seats for a show.
But Cromer Pier Pavilion Theatre - one of only five venues of its kind in the UK - offers just that and has been entertaining audiences for decades with its famous summer shows and lots more besides.
“Some days you arrive and it’s a mill pond outside, other times you are dodging waves as you walk down the pier to the theatre!” said general manager Francis Guildea, before reflecting on his dramatic first week in January.
“We had a tidal surge that meant on my fourth day I walked into our bar and the entire wooden flooring area was missing, and I was standing in the building with waves splashing in my face. You can imagine what was going through my mind. I was mildly panicked but everyone else was saying, ‘don’t worry, it gets much worse than this’.”
One of those times was when the theatre was heavily affected by the December 2013 tidal surge, but in the true theatrical spirit of ‘the show must go on,’ the resilient venue was quickly back in business and continues to thrive and play a key role in Cromer life.
“The theatre is the heartbeat of the pier and the pier is the heartbeat of Cromer,” said Mr Guildea.
“There’s a relationship that is intrinsic between Cromer, the pier and the theatre that is hugely important. The theatre, when at the height of its operation in the summer, is potentially bringing 1,000 people a day into Cromer; we’ve got 500 seats and a matinee and evening performance every day. All those people have to potentially stay somewhere, eat somewhere, shop, buy rock, buy candyfloss and whatever else on their trip.”
Mr Guildea, who still classes himself as somewhat of a new boy, paid tribute to all the staff who had helped establish the theatre’s strong reputation over the years. The pier’s entertainment scene - which alongside the theatre includes a giftshop, bar and restaurant and is neighbour to the town’s RNLI lifeboat crews - employs up to 30 people in the winter and up to 80 in the summer.
“I’m immensely proud of all the activity that happens on the pier and the team that make it happen,” Mr Guildea said.
“The other thing that has impressed me about Cromer is how invested the community are in their town, be it the amount of work people put into the carnival weekend, or the fireworks, or anything else, and how important the pier is as a centrepiece within those activities. There is a genuine sense of community in Cromer I haven’t experienced in many places.”
The theatre houses a mix of touring shows throughout the year, but its showpieces are its big in-house summer shows - which this year celebrated their 40th year - as well as its Christmas shows. The 13th Cromer Pier Christmas Show opens on November 25 and Mr Guildea said audiences were in for a treat.
When asked how he would sum up the shows, he said: “They are traditional live variety with a modern twist. There was a time when shows of this type would have been throughout the country in many seaside towns but we are now the only end of pier show in the world.”
He said the secret to the longevity of the Cromer shows was a commitment to keeping production values high come what may.
“If there were cuts to be made, they were made in other areas but the show was always protected,” he said.
Deb Lewis, box office, marketing and retail manager, said another key thing was keeping shows fresh yet traditional. She said: “There’s always a modern element, for instance in this year’s summer show there was a ballet choreographed to Chandelier and a modern tap to sax, and on the other hand you have opera and old school comedy. You move with the times but need that blend of traditional and modern to make it work.”
Mr Guildea added: “It’s about evolution rather than revolution because there is a real sense of genuine ownership with the local population around the show. There is a real sense it is part of their world, part of their heritage, part of what is important in Cromer and the surrounds.”
And the box office suggests the shows are going from strength to strength, with more than 31,000 people watching the 2017 summer shows.
Mr Guildea said: “This year was the most successful summer season ever in terms of visitor numbers and ticket sales. It gives us a real sense the shows have a very long and secure future ahead of them.”
From Bradley Walsh to Darren Day, a number of well-known names have appeared in the Cromer Pier shows over the years, while former prime minister John Major and comedian Tom O’Connor are among the shows’ regular audience members.
Mr Guildea said: “The shows have gained a reputation within the industry of being a real incubator for talent. Bradley Walsh was a headline act here, people like Lyn Paul and Darren Day have headlined the show. I think within the industry if you’ve got the Cromer Pier Show on your CV it’s considered quite a positive tick.”
Ms Lewis added: “In a recent interview on This Morning Bradley Walsh said he started his career at a little theatre in Norfolk...and he said his final gig he ever does he wants to do in this theatre. It wasn’t a contrived thing, he clearly meant what he said, which was really lovely.”
THE PIER AS THE STAR OF THE SHOW
As well as being home to the Pavilion Theatre, Cromer Pier itself has also taken a starring role as a location for a number of films and TV shows.
In 2011 the pier and theatre were the focus for the film In Love with Alma Cogan starring Roger Lloyd-Pack, while in 2013 Steve Coogan came to Cromer to film the final showdown in the film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa at the pier.
The landmark has even caught the attention of Bollywood - a scene from the Indian comedy Housefullcor 3 was shot there in 2015.
Highlights on the small screen include the BBC One drama Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams, being shot there in 2014, and the pier has also featured in television programmes such as Location, Location, Location and Most Haunted.
One of its most recent claims to fame is that it was used as a backdrop for a modelling shoot for department store Marks and Spencer.
For more about the Cromer Pier Pavilion Theatre, visit www.cromerpier.co.uk