OPINION: Celebrities love Norfolk - but does Norfolk really love a celebrity?

Keith Skipper with Duncan Forbes

Sharp shooters on the Norfolk celebrity circuit during the 1980s - Skip teams up with former Norwich City football captain Duncan Forbes at a charity cricket match and fete at Beetley - Credit: Archant

Celebrity spotting has been a prime Norfolk pastime ever since road-building Romans, urn-burying Saxons and sword-brandishing Vikings introduced autograph books as gifts for curious natives.

It seems any collections of signatures including Legionnaire Secondhomeicus, King Raedwald. Erik the Red and Norfolk’s very own Horry the Unready can now fetch up to six-figure sums at auction.

Later invaders included Clement Scott’s London arty set to Poppyland in Victorian times and Chelsea Tractor Travellers to Burnham Upmarket and fashionable neighbours when capital safaris to Southwold and Walberswick in Suffolk became overloaded.

Hollywood star John Travolta’s recent charm offensive simply underlined Norfolk’s strong reputation as a popular destination for famous characters who like fish and chips, a pint of beer, the odd restaurant and supermarket visit and are blessed with a healthy appetite for homey gossip. Just like the vast majority of residents and visitors milling around in search of “a normal life” after a global pandemic with all its restrictions and ramifications.

Surprising, then to hear comments like: “He was really nice, ready to chat and have his photo taken."
It is not too cynical to suggest there’s method in such modesty. Especially if the visit can spell handy publicity for a forthcoming film, book, television appearance stage show or business deal.

Perhaps judgements can be blurred by random use of the tag “celebrity” especially in weekend TV schedules where every other programme is afforded this dubious honour. We can’t be too far away from celebrity newsreaders, weather forecasters and pollen count advisors.

My own brief flirtation with the Norfolk “celebrity circuit” in the 1980s as a local luminary with BBC Radio Norfolk merely reinforced a long-held view about putting on airs and graces in your own backyard being an utter waste of time and invention. 

I received a memorable build-up with a tap on the microphone and this curt introduction before opening a village fete deep in rural pastures: “Good arternewn, leardies and gentlemen. We wuz a’hopin’ ter git sumwun important ter open this here dew, but we carnt afford it .. so here’s Mr Skipper.”

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Later that summer I was slightly flattered to be asked for a signed photograph by an attractive young lady looking after the coconut shy. I inquired for whom my joined-up writing was intended. She smiled easily and answered: “Just make it out to my Grandma Ethel. She likes listening to you on the wireless while she’s having her dinner just before she takes a nap ….”

Such a riposte in the name of flickering fame reminded me of a brief encounter with seasoned warbler Donald “Babbling Brook” Peers on Great Yarmouth’s Golden Mile during my 1960s reporting days in the town. I asked him what it felt like making a comeback. “My dear boy,” he announced with a sardonic smile, “I’ve never been away!” Now, that is genuine celebrity style.

Meanwhile, an overworked rumour mill now points firmly to a forthcoming visit of a well-known actress to suburbs south of Norwich under her new name of Olivia Newton Flotman. Almost inevitably, Will Smith has been spotted in Mundesley, a report seen by many as a big slap in the face for more celebrated neighbours Cromer and Sheringham.

I sense this brand of “celebrity tourism,” which many thought might have reached its peak with hundreds of Summer Winers descending on Holmfirth to catch a glimpse of Compo trying to get on the right side of Nora Batty, could yet play a key part in Norfolk’s exciting drive towards saturation.

My Cockaleg Tour of Cromer Clifftops, sponsored by Poopyland Ventures, will feature lamp posts with which Black Shuck has become best acquainted after being banned from Crufts for barking with the wrong accent. His new doggy diner called Hound of the Basketmeals for bone fido customers should be open before Whitsun.

My Paston Lettuce Takeaway will introduce vegetarian trippers to local connections with Wars of the Roses and explain how allotments have blossomed since the 15th century, Norfolk’s reputation for thickening plots with squit and idle gossip must be enhanced.

A new version of Parson Woodforde’s Gluten-Free Gourmet Guide, first published in 1782, will be launched at The Sinkers & Swimmers Bistro in Weston Longville along with a new DVD from my Harvesting History Collection, The Rick-Burning Riots of Stratton Strawless (1831).

A fresh range of cough sweets designed to keep interruptions by visitors to a minimum at Norwich Cathedral services will go on sale in the city under the Herbert de Lozenge label. Methodists will be urged to purchase a small leaflet entitled “How Moses Kept on Taking the Tablets.”

A face-painting school for young tourists who want to learn more about Iceni Queen Boadicea will be based at Carrow Woad where dyed-in-the-wool Norfolk supporters will explain how she was a driving force behind the Best-Crept Pillage Competition – and also invented the wheelie-bin with knives.

My punishment for coming up with so many obviously lucrative schemes could be a beckoning from the East Anglian Tourist Board.