Final curtain falls on unique Press Gang

Richard Batson Their touring circus of rural “squit” is a throwback to a golden age of home-spun entertainment.But the Press Gang's timeless mix of humour, music, poetry, prose and wry observation on country life has rocked village halls with laughter and applause.

Richard Batson

Their touring circus of rural “squit” is a throwback to a golden age of home-spun entertainment.

But the Press Gang's timeless mix of humour, music, poetry, prose and wry observation on country life has rocked village halls with laughter and applause.

Now, after a quarter of a century of raising spirits, and funds for good causes, the final curtain is about to fall on their antics - or, having heard some of the jokes, should that be antiques?

For one last time, on Sunday October 26, two packed houses totalling 1,000 people will watch the Press Gang's last ever shows at Cromer Pier Pavilion, which - under the word play wizardry of their ringmaster Keith Skipper - are being tagged “The End of an Error.”

The beginning of the era however was certainly no error - as the first show, at the same venue, was also a sell-out.

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Back in the summer of 1984 inspirational Irish impresario Dick Condon, who was running the pier as well as Norwich's Theatre Royal, suggested to “Skip” he should stage a night of Norfolk entertainment at the pier pavilion.

After the successful debut he declared “Oi tink this squit will sell” remembered Mr Skipper.

“I had a suspicion some home-made Norfolk humour, with a bit of squit and polish culture added in, would work - but I never realised it would turn into a 25-year safari,” he added.

That safari has taken them to hundreds of varied venues across Norfolk, with occasional “missionary work” in Suffolk.

The Press Gang's efforts have helped venues fill their coffers, and since 1999 have raised thousands of pounds for the EDP's We Care appeal.

They have played in theatres, village halls, community centres, even country houses. The cast has changed and evolved over the years, but the show has not veered from its popular recipe of humour, song, music, poetry and readings - with a liberal dusting of Norfolk dialect.

Performers sit on the stage throughout, awaiting their turn in the spotlight, with proceedings glued together by Mr Skipper's web of wit and bucolic wisdom.

Acts range from singer Danny Platton with his signature Delia's Dumplings singalong, and Ian Prettyman's a capella seafaring songs, to the meanderings of “the Gal Liza” Austrin, and the quick-fire gags of Pat Nearney and Colin Burleigh.

Things have not always gone smoothly. Some “out takes” in the souvenir programme reveal contending with leaking roofs, emergency stages built from potato boxes, changing behind “troshing” machines, cast members falling asleep on stage and getting lost on the way to remote rural gigs.

Mr Skipper's most memorable moments include when he fell off the stage at Broome, and the Boy Jimma (Tony Clarke) in deadpan ad lib commented “he dunt normally dew that!”

And he recalls two women in the front row at Longham - flummoxed by his gag that “there's three kinds of people in this world - those that can count and those that can't” - who muttered “oh dear, that poor boy got that wrong” leaving Skip to dissolve into laughter.

“It has been a remarkable 25 years, and has gone so quickly - as things do when you are enjoying yourselves,” said Mr Skipper. “It is so refreshing to see that home-made entertainment, like a big family parlour gathering, is so well received.

“It is our decision to end. We felt that 25 years was a sensible round number - and we are all getting older.

“There are rumours we are all off to an old folks home at Happisburgh, but the rooms aren't ready yet - so rather than retire we are diversifying.”

Various members of the troupe will be seen out in splinter groups All Preachers Great and Small and Three Parts Light and doing various tributes to the Singing Postman and the Boy John... who has letters after his name.

A few seats are still remaining for Cromer shows, through the box office on 01263 512485.