Goodbye to all that squit

Keith Skipper After 25 fun-filled years, the Press Gang are bowing out with a grand farewell tour. Here, Norfolk’s master of squit, Keith Skipper, looks back on an eventful quarter of a century and explains why it’s all coming to an end

Keith Skipper

The great adventure began with a chirpy challenge from the Irish charmer. “I think this squit will sell,” hinted Dick Condon, the charismatic showman who transformed Norwich Theatre Royal into one of the most successful centres of culture and entertainment in Europe.

He put Norfolk's gloriously understated sense of humour on the same stage as his native blarney. It wasn't a question of which was the better... simply acceptance by a shrewd businessman that both could “put bums on seats”.

So, on a balmy Sunday evening in June, 1984, we hatched a fresh mutual admiration society at the end of Cromer Pier, another spot where the Condon magic was weaving its spell. A full house of over 400 in the Pavilion Theatre roared support for a cast of homespun performers.

I organised BBC Radio Norfolk's Night of Squit and acted as compere. Dick looked and listened with just the hint of a smirk as personalities who'd become favourites on the local wireless pushed the boat out in the name of proper Norfolk culture.

I didn't need Dick to follow up with a suggestion that squit might be a good traveller around the county - and occasionally beyond - but he felt obliged to nourish a sudden burst of enterprise. “I think you could make squit the antidote to Saturday night television” turned out to be one of the sharpest and most prophetic lines from the Condon collection.

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It seems only right to return to the end of Cromer Pier to pay proper homage to our Irish inspiration when the curtain falls on 25 fun-packed years in village, town and city.

My troupe of entertainers, evolving into the Press Gang as demands increased and fixtures multiplied, have matured nicely together to form a mean, green machine, recycling the sort of material which used to fill village meeting-places before that blinking box in the corner ruled so many lives.

We embarked on our First Farewell Tour in 2005, realising the need to take serious stock before committing to more hectic rounds from early March until late October. Now we have decided it is best to go out on a high, still on many wanted lists, rather than taper off apologetically.

In any event, a quarter of a century seems plenty long enough for such an escapade.

Most of my current colleagues are popular solo performers in their own right. Comedians Pat Nearney and Colin Burleigh, singers Danny Platton and Ian Prettyman and actor and broadcaster Greg Powles will continue to plough familiar furrows on local stages.

Others have regular commitments closer to home, so there'll be no anguished cries of boredom when the squit wagon comes to the end of the trail on Cromer Pier. The End of an Error, as these two farewell shows will be billed, carries a healthy dash of self-denigration, one of the trademarks of our time on the road.

My introductions can veer on the amiably insulting - and we don't patronise audiences either. “Hands up all those bred and born in Norfolk... right, you can act as missionaries and interpreters for the next three hours.” The ideal ice-breaker at a gathering with plenty of “furriners” on show.

We have helped raise thousands of pounds for village halls, churches, schools and other vital local facilities. We've raised a few thousand laughs as well to underline the sheer joy of live resistance to an era of push-button entertainment.

It is the unashamedly old-fashioned flavour of Press Gang concerts that has attracted big audiences and regular bouquets, especially in rural parts where the village social used to be at the heart of local life.

People who might not have been to their village hall for years have told us how much it reminds them of home-made efforts both before and after the second world war. I was weaned on such delights, a Nissen hut on the old aerodrome our palace of varieties in my home village of Beeston. I have heard wonderful echoes many times as Press Gang perambulations gathered pace.

There have been “posh” sessions, including our parade on a country house stage at Wolterton Hall, near Aylsham, and festival invitations to Dereham, Diss, Downham, Gorleston, Hingham, Mundesley, Norwich and Yarmouth. Squit went international when we put on a show for the Cromer Twinning Association. Three rousing Squit on the Pier productions raised nearly £17,000 for local charity BREAK.

In recent years, our travels have featured healthy bucket collections for the EDP We Care Appeal with chairman Paddy Seligman and her colleagues on hand to spread the word. Indeed, Paddy has attended so many shows she is now official stand-in for any regular unable to appear!

There have been a few changes in personnel over the years but the team ethic has remained paramount and objectives unchanged - to preach the local gospel with pride and passion.

The Final Farewell Tour will simply follow well-rehearsed lines.

DIARY DATES

The Press Gang's Final Farewell Tour includes several fixtures on fresh ground as well as returns to familiar patches.

The campaign opens at North Creake Village Hall on March 1 in a rich spirit of neighbourly co-operation. The show will raise funds for St Mary's Church... in South Creake.

Other first-time venues are Great Massingham, Wood Norton, Erpingham and Wretham. My home village of Beeston is among those to invite us back on the last lap.

There are a couple of spare dates on the autumn leg, so anyone interested should drop me a line as soon as possible at 25 St Mary's Road, Cromer, NR27 9DJ for details.

Fixtures already confirmed for 2008 (all Saturdays except Mundesley and Cromer Pier):

t March 1: North Creake Village Hall (in aid of St Mary's Church, South Creake)

t March 8: Ludham Village Hall (in aid of St Catherine's Church)

t March 15: Great Massingham Village Hall (for hall funds)

t March 29: Beeston Village Hall (for hall funds)

t April 5: Hockwold Village Hall (for hall funds)

t April 12: Wood Norton Village Hall (for hall funds)

t April 19: Erpingham with Calthorpe Village Hall (for hall funds)

t May 10: Narborough Community Centre (for Centre funds)

t August 5: Mundesley Coronation Hall (part of Mundesley Festival)

t September 6: Wretham Village Hall (for Thetford Inner Wheel Club)

t October 11: Hingham Lincoln Hall (for hall funds)

t October 26: End of an Error on Cromer Pier. Two shows at 2.30 and 7.30pm. All tickets £12.50 from box office on 01263 512495.