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Exeter role in seaside entertainment apprenticeship

See you at the end of the pier

That's the way to do it!

Exeter University has received funding to support an apprenticeship scheme in seaside performance that could see a new generation of Punch and Judy performers take to Britain's beaches. Ahead of that, the lecturer involved in securing the cash is heading to beaches in Exmouth and Teignmouth with his traditional seaside show.

Now the ban on outdoor theatre imposed during lockdown has been lifted, socially-distant performances for small groups sitting at an appropriate distance will include Punch and Judy, a flea circus, music, comedy, circus skills and games such as “Codswallop” – splat-the-rat, but with fish - or hoop-la. The shows, twice a week in August and during the first week of September are run by Dr Tony Lidington, who as well as being a drama lecturer at the university has been a performer for 40 years.

Dr Lidington said: “I think it will be really positive for the wellbeing of residents, visitors and the economy of the area to be able to provide some performance again, and we are looking forward to hosting shows this summer, of course observing all guidance and keeping people safe. Sometimes we’ve performed to 500 people, but often it is three people and a dog and that is just as important.

"This art form was designed to be enjoyed al-fresco. So many people enjoy the seaside, but wouldn’t think of going to the theatre, and it’s wonderful to think we can provide some elements of that experience, and joy for people of all ages.”

Dr Lidington has been awarded emergency coronavirus funding from the Arts Council England to support the start of a new apprenticeship scheme for seaside performers, and a new archive showcasing the incredible history of the art form. The money will help create a digital archive of Dr Lidington's troupe ‘The Pierrotters’, which ran from 1983 to 2010. Images of performers, their costumes and their schedules and promotional materials will be photographed and then appear on a dedicated website.

The seaside pierrot troupe is an uniquely British performance form. The origins of the pierrot character, alongside pantomime and Punch and Judy, come from the medieval Italian comedy or commedia d’ell arte. The first troupe in Britain was created by a banjo manufacturer based in London called Clifford Essex in 1891. The life of a pierrot was tough. They had to be smart, charming and available at all times, perform up to five times a day in all weathers and couldn’t meet girlfriends or loved ones in public. Troupes had names such as The Merry Japs, The Imps and The Moths that are similar to those of pop groups today.

Hundreds of pierrot troupes performed at seaside resorts, but World War Two and the fashion for a different type of holiday meant that few remained after 1945.

Many famous names of light entertainment started as seaside pierrots, including Arthur Askey, Stanley Holloway, Max Miller and Leslie Crowther. Their influence can be still be seen the popular comedy of today, including Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Peter Kay and The Fast Show and the form still influences today’s comedy and music.

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