Let’s start with a pierrot dangling over the waves at Brighton. “A skinhead took offence at the fact we were camping it up on Brighton Palace Pier,” says Tony Lidington, whose troupe, the Pierrotters, was a mainstay of seaside performance for almost three decades. Five men in white satin and pompoms were a tease to masculinity. “I invited him up to dance with us to The Way You Look Tonight,” Lidington remembers, “and he started getting a bit aggressive. He picked me up and ran off with me, and held me over the pier with my feet over the water. I said, ‘You’ll get the biggest laugh of the afternoon if you let me carry you back in.’ So he did, and I staggered back with him.”
Even the gentlest entertainment causes a ripple. Even a fleeting moment deserves a record. Even the staid British go merrily doolally when the sun shines. And Lidington, now 59, saw it with the Pierrotters and kept the receipts.
Every scrap of “Rotter” reminiscence now inhabits an online archive at the University of Exeter, where Lidington teaches. It’s fitting that this repository of fun fetched up in academia, because the Rotters began in 1983, when Lidington was a student in Brighton, already enraptured by popular entertainment. He left the library, painted his face and moseyed out to the beach with the rest of the troupe. “We used to play to the fishermen who mended their nets under the Palace Pier,” he says on the phone. “As the sun went down we would sing to them, and in return they would give us mackerel. We’d cook it and get stoned.”
He discovered pierrot performance from the inside. “The only way of really understanding it is to do it. To feel what it’s like to have the sand whipping in your face on Weston-super-Mare beach, or how to protect your instruments when it pisses down and everyone huddles in the bus shelters. Nobody writes about that.”
Lidington recalls that, another time on Brighton Pier, “This old lady goes, hello boys, you’re back! I asked, when did you last see us? She said, 1924.” Although pierrots romped through seaside towns during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they connect to older European and Afro-Caribbean traditions – “a vernacular British performance form, born of a global hybrid”. Minstrel troupes in blackface dominated the seaside until 1891, when a French show called L’Enfant Prodigue wowed the London stage. A concatenation of white-faced pierrots followed, entertaining millions but leaving little trace. The last British troupe, the Ramblas of Clacton, hung up their pompoms in 1964.
The Pierrotters sang original songs and barnacled seaside standards, teased and wooed their transient crowds. “We were never trying to reproduce the past,” Lidington says. “We were always a reimagining, in the spirit of the age.” His age was the 1980s, when street arts adopted a post-punk flourish: “We wanted to change the world in a transit van.” The Rotters became increasingly well established and even played for the Queen (“I always advertised us as ‘by royal disappointment’”).
“The seaside is this wonderful, playful space where anything can happen,” he continues. “British people rush to the seaside to take off their clothes and their inhibitions, and at the end of the day the sea washes it all away.” Lidington shed his own inhibitions in the persona of Uncle Tacko: saucy, avuncular, haplessly marshalling the anarchic Rotters; you need a lot of front on the seafront.
Lidington has had myriad incarnations – as historic clowns on stage and radio, and offering Punch and Judy, flea circuses and other itinerant delights to crowds. He and the fleas were the first seaside entertainers to lift this lockdown summer, bringing joy (plus vinyl mats and sanitiser spray) to Teignmouth, Dawlish and Exmouth. For fun-starved punters, “there was a great relief that they could smile again”.
In the longer term, Lidington hopes the archive will be a resource and inspiration. He argues that there is something radical in “trying to create extraordinary work for ordinary people. It’s about transforming the everyday.” He cherishes “the geology of popular pleasures: fairgrounds, circus, street theatre, hair braiding – all those things that everybody does but nobody acknowledges. That’s our intangible cultural heritage. That’s what makes us British, and I’m deeply proud of that sense of freedom, gay abandon and fun.”
Before we stop, I ask Lidington for one perfect sunny memory. He doesn’t hesitate. “It was on the banks of the Thames. We’d performed all day and were just walking back. On a bench there was a gran with her grandchild who was five or six. And he was bawling his eyes out, howling like only a youngster can because they had to go home. I said, ‘Before you go, shall we sing you a song?’ We sang them a very slow, gentle version of By the Sea, and I told them about our day. We get to the end: the child isn’t crying, and the grandma is crying. I offer her my cheek, she goes to kiss it, I turn round and kiss her on the lips. That makes them laugh. And then we leave.” No coins, no applause. A shining moment for just two people. “We call those a WIAA – What It’s All About.”