'Telly just isn't the same': glorious return of English seaside entertainment

People young and old enjoy silly fun of Uncle Tacko’s flea circus and a Punch and Judy show in Devon

Children laughed, gasped, clapped and sang along. Families and couples strolling along the sunlit promenade paused for a few minutes to watch, smiles on faces. Even the cool kids on the skateboard park took time out to peer over the wall at the craziness.

It was silly, anarchic and sometimes a little bit scary, but the return of live drama – in the form of good old-fashioned seaside entertainment – to the Devon coast also felt rather glorious.

Tony Lidington, AKA Uncle Tacko, who has worked as a showman for 40 years, packed away his flea circus after the noon show on the seafront at Teignmouth and declared himself delighted.

“It’s wonderful to be back here after all this time in lockdown,” he said. “You could see that people young and old were enjoying it. The old folk will tell you that this sort of thing used to be the beating heart of the town. Sometimes people say that children aren’t interested, that they’d rather be watching a screen. But the reaction here today demonstrates that’s not true.”

Smiles in the crowd watching Uncle Tacko in Teignmouth
Smiles in the crowd watching Uncle Tacko in Teignmouth. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Live drama is one of the sectors that has struggled the most during the coronavirus crisis. A little way along the seafront, the Pavilions Teignmouth arts venue is about to start screening films again but it cannot be sure that its first scheduled live gig – a comedy club night in September – will go ahead.

Across the UK, theatres are laying off staff and expressing concern that they may not survive, with the cancellation or postponement of pantomimes causing particular heartache.

“My season was pretty much wiped out overnight when news of the lockdown came through,” said Lidington. “Every single festival, every event cancelled and around half my annual income vanished. It was disastrous.”

Lidington has been able to access some government and Arts Council England support. He is also lucky in that as well as being an entertainer he is a lecturer in drama at Exeter University.

But for Lidington, getting back in front of a crowd with his fellow performers Spike (his son, apprentice and roadie) and Professor Gayton, who runs the Punch and Judy show, has been vital.

Lidington’s son Spike disinfecting the benches
Lidington’s son Spike disinfecting the benches. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Of course, changes have had to be made. Before the silliness can start, Lidington makes sure people are sitting in a suitably socially distanced way. He has invested in his own benches to make sure the shows are safe.

A new job for Spike is to make sure the club used in the Codswallop game (in which participants have to try to hit a toy fish propelled down a drainpipe) is disinfected.

Teignmouth’s district and town councils clearly see the value in having Uncle Tacko on the seafront. One of the councils is paying him a retainer to be here, and the other is providing the space. The resort has attracted visitors since 1750, and providing live entertainment has long been an important part of the draw.

But it’s not just about economics. Lidington argues that without live drama, society is diminished. “Live arts and entertainment is so important,” he said. “Without it, I think we cease to function fully as human beings. It’s important that we share stories, that we laugh and cry together. It’s a vital way of celebrating the fact that we are human.”

Uncle Tacko collecting donations
‘My season was pretty much wiped out overnight when news of the lockdown came through,’ said Lidington. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

He thinks the Covid-19 crisis may lead to changes in attitudes to art. “I think coronavirus will encourage people to think a lot about the importance of the space where art takes place. I don’t think theatres should be privileged, there are so many other ways to interact with the public. The more I’m involved in the arts, the more I think the basic elements of entertainment are more substantial, and possibly have more meaning.”

Teignmouth residents and visitors were clearly delighted that Uncle Tacko and his crew are back. Steve Collings, 63, laughed at the Punch and Judy show and had a go at Codswallop, consistently missing the fish. “It’s lovely to see traditional seaside entertainment here,” he said. “I grew up with Punch and Judy. It’s a link with parents, grandparents. I love it.”

It was noticeable how many more mature people were at the shows with grandchildren. Teignmouth residents Ruth and Steve Bentley had brought along their grandsons Daniel, 11, and Jackson, seven, who were visiting the south coast from Scotland. “Theatre is an important part of the community here,” said Ruth.

Daniel, himself a keen puppeteer, said he had missed going out to live shows during lockdown. “Telly just isn’t the same,” he said.

• This article was amended on 8 August 2020 to correct the spelling of Uncle Tacko.

Contributor

Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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