"We had no idea what the Pierrots were, but when it was explained it sounded really interesting," says Gary Farlow. "They were seaside entertainers who sang and danced and dressed a bit like clowns."
Gary and some fellow Year 9 students from Caedmon School, Whitby, have been researching Pierrot troupes and other forms of seaside entertainment in their spare time and have mounted an exhibition in their school library.
The Mayor is due in an hour.
There are sepia and monochrome pictures of entertainment in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Replicas of posters advertise the Scarborough Aquarium, theatres, the Pierrot shows and other attractions and detailed accounts reveal how entertainment developed from the antics of Egyptian clowns and court jesters. One picture shows a crowd gathered around an elephant - was it used for riding? "Well there are no clues in the text," says student Daniel Hartas, "but we think we can assume they were. Have you seen the pictures of goat carts? They took holidaymakers for rides along the beach."
The students talk about the Pierrot and concert party stars of 60 years ago as if they know them. "We've learnt a lot about teamwork and commitment," says James Goodall. "We had to stay behind quite late to get this exhibition mounted."
Tony Lidington arrives. He is an acclaimed entertainer: a magician, puppeteer and clown and is about to tour the country with his one-man show about the great clown Grimaldi. Lidington, fascinated by traditional British seaside entertainment since boyhood and with long-term aims of rescue and revival, is the driving force behind this exhibition. He obtained Heritage Lottery funding for a two-year research project for approximately 50 students drawn from Caedmon and three other schools near the Yorkshire coast.
A permanent exhibition, We Do Like to be Beside the Seaside, will tour the country from September 2 starting at the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire. Mounted on an alfresco Pierrot stage, it will include the schools' work plus Pierrot costumes and other memorabilia. "This project has allowed our students to look at and manipulate original archive material which they didn't have access to before", says Caedmon history teacher Russell Hooper. "Now they can see how the Pierrots and the concert parties relate to today's culture."
Besides having amassed the country's largest collection of Pierrot memorabilia, Lidington himself is a major resource. For 23 summers he has led a band called the Pierrotters, the last remaining professional Pierrot troupe. On a sunny day last year the Caedmon students filmed the Pierroters around Scarborough and their own interviews with holidaymakers. "Tony and the group were singing and playing on the beach wherever there was a crowd", explains Gary Farlow. "And we followed them with our notebooks and microphones. One woman said she remembered her father talking about the Pierrots."
Back to today. Lidington is finishing off face make-up for Adam Broadley, who is dressed as a Pierrot performer. Lidington looks pleased. This is not face painting. It is classic clown make-up and it has been applied with reverence. "Now Adam. You must clap your hands in a big circle", says Lidington. "It's a tradition amongst clowns before they perform. It means you start with some applause and you will do well".
Caedmon students Maddie Stamp and Naomi Russell have composed a jolly seaside ditty for the exhibition. Tony Lidington picks up his tenor banjo and everyone sings - "Fish and chips and ice cream too, Seaside fun for me and you Building castles, making friends, Seaside fun, it never ends !"
l More at www.prom-prom.com or contact Tony Lidington, Promenade Promotions, tel: 01274 546177.
* For exhibition venuesbooking information email: firstname.lastname@example.org
* Copies of the educational DVD We Do Like to be Beside the Seaside are being sent to local schools and are free to exhibition goers. They are also available for a nominal fee from the above website.
* Scarborough's Rotunda Museum is too tiny for a group visit, but has produced CDs containing extensive and relevant archive material.
Scarborough Museums, tel: 01723 367326 (ask for archive section).
The Pierrot troupes were the boy bands of their day. They took over from the minstrel shows. Seaside resorts had four or five troupes vying for the public's attention. Young performers were looking for a big break, old stagers looked for employment through the summer months. Many big names, such as Max Miller and Stanley Holloway, began their careers in Pierrot shows.
Clifford Essex's Royal Pierrots performed for the Prince of Wales at the Cowes Regatta in 1890 and between that date and 1930 more than 500 groups were formed. They were part of the boom in British seaside holidays and when the resorts declined, with the advent of cheap foreign holidays, the Pierrot troupes declined with them.