About to notch up his 2,500th production, Tony Peers tells Liz Coggins why the traditional seaside show must – and will – go on.
In a modest office on a Scarborough industrial estate every year numerous summer shows and pantomime productions start life as a blank sheet of paper. However, even from the outside of Tony Peers Productions you can almost feel the energy that’s being radiated inside this hub of theatrical activity.
Inside, Peers is trying to discuss backcloths with his scenic artist, while also on the phone to a theatre and trying to tap out an email. Across the office his PA, Elaine, is dealing with summer show casting problems, preparing contracts and sorting costumes with a local seamstress.
Then, suddenly putting everything and everybody on hold, Peers moves a box of flyers so I can sit down and apologises for the “unrehearsed total chaos”.
In truth, Peers is one of entertainment’s old guard and here, surrounded by rails of sequinned costumes which would not look out of place in Hollywood and boxes of flyers, is where he feels most at home.
On the walls there are milestones of Peers’s career from a finale picture as dame at Bradford Alhambra to those with show business friends, posters and Press reviews. But pride of place goes to a large photograph of the late Sir Billy Butlin, without whom Tony’s career in showbusiness would never have happened.
Tony was born in Wigan, but as a young child the family moved to Liverpool and after leaving school he worked for five years in a gentleman’s outfitters.
“It was just like the department store in Are You Being Served? I used to amuse the other staff by mimicking customers, the boss and just been funny. I never had any intentions then of going into showbusiness.”
But in 1969 all was to change, when Tony spotted an advertisement for Redcoats at Butlins Holiday Camps in the local newspaper. That summer he found himself working at the Minehead camp.
“In those days being a Redcoat was the training ground for getting your foot on the ladder in show business. So many of our comedy legends, top stars and comedians came through that route.
“It was hard work and you were never off duty from 8am to 11pm, six days a week. It was a great preparation for work in the theatre, as despite what many people think, it is a profession that needs both stamina, discipline and energy.
“Working at Butlins also made you feel comfortable in front of a crowd, especially when you were a compere. The campers weren’t expecting a high standard from you and knew you were just starting and really supported you.
“You also learned people skills, which is very important. It’s such a shame this route into show business has gone. Although there are still holiday camps these days, the youngsters do production shows and it doesn’t teach them how to talk to an audience, just to sing at them”.
It was whilst Tony was standing at the back of the auditorium on Redcoat duty, watching a show that he suddenly decided he wanted “to go on stage”.
“It came to me like a bolt out of the blue. You can make money from dressing up and being funny and that’s exactly what I did. I got an act together and started appearing in the weekly Redcoat Show.
During the next decade he played every camp and hotel on the Butlin circuit going from Redcoat to Bar Host to Principal Comic in the Reviews and in 1974 became Resident Compere at the Filey Camp. It was then that his love affair with Scarborough began. “It’s such a beautiful town and the people were so good to me. I thought to myself, I want to come and live here some day”
Over the next few years Tony worked as a stand-up comedian in the clubs and as support comic with many of the big American acts. “I often used to refer to my stage name as being ‘Plus Support’ as it appeared on the publicity for many of these shows.”
He appeared in three feature films and took numerous small roles in television soaps and dramas, and performed in pantos and was described by The Stage as ‘one of the best and funniest dames of his generation”.
In 1983 Tony’s wish to live in Scarborough came true when he returned to run the entertainment at The Grand Hotel for Butlins. “I started to cut down the performing and go into directing and producing, as variety was on the decline.”
Tony was quick to put down roots in Scarborough and in 1999 made a decision to form Tony Peers Productions specialising in high quality production shows for theatres and hotels.
“Summer shows had become a bit of a joke with past their sell-by-date acts, out-of-step chorus girls, predictable sketches, tatty sets and costumes. Audiences were slipping away from the seaside theatres and seeking other entertainment in clubs, bars and hotels. The summer season was set to become a thing of the past and something had to be done.”
And, true to his word, Peers did do something. His company took over the longest six-day summer season in the country at the Spa and re-branded, revitalised and turned it into a successful, sophisticated, glamorous and modern production show.
“It brought new life to the resort’s entertainment and also encouraged visitors and locals to come into the town and see the show,” says Peers, who this year celebrates his involvement in 2,500 shows at The Spa as a performer, director and producer.
From that followed presenting the pantomime at the Spa, which snowballed into Peers being asked to stage pantomimes at seven other theatres.
This year his summer season offering at The Spa is Take 2 – Movies Meets the Musicals, The Bernie Clifton Laughter Show and Captain Crackers Adventures – a panto style interactive entertainment for kids.
Tony runs the production company with Elaine – between them they “have it all covered” as he says “although we do buy in expertise in the different fields for each of our productions. We are so fortunate to have some great artistic and creative talent in Scarborough that we use time and time again with great success”
Peers is a firm believer in giving young talent a chance and always tries to cast newcomers in most of his productions.
“Sadly there are only five summer seasons left in the country now and these, combined with pantomime, were once the career routes for comics. They would go from Muddles and Buttons to dames as they aged and got more portly. But today young comics only want to do stand-up , that’s why it’s becoming hard to cast professional pantos and hence the shortage of dames because as the established ones die off, there’s no one to replace them”.
Often referred to as Mr Scarborough, Tony is well loved in his adopted home town, and was invited to compere the opening of The Open Air Theatre in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen.
He was presented with an Outstanding Contribution to Tourism in the town’s Tourism Awards and in 2010 made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Scarborough which sits well alongside his 1990 installation as a Freeman of the City of London for his charity work.
“This town has given me so much I just love giving it something back.”
■ Take 2 – Movies Meets The Musicals (May 24 to September 16) on various nights throughout the season. The Bernie Clifton Laughter Show (Monday to Wednesday, July 24 to August 30). Captain Crackers Magical Adventures (June 29 and August 5,12,19 and 26).