How Scarborough’s North Bay is reclaiming its entertainment crown

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Scarborough is reclaiming its crown as one of England’s top entertainment resorts. But can its starry line-up of one-night stands compete with Blackpool’s summer-long attractions? David Behrens reports.

The man who persuaded Britney Spears to play Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre

Showbusiness, like sand and the sea, runs through Scarborough.

It was, with Blackpool, Torquay and Brighton, one of the resorts to which the biggest and best TV turns gravitated for their summer seasons. Even when their audiences began to fly abroad for their holidays, the show went on.

It still does, and with bigger and more spectacular acts than ever, in the revived and newly extended Open Air Theatre, a vast stadium of green plastic seats tucked away improbably on the North Bay behind Peasholm Park and the miniature railway.

The legitimate stage also thrives, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre – fashioned in the round by playwright Alan Ayckbourn, in the guts of the old Odeon Cinema on Westborough.

A surfer leaves the sea at Scarborough's South Bay. PIC: Simon Hulme

A surfer leaves the sea at Scarborough's South Bay. PIC: Simon Hulme

But the curtain has finally come down on the grand old Futurist on Foreshore Road, overlooking the South Bay. The bulldozers currently reducing it to rubble have left some to question whether the town’s reinvention of itself for the entertainment market of the new millennium will be enough to sustain a second act.

With a 2018 programme that includes Lionel Richie, Gary Barlow and Britney Spears, and with no tickets for Richie’s season opener on June 19 to be had for less than £60, today’s Scarborough is not short of marquee names.

The difference between these shows and those of a generation ago is that the stars stay for the night, not for the season.

Stuart Clark’s team runs the front-of-house operation at the Open Air Theatre for the council. It must clear away the drinks concessions and the hospitality rooms, along with the debris from up to 8,500 spectators, after each performance and put it all back for the next artiste a few days or weeks later.

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Other than the tops of the lighting gantries poking above the horizon, the Open Air Theatre is hidden from the casual observer.

Perhaps that is just as well because it had been all but derelict for years – so its success in attracting big names in the last few years has surprised many.

“We are in an excellent place at the moment,” says Mr Clark. “We’re bringing the audience back.

“In 2012, we put on six shows and sold 17,000 tickets. Last year, we sold 75,000 and we’re already ahead of those figures this year.”

They may be one-nighters, but, as he points out, the audience members are largely planning to stay overnight.

“Even at a conservative estimate, half the people will stay the night and many will come for the weekend or longer. And a lot of fans come back time and again to see other shows.

“Realistically, that brings in excess of £5m in economic benefits to the town.”

The capacity of the theatre has just been increased by about 3,000, by filling in the part of the lake that sat between the stage and the audience. The holiday water sports that formerly took place there are confined to the remaining expanse of water alongside.

That doesn’t seem to be a problem. The crowds are drawn now by music, not mud, as they had been in the 1960s when the Open Air Theatre was used to stage It’s A Knockout. In 1986, it closed completely, after five decades. The final act, appropriately, was the orchestra leader James Last.

It was in 2010, after Scarborough Council agreed to spend £3.5m on its refurbishment and entered into an arrangement with the booking agency which now goes under the banner Live Nation, that the Queen declared it reopened.

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On the South Bay, the council-run Spa Theatre pulls in musical acts of a more modest nature. But just along the seafront, the Futurist was denied its closing act. Built as a cinema in 1920 and redesigned 50 years ago with a larger stage, its exterior covered with 1960s yellow panelling that the air made grubby, it could, insists its former leaseholder, still be pulling in the crowds.

The previous generation of seaside shows faded, says Barrie Stead, at the end of the 1980s when their stars were supplanted from Saturday night TV by alternative acts who were not part of the seaside tradition.

“What happened in Scarborough also happened in Blackpool,” he says. “But the council there was determined not to let it die.”

Blackpool’s Opera House carved a new niche by buying into West End musicals, which, like the variety shows it used to stage, are resident for the whole season.

“It’s a huge business,” Mr Stead says. “It’s almost back to the good old days.

“They’ve got 3,500 seats and they can have Cats running for eight weeks or even longer, twice nightly.

“That’s what the Futurist could have been doing too, if it had got the investment.”

DIRECT FROM YORKSHIRE TO WEST END

Coun Andrew Jenkinson, who speaks for Scarborough Council on leisure, says the demand for tickets has the effect of extending the summer season. “I would expect in excess of 85,000 people this year,” he says. “The minute we announce these big-name acts, hotel bookings go through the roof. If people can’t find a room here they’ll go to Filey or Whitby.”

In the centre of Scarborough, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is exporting shows to London and even Broadway, rather than relying on the reverse traffic, Blackpool-style.

“For me, one of the most important things about a tourist resort is that it has a strong cultural identity,” says Stephen Freeman, its chief executive. “We’re punching above our weight here in Scarborough – we’re producing work that goes out on tour across the country and I don’t know many other theatres in Yorkshire or the North that are doing that.”