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When a theatre closes; the story of Llandudno's Arcadia

At ninety three, Wyn Calvin is still a master of the twinkly self-subversion that’s characterised his career as a comedian and pantomime dame. There is no attempt at small talk he doesn’t answer with a joke- unless, that is, he replies in song. He speaks in a slow, lilting, r-rolling Welsh rumble that coats everything he says in the glitter of high drama. He likes to begin lyrical meditations on subjects like the serious responsibility of the pantomime performer- and then puncture them: “Well anyway, aren’t I an old bore?” There is just one moment, in my two conversations with him, when he seems completely serious; and that is when he tells me the story of how he once saved a small theatre in North Wales from the remorseless march of capitalism, in a feat of dazzling Machiavellian cunning.

An unassumingly quirky, single-story Victorian theatre in the middle of Llandudno’s prom, the Arcadia had been part of the Catlin family’s holiday entertainment empire since 1916. Its summer revue, ‘Showtime’, played six times a week from the beginning of May until mid-October each year, the nightly swish of its curtain as essential a rhythm in the town’s seaside song as the clunk and wheeze of the tram, the screech of the seagulls, the throb and dwindle of the tide. After more than seventy years’ service to family entertainment, in 1968, the Arcadia was up for sale, and though the local council wanted to buy it, they couldn’t get a loan from the government to do so. The building seemed doomed to become a bingo hall, the gloomy fate of many theatres in a new age of TV and European holidays.

Wyn was top of the bill in the Arcadia’s summer show that year, and well-connected in Llandudno; two friends on the town council found out that the Secretary of State for Wales, the (now-somewhat-notorious) George Thomas, was to make a visit for “some sort of official dinner”. They promised to bring Thomas, whom Wyn knew a bit from South Wales’s Labour scene, to the last half-hour of the show after their meal. This, to be clear, was a conspiracy, no less carefully-crafted for its gentle-sounding purpose: “We knew we only had to let him get the feel of the theatre, and he’d love it.”

Just before the end of the show on the night in question, Wyn watched from the wings as three suited men sidled into the back of the stalls. As the cast gathered for the curtain call, he raised a round of applause for the politician, and invited him up on to the stage. “Would you like to have a few words with this lovely audience?”

Thomas came up and talked for a while, and seemed very much to be enjoying himself- even getting a few laughs. He stayed onstage for ‘God Save the Queen’ (the inexorable conclusion to most variety-type shows, at the time), and as the curtain closed he turned to Wyn and exclaimed, “What a lovely theatre this is!”

“Well yes,” Wyn replied quickly, “but you know, it’s going to be a bingo hall.” “This theatre, a bingo hall? Impossible!” “Yes! Because your government has refused the council a loan to buy it.” And then, like a wooden puppet dancing on the theatre gods’ strings: “Well, tell them to apply again, and I’ll see that it gets through.”

Almost forty years later, another comic was in Llandudno to appear in one of the town’s last remaining variety shows, and catch up with the surprising number of his showbusiness friends who’d retired in that part of Wales. Driving into town along the prom, Bryan Burdon was dismayed to see that the Arcadia had been reduced to a mound of rubble and bricks. The theatre had been closed for ten years, and sinking, gently, into a crumbling dereliction: cracked walls, peeling posters on the boards, the sign above the entrance discoloured and missing letters. Rumours of renovation had fluttered, from time to time, but now asbestos in the roof and plans to extend the conference centre next door had brought on the final death-blow.

The Arcadia mattered to Bryan, too; like Wyn, he’d spent whole summers there in the sixties and seventies, as Showtime’s lead comedian. “It was a lovely theatre- strange, but lovely- and it was really sad,” he remembers. “We’d had a great time there. So I pulled over, picked up a brick and put it in the boot of my car. And now I’ve got a piece of the Arcadia in my garden.”

Over the past few months, I’ve been interviewing some of the artists, performers and businesspeople (in their common shorthand, “old pros”) who appeared in the Arcadia’s resident summer show in the 1960s and 70s, and are now themselves mostly in their eighties and nineties. The stories Wyn and Bryan tell are typical in that they’re both rosy and unsettling; they reveal the strength of each man’s conviction that the little theatre was worth saving, even as they beg the question of how the survival of other institutions, indefinably vital parts of some unique local fabric, might depend on the whims and vanities of the distantly powerful who can’t possibly know their value. More fundamentally, though, the images of the theatre they conjure- glittering and packed and God-Save-the-Queening; fading and sinking and finally demolished; washed up as a brick in a garden in Surrey- somehow seem symbolic of a larger story of transformation.

By 1968, there was already something of a twilight feeling about summer shows in seaside towns. They were the stoical last survivors of what had been, until what Oliver Double calls the “great extinction” of the mid fifties, a hugely popular form of entertainment: the live variety show. As concert halls were forced to close by rising city rents and the invention of television, the history goes, theatres like the Arcadia were among the last places that sustained speciality acts- comics, singers and musicians but also contortionists, acrobat and dog-acts- with reliable work and willing audiences. In one way, then, it’s tempting to see summer revues like Showtime, in the sixties and seventies, as the ominous fourth act in any number of tragedies: of the almost total loss of popular dramatic traditions like variety, minstrel-shows, or Pierrot-troupes, say, or of the fading fortunes of the seaside towns whose economies have been damaged by shrinking numbers of tourists (something Wyn tells me draws the parallel into sharp focus: in Blackpool, in the seventies, ten summer shows played to packed houses twice a night; now, the Crowmer Pier Show in North Norfolk is the only one of its kind left in the country).

But in resurrecting their memories of the Arcadia, its one-time cast and crew trace the outlines of a world that seems suggestive and intriguing in its own right, and an entertainment industry that was, for reasons I’ll suggest here, uniquely rooted in the towns in which it was based. The furniture of this world- its boarding-house digs, its shandies in the bar, its culture of local celebrity- stretched threads of community through Llandudno, embracing people from all over the town. Lives got tangled up in one another at the Arcadia, and never quite came apart again. And if its story is tragic, from the perspective of the present, it is so because of the loss of this little knot.

There is no more potent sign of how absolutely the world the old pros describe has vanished than their frequent bewilderment at the direction of my questions. “What was the nicest time of day, Ian?” The Arcadia’s choreographer for three seasons, Ian Garry is still very much “Personality Plus”, as he’s billed on its programme for 1974. On the day I meet him he’s dressed for the studio in a black tracksuit, baseball cap, silver earrings and trainers, and tells the story of his career in at least six different accents, miming dance routines with the grace of a panther. It’s fair to say that this kind of sentimental introspection is not what he had expected from this interview; his answers have a habit of veering off in glitzier and more scandalous directions.

He thinks for a moment, then says he liked the mornings best, in the weeks before opening night, when the whole cast would gather in Llandudno to rehearse the three different programmes they’d perform in rotation over the next twenty weeks. The summer revue had a particular format: speciality acts would be scattered between sketches, songs and dances in which the whole cast would take part. No matter what your act, if you were hired by the Arcadia, it was part of the job to sing in the chorus, dance, play the straight man in a skit. There’s a quiet pride in the professional flexibility this demanded; though most of my interviewees have dedicated years to perfecting one art, their word “pro” seems to encompass a sense of uncomplainingly turning your hand to anything. When I ask soprano Gwen Stock how her first ever performance felt (she was fourteen, and singing to American soldiers in the camps around her local Eastbourne), her reply seems doubly revealing: “Oh, yes, great. No problem at all... Will people be interested in this?”.

Not quite everyone was happy to try their hand at everything: Jack Allen just wanted to do his xylophone act with his wife, Irene, and otherwise be left in peace. (At least four people recount, with a glee undiminished by the forty-five year interval, a joke Ian liked to make about Jack’s dancing; it is a mystifying joke, that relies on a working knowledge of boating-lakes, and I mention it here only because, having heard it so often, it seems dishonest not to). Irene plays me recordings from the Arcadia preserved on crackling tapes, her son reading out his O-Level revision notes on the B-sides. She mimes hitting the keys as we listen to their act, a mix of singalong crowd-pleasers and eye-wateringly complicated classical pieces translated into the wavering plink of the xylophone. Half-way through the only video, they stop playing to hand little xylophones out to twelve volunteers- “We’d like six ladies, we’d like six gentlemen. Every lady gets a free washing machine”- and lead them, haltingly, through ‘The Bells of Saint Mary’s’.

The little xylophones, Irene tells me, were “a way of bringing the audience into the act”; something lots of speciality artists tried to do, partly because laughs and applause were variety’s currency, but also because even gentle family crowds like the ones at the Arcadia could be surprisingly mutinous. Bryan remembers being flummoxed, for a second, by an audience shouting out the punchlines to his jokes, “because what could you do when that happened?”. But silence could be even worse. Everyone has a painful memory of ‘dying a death’; performing, often inexplicably and without warning, to scattered applause and stony faces. People don’t like talking about dying, I notice; Irene laughs nervously when I ask her what might cause it: “Just... if they hated you.”

A general wariness of the audience partly explains the great lengths to which everyone at the Arcadia went to please and pacify ‘The Jury’. This was a group of twenty-or-so Llandudno locals who approached the business of going to the theatre with the kind of bloody-minded dedication you might need to row across the Atlantic or read Paradise Lost, booking the same seats in the front row every Saturday night of the summer without fail- and more often than not, once in the week, too. Ian estimates that over the twenty-week season, they’d watch each version of the show at least seven or eight times. “They’d seen that thing forwards, backwards, upside down and back to front. They knew every single word.”

Of all the stories from Arcadia I’ve heard for this project, the ones about the Jury are among the strangest, and they also offer the most interesting insights into the unique workings of summer shows. Some of the theatre’s regular customers were local hotel owners, who would bring their guests and see the show for free themselves. But more came so often simply because they wanted to feel part of the buzz and thrum of Llandudno’s showbusiness scene. And like any good producer of a seaside revue, Clive Stock knew that both were vital to the success of the business.

The task of filling a thousand-seat theatre six times a week for five months, in a relatively small place, meant that it was a question of survival that Llandudno’s residents felt like the show was theirs, and helped promote it to tourists. The best way to make this happen, it was generally believed, was for the cast to be seen out and about participating in the life of the town. If you were booked to perform at the Arcadia, it was part of the job to go out and judge a beauty pageant or a kids’ talent show, say, open a fair, or do a couple of minutes of your act at a hotel games night. The cast made friends in more natural ways, too, of course, but, as they explain it now, it sounds like this commercial need to promote the show created a funny kind of virtuous circle, in that it gave them just the kind of public identity that makes it easier to find a place as an outsider in a new town. An unscientific measure of its success is that seven of the people in this story retired in Llandudno, though just two had started life in Wales.

It also gave rise to what is, to my mind, one of the Arcadia’s most interesting traditions. After the show each Saturday night, the cast would go down to the bar and have a drink with the audience. Not everyone was fond of this particular tradition- it kept you at the theatre late, shattered “the magic of your act”, in Bryan’s words, and provided opportunities for unsolicited feedback- but on Clive’s watch, it was compulsory, because “it cemented an extraordinary cooperation between cast and audience.”

And indeed, the bond between cast and audience in Llandudno sounds quite unusual by today’s standards. People were loyal to the Arcadia, even tribal about which of the town’s theatres they supported. On the rival show down the road at the Pier Pavilion, the B&B owner Jean Edwards says shortly, “We didn’t bother with them much”. Ian received a telegram inviting him to an audition for a job he couldn’t remember applying for, and discovered a few weeks later that a friend in the newsagent had written to recommend him. Wyn got married in Llandudno in 1975, and remembers a crowd waiting outside the Presbyterian church on Chapel Street to cheer and throw flowers. “I was a bit of a star in Llandudno, and the secret had got out: ‘Him’s doing it at last’.” (Irene remembers a different episode in this story: one night before the show, two sisters from the nearby countryside, devoted fans of the comedian, brought a box chocolates backstage for him. In the first Act he announced his engagement to the audience, and the sisters returned woundedly in the interval to demand their chocolates back).

The present seems a good place to finish. I ask everyone what they think of the Venue Cymru, the resolutely uncharismatic cement and glass theatre-cum-conference centre that now sits in the Arcadia’s old place on the prom. They all give basically the same answer, but each is amusingly in-character; from Jean’s no-nonsense candour (“Not a lot. It’s not a nice place.”) to Wyn’s half-wistful lyricism: “I have appeared there, to a packed house, on one occasion- I think it was a charity event. And oh, the difference in atmosphere! It’s all straight lines. Now, good theatres from the Matcham ideal always had curves. A curve is good for sound; the best sounds and most natural sounds in the world, of course, are shells. And a curve is an embrace, which is what it should be all about really. The Arcadia had lovely curves in it. It was an embrace. Aren’t I a bore?”

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