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Carry on camping

Angus Kidman throws himself into the Butlins experience, '80s disco boots and all

Published in The Australian (Weekend Travel),
May 18 2002

MIDNIGHT is approaching in the smoke-filled auditorium. I strike up a conversation with a group of revellers who are dressed in ill-fitting school uniforms. Why, I ask, are they indulging in this perhaps ill-considered nostalgic activity?

"We were told that tonight was a school-themed night and that everyone would be dressed this way," explains Rick, a burly miner from northern England who's there with his girlfriend and some mates. Rick chats away happily, although he looks a little uncomfortable in his short pants and cloth cap. Then he notices my accent.

"You're an Australian, right?"

"Yeah."

"Well, what the hell are you doing at Butlins Skegness then?"

It seems like a reasonable question.

Butlins is a peculiarly British institution. Faced with beaches that resemble rubbish tips and a record for cold wet weather that makes Melbourne look like a tropical paradise, most nations would simply decide to give up.

Instead the Brits built Butlins, gigantic holiday camps near beachside towns which offer a huge range of indoor activities. Boosted by rules banning travellers from taking currency overseas, the Butlins empire once stretched across the country and inspired rival chains such as Pontins. However, in a post-Majorca landscape there are just three Butlins sites left, in Skegness, Minehead and Bognor Regis.

Despite this shrinkage, they collectively cater for about 1million visitors a year, of whom I am quite possibly the only Aussie.

Most Australians are probably familiar with the Butlins concept via the dire 1980s TV series Hi-De-Hi, which parodied it mercilessly with its tales of a copycat institution called Maplins. At least, I thought it was a parody at the time. Now I've visited, I'm beginning to think it was more of a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

The '80s are the reason I'm there. To attract visitors during the winter months, Butlins hosts a series of theme weekends, based on concepts such as Festival of the '70s and Celebration of Eurovision. As a devoted fan of cheesy synthesiser music, I am unable to resist the Sounds of the '80s weekend held at Butlins, Skegness, in early March. Three days at a beachside resort viewing live performances by stellar acts such as Heaven 17, Limahl and Bucks Fizz sounds like heaven to me.

Sadly, it is not quite heaven. We'll start with the most objectionable aspect: the food. Butlins's boarding house cuisine (included in the pound stg. 125 [$340] price of the weekend) is even nastier than you might imagine. After a couple of attempts at a menu that includes undercooked Tex-Mex rice, chicken soup poured out of jugs and an overabundance of mushy peas, my stomach rebels and forces me to eat at the on-site Burger King for the rest of the weekend. The only other alternative is an all-you-can-eat Sunday roast smorgasbord at a pricey pound stg. 12 a head.

My room is also on the unpleasant side of average. Butlins offers accommodation in motel-like buildings with jaunty marine names such as Ocean Grove and Oyster Bay, but you have to bring your own towel and, more tellingly, toilet paper. There's a bed, a wardrobe and a television, but the budget doesn't stretch to even one chair. Economy-minded families may choose to stay in self-catering accommodation, which looks exactly like my room but with fridge and stove. Budget travellers had best remember to pack their own groceries, as the Butlins supermarket is shut throughout winter.

Like any resort chain, the prices you pay for facilities on site are a little on the high side. It costs me more to order a single beer at the bar than I would pay at a stunningly fashionable central London nightspot. Food is similarly costly, although the bingo (staged at least four times a day) is a little more reasonable.

At least the beach is free -- but not, as it turns out, freely available. Not only is it a small strip of pebbles alongside flat, grey, freezing cold water but a substantial fence with a series of locked gates ensures no one is allowed on it outside the sacred hours of 9am to 5.30pm.

While drowning my sorrows with overpriced imported beers and chatting to the extremely friendly and helpful Redcoats, whose job it is to make sure everyone is having a good time, I marvel at the number of children about the place. I know Butlins is a family-oriented resort but I think parents might occasionally use the baby-sitting service, or choose to put their children to bed by, say, 1am. I'm wrong. Nowhere else in the world could you be pumping up the jam in a smoke-filled auditorium at midnight just metres from a bank of strollers. That's smoke from the audience, not the stage -- I begin to feel as if my lungs have been dipped in coal tar.

While the on-site amusement rides aren't likely to thrill anyone who has visited Dreamworld, there are excited queues of English children every time I walk past. A dedicated junior area also provides regular craft classes and sporting competitions, and there's an indoor waterslide that attracts bigger crowds than the beach. Best of all is the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show, staged three times a day by the Redcoats to enthusiastic crowds.

After spending the day watching their children scream enthusiastically, at night the crowds venture into the Butlins twin entertainment venues, Centre Stage and Reds, to catch the musical acts. Both resemble RSL clubs, right down to the tasteless carpet, but without the poker machines (those are in another building).

One advantage of the legendary British reticence is that everyone queues for hours to obtain tables but few people have the nerve to dance in front of the stage. I soon find I can show up three minutes before a performance and claim a front-row position. In part, this is because most guests have not come specifically for the '80s weekend. Although the artists chosen might fairly be described as has-beens, you can't knock their performances. Hazell Dean, a disco queen who briefly troubled the charts in the mid '80s, would be able to out-sing any member of Destiny's Child even if her head was enclosed in a sack. Go West and Heaven 17 rock the house and then, for good measure, rock it again.

I have a more mixed reaction to the cover bands that litter the weekend's schedule, especially as they all keep covering the same songs. One group known as the '80s Mix even manages to destroy a key founding principle of modern society: namely, that it is impossible not to get up and dance whenever Atomic by Blondie is played. The way they perform it, it is all too possible.

The ultimate lack of commitment is evident in a performance by Sonia, a terminally cheerful red-haired scouser who achieved momentary fame in 1989. In an attempt at relevance, Sonia supplements her standard-issue middle-of-the-road fare with one of the minor hits from her chart days, Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy. She certainly looks foolish when, just a few bars into the song, she yells to her technician: "Mark! Stop the tape! I can't remember the words. This song normally isn't in my set."

On the whole, I never do come up with a satisfactory answer to miner Rick's query about what I am doing at Butlins. Everyone I meet is either planning to move to Perth for a year or has just said farewell to a cousin who is immigrating to Adelaide.

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