My stats tell me that the majority of my readers – hello! – ain’t from round these parts. More specifically, you are mostly American, with a fair dollop of Australian and western European, and … how can I explain Butlins – as quintessentially English a phenomenon as cream teas or a weather fixation – to an overseas audience? I was thinking about this last week, before I drove to BOGNOR, baby! for the MADS awards, which Butlins sponsored. There were a number of adjectives that were clamouring for their rightful inclusion in my mental picture of this near-75 year-old British Institution, foremost, Vulgar, Tawdry and God-sodding-Awful.
But no sooner had I had a sneer – and it was a good sneer, with condescension, snobbery and arrogance – than I wondered if I should actually wrench my head out of my bum, where I might actually have it firmly stuck – not least on the basis that I probably couldn’t afford a Butlins holiday these days, which I felt rather invalidated my destination brand conceit.
These are dark and murky Anglo Saxon seawaters for a foreigner to swim, I appreciate, but stick with me. You’ll understand the Great British Psyche* rather better by the end.
It was easy, not so long ago, to be supercilious about Butlins, but I think that time may now be past. In 1936, Billy Butlin, observing the dyed-in-wool bloody-mindedness of the average Guesthouse landlady (Bed & Breakfast accommodation and their proprietors are another British Institution, conjuring up a set of [only partly outdated] images to the average British middle-classer. Interesting segue, but I think we must say no to it.) set up his first holiday camp near Skegness (yet another British Institution, conjuring up a… look, there’s some stuff you’ll just have to get your head round quick, ok? Or we’ll be stuck in parentheses all night. There are a number of traditional family coastal holiday destinations in the UK, and Skegness is one of a group in which I mentally include Minehead, Clacton, Blackpool, Eastbourne, Weston Super Mare… and Bognor Regis. Think: sea, sand, biting winds, piers, towers, knotted handkerchieves as hats, ballrooms, rolled-up trousers, beachballs, and driving rain, and you’ll be half-way home.) and… I’ve lost Billy in all the bracketing. Start again.
In fact, I am going to borrow a paragraph from the Seaside History site, or we’ll never get as far as the MADS before Christmas.
‘The golden age of the holiday camp was in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. After the War there was a great rush to the coast. Many people had not had a holiday for years and could not wait to get away. The holiday camp provided what they were looking for. Prices were reasonable, food was plentiful – for the time – and there was plenty to do, even when it was raining. The holiday camp sector expanded rapidly in the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties. Many camps used by the forces in the War quickly became holiday camps. Many holiday camps had, in fact, been taken over for military use and once again opened their doors to holiday makers. In some cases, the campers moved in almost as the soldiers marched out!’
My mother has black & white pictures of herself as a child at Butlins in the late 1950s, as a good many people her age do. It was where you went if you were upper working/lower middle class and could afford a holiday. It was popular with parents, as they all cheerfully left their kids in bed in the army-style rows of chalets in the evening (the thin walls of which made it easy for the patrolling Redcoats – of which, more anon – to overhear any Out Of Bed children) while they enjoyed the evening Entertainment in the main pavilion. You did that sort of thing with your children back then.
The chalets generally only had cold running water. Competitions such as ‘Knobbliest Knees’ and ‘Most Glamorous Granny’ were legendary. You were heavily encouraged to Have Fun and Take Part, and, by and large, you did as you were told, because there was a constantly grinning and more-than-slightly manic Entertainer in a scarlet coat yelling jolly hockey sticks in your lughole from morning til night. The Butlins Redcoats, and the entire holiday camp genre, were parodied in a sitcom called Hi-de-Hi, which I think you need a quick clip of
and the end credits of the show are actual vintage footage: I particularly like the shots of the spaghetti-eating contest underway. (You will ideally need a migraine-like blind spot to obliterate the awfulness in the centre of the screen to begin with.)
And then came the 1960s and 70s and cheap overseas holidays to that rare British migrant: hot sunshine. The camps began to decline, and some judicious late 1980s rebranding wasn’t successful. And then, something strange happened, and in 2000 the Butlins brand was re-launched.
I do understand branding, in as much as anyone outside a career in marketing can. I work in an industry where brand identity is absolutely fundamental, and I do not understand why Butlins want to be Butlins. I am absolutely their target demographic – our child has turned us from travellers into holiday-makers, for sure – and yet the shades of knock-kneed, pasta-gobbling be-handker-hatted fathers, long-fringed children excavating primeval sandpits, and demure bikini parades are still firmly occupying the box in my head entitled Butlins, and I can’t shake them off, simply because of those two innocent syllables. But. Lins. So easy just to change the name! Call it Haven Holidays, or something, and I’d probably be itching to go! Oh, wait…
Of course, there is a glimmer of a possibility of an outside chance that modifying this exact sort of preconception might have been what prompted Butlins to sponsor an award that was presumably designed to garner some positive coverage among young families of its new image, facilities, and accommodation.
So, do you understand a little better now why I approached Bognor with trepidation on more than one level?
I shall tell you tomorrow** what happened.
* I fear that an explanation of Spotted Dick is beyond me, however. Nothing here can give an insight into that particular British Peculiarity.
**I have a given value of ‘tomorrow’, and it is a complex equation involving village fetes, work, housework, agriculture, and Being 3 And Bouncy. Sorry.