Basil Newby celebrating 40 years of business in hometown Blackpool
For a man who has spent the last 40 years working a hard day’s night for most of the working week, it’s hard to imagine what semi-retirement would look like for Basil Newby.
He’s a man who took a year out from his studies as a law student to work as a Bluecoat at Pontins – only to go on and build an entertainments portfolio of his own and a cult nightlife circuit in the heart of his hometown.
His clubs, from Flamingos and Funny Girls to the Flying Handbag, are all part of the empire that have been his life-blood for the last four decades.
Retirement, even when he reached his mid-sixties, was simply not on the cards.
But it has taken some rather big battles, particularly in the last few years, against administration, tax bills, and cancer to mould the ‘renewed’ Basil Newby MBE, who will kick off 2020 with a new business first when the cast of Funny Girls, led by Betty Legs Diamond, will venture outside the venue for the first time in 25 years for a nationwide tour, starting in March.
Basil said: “It got to the point my weekends were just too quiet.”
It is, he told The Gazette, a “new challenge” and an “exciting time” after a transformative 2019, which saw him mark his 40th year in business and reclaim his world renowned club Basil Newby’s Funny Girls, when he bought it back in a deal with Thwaites Brewery in the summer.
And he said the turn of the new decade will officially see him “back”.
The 68-year-old said: “It’s like I’d never been away, and I hadn’t really, but the team and the staff have been fantastic.
“It’s been great fun, a new energy in a sense."
The team apparently refers to it as the “Baz effect”.
“The tour is a unique opportunity to go and reach all our audiences, across the UK and say, we’re still here, we’re still going and celebrate our 25 years.”
While he admits the financial woes of Funny Girls in 2018 was incredibly challenging, he said it was also a “wake-up call” to other issues, particularly his battle against prostate cancer.
He added: “Sometimes you have to listen to your body and I realised for the sake of my health I needed to step away and take some real time out. I simply couldn’t give what was needed of me the same way anymore.
“It’s a strange thing when your whole life has been round the clock working to 3am or 4am and suddenly it stops.
“It took some adjustment but then I found that’s exactly what I needed – time at home to just enjoy being me again and recharge my batteries.”
At the time of retreating to his home Mallard Hall in Singleton, he genuinely couldn’t see a return to showbiz.
“It was the right decision but then I did start getting a little restless, I needed the break, I needed some peace but honestly my weekends were just too quiet.”
Born in the resort, Basil’s early years were spent on the go, with his parents running theatrical guest houses where stars of the day used to stay.
“I didn’t know any different because it’s what I grew up with, these huge stars that came to stay Grace Jones, Shirley Bassey, Norman Evans.
“There are so many stories but it didn’t phase you when you were young.”
It did, however, give him a natural steer towards the entertainment world, as well as a creative edge.
Despite spending his school years at boarding school in Wales, which his family hoped would open doors for careers in law and teaching, Basil followed his passion and instead headed to Torquay to work for holiday firm Pontins.
“It didn’t go down well with my mum and dad at - all this wonderful education and I wanted to be a Bluecoat,” he admitted.
“But I was insistent and it really opened my eyes to the world of work and what people wanted at the time. Audiences were fascinated, especially because I wasn’t afraid of the fact I was gay.
“But these were days where we still didn’t speak about it and people, especially those I worked with, were very protective.”
Returning to Blackpool, Basil’s entrepreneurial edge kicked in and he opened his first shop in Chapel Street, while also setting about his first drag act with Basil St James Plus Two.
It was a few years later, after being inspired by a conversation with his partner, and with Blackpool enjoying the heights of tourism, that he invested in his first club, a gay venue.
“There was nothing like it at the time, no specific gay club venue in Blackpool,” he said.
“There was the original Lucy’s Bar and the Clifton but I was told about the old Flamingo on Talbot Road. What I hadn’t realised, though it soon became very obvious, was it was a ‘ladies of the night’ club.
And with that Flamingo was born in the resort in 1979.
Keeping the original name served Basil well and, after buying the ground floor of what would become The Flying Handbag, and expanding the club offering, his empire grew.
His beloved Flamingo was his pride and joy and welcomed celebrities and visitors from all over for nearly 30 years.
And it was a legendary place for locals - gay and straight - to enjoy a night out too.
“There are so many memories. There were some totally crazy nights.
“I’ve said it so many times before – I can not tell you the numbers of people who still stop me to tell me their stories.
“It was hard to move. It’s still emotional. It will always be the place it all began – the stepping stone that propelled my career. It made it so much more than just a job.”
“Not so long ago, a lady said she’d been in Sainsbury’s and she realised she was standing on a spot of the old dance floor and how it had made her day.
“It’s the same with Funny Girls, the people, they’re what have made it and that’s always been the great thing. It’s such an eclectic mix of people.
“It’s quite the turnaround, from when it first opened with faces peering through the windows because they didn’t know and were just so unsure of what it was about. I think some thought we trying to turn them gay!
“But then a couple of years in, we had queues four deep. It was insane. But for me it was always about building something inclusive for everyone.
“To this day, I can still honestly say I have never experienced any homophobia. I know it’s not the case for everyone but Blackpool, I found, has always been very open-minded.
“It’s certainly changed from a time I was told not to tell people I was gay because I’d be seen as unfit to hold a licence.”
Times may have changed but Funny Girls, the team said, is booming once more.
A reflective Basil, who received an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list in 2014, said the stories of his ventures and the highlights have inspired a new beginning.
Earlier in December, Basil and his Funny Girls staff hosted a charity entertainment evening for Prostate Cancer UK to raise funds for the charity and awareness of the disease.
The cause, he said, is dear to his heart after undergoing revolutionary treatment in Munich during his own cancer battle.
The turn of 2020 will see all attentions turned to the tour, which kicks off at Liverpool Epstein Theatre on March 7 and runs until May.
“What Dean (Bennett) and Geoffrey (Hindmarch) have planned with the tour is fantastic,” Basil added.
“I was once asked about a tour years ago, but at the time I was very precious about the club.
“Funny Girls is unique to Blackpool and that’s what I wanted it to be.
“But after 25 years and then having that time out and space to think, it just seemed to be the right place, right time, and the right way to show all the best bits of the show.
"It’s also a chance to give something back to the audiences who have travelled themselves and been part of our story.”
For more on the tour visit www.funnygirlsshow.co.uk