Morecambeology - Morecambe's gay days with Peter Wade
If it were still standing, Morecambe’s Central Pier would, I think, merit not one, not two but three blue plaques recalling famous people or events.
The pier began as a simple landing stage for boats in 1868. It then acquired a fine pavilion in 1898 which came to be known as the Taj Mahal of the North.
The pavilion was destroyed in a spectacular blaze in 1933 only to be rebuilt and re-opened in fine Art Deco style. Many will still remember dancing the night away under the curved ceiling of the Marine Ballroom or going to see Starlights in the Concert Pavilion – literally an end-of-the-pier show. So, what about the blue plaques?
The first would recall a time when a deckchair at the end of the pier came to be someone’s ‘open-air office’. The someone was the playwright John Osborne who is said to have put the finishing touches to his ground-breaking play Look Back in Anger while appearing in repertory at Morecambe’s Royalty Theatre.
The play was the first of the kitchen sink dramas. Complete with ironing board and trumpet, it transformed John Osborne’s career and sent shockwaves through British theatre, inventing the term Angry Young Man along the way.
A second blue plaque for the Central Pier would record the first ever musical version of The Phantom of the Opera – not Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s hit show of 1986 but rather Ken Hill’s of 1976. The show (a Summer Horrormime as it was billed) had music by the jazz pianist Ian Armit and was part of that year’s Duke’s Comedy Playhouse.
The Central Pier’s final blue plaque might rather be a pink one (appropriate for LGBTQ+ month).
In 1967 Morecambe’s Official Holiday Guide described the resort as Gay and Go Ahead. Elsewhere you were invited to Go Gay the Winter Gardens Way or see Hedley Claxton’s Gaytime at the Palace Theatre.
Six years on, in 1973, Morecambe found itself going gay in quite a different way as the Central Pier hosted the first ever National Conference of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). Some 250 delegates attended what was then the largest gathering of its kind, among them the broadcaster and campaigner Ray Gosling.
The event didn’t pass without comment. Concerns were expressed at council meetings, an exchange of letters took place in the pages of The Visitor and there were protesters and pickets.
However, looking back over the event Paul Temperton, general secretary of the CHE, commented on it as being a, ‘victory for the right of free discussion and free assembly. Above all it is a victory for common sense’.