The Fol de Rols ~ A Brief History
The Pierrot Show
In 1911 Mr. George Royle had a Pierrot Show on the sands at Scarborough. Pierrot Shows were a regular feature of Edwardian entertainment.
The Scarborough Council, in their wisdom, invited him to transfer his show to their newly built Floral Hall.
He felt that the Pierrot costumes were out of place in these surroundings, so the Ladies of the Company wore Crinolines and Bonnets and the Gentlemen wore "Johnny Walker" velvet coats and trousers and Beaver Top Hats.
The Pierrots were called "The Imps", but with its new image and surroundings the show was re-named "The Fol-de-Rols".
The War Intervenes
The show was a success and re-booked for the following three seasons but in 1914, with the advent of World War I the summer visitors naturally deserted the seaside for their holidays.This was financially disastrous for George Royle, who gave up producing shows and joined the Army.
At the end of the War, he was again offered the Floral Hall for the Season but, like all Councils, the rent had gone up. George had lost money on the 1914 season and looked for a partner to share any risk. He met a recently demobbed Air Force pilot, Greatrex (Rex) Newman.
Before the War Rex had been in a touring Concert Party called "The Gems" but he was much more interested in writing and producing than performing. Rex worked on the off-stage productions while George produced and appeared in the shows.
Rex wrote new and topical material which became a feature of The Fols.
In 1926 the White Rock Pavilion opened in Hastings and The Fols was chosen for its first season and remained there every summer until 1939. During those years different Companies of Fols did seasons at Westcliff, Eastbourne, Llandudno and Sandown.
At the start of World War II, before the collapse of France, The Fols entertained the troops over there as part of the ENSA Entertainment, then went "on Tour" throughout the Middle East, Cyprus, Italy and Malta. After “D-Day” they went back to France and Germany.
Back for Summer Seasons
After the War The Fols were back for Summer Seasons at Scarborough, Hastings and Eastbourne and, at a new venue, Torquay. It also toured during the winter.
Throughout the 1950's The Fols continued to be the best and most popular of all the summer shows round the country. It had good comics, singers and dancers and the best scenery and costumes that money could buy, designed by the best scenic artists and theatrical costumers.
Most of the top-line artists appeared in The Fols at some time during their career - Jack Warner, his sisters Elsie and Doris Walters, Leslie Crowther, The Western Brothers, Cyril Fletcher, Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, Walter Midgley, Kathleen West, Jack Tripp, Denny Willis, Freddie Sales, Don Arrol, Semprini, Reg Dixon - to name but a few.
George Royle retired in 1935 and Rex Newman decided to retire in 1960.
Perhaps he had seen the writing on the wall for summer shows of the genteel kind and also the demise of visitors to the English seaside.
He sold the Fols to Jack Hylton and Hugh Charles, who was living with Jack's sister- Dolly Elsie the singer with the band.
Down on the Farm
Jack Hylton and Hugh Charles decided to "house" the scenery, props and costumes at a farm in East Sussex called "Ashleigh" in Horam, which had belonged to Jack Hylton's daughter Jackie.
The farm had stables, which were converted to house the costumes.
John Russell, who had come from the Hylton organisation as lighting and production supervisor, together with Peter Felgate, who was a main stay performer in the "Fols" and become director, designed a large barn to house all the scenery.
The props were stored in another smaller barn.
A Brilliant Lyricist
Jack Hylton and Hughie ( Hugh Charles) presented the "Fol de Rols" in London at the St Martin's Theatre in 1960. It was a huge success.
One of the features of the "Fols" that made it unique was the topical parodies written by Rex Newman. He was a brilliant lyricist and continued to write for the show long after he retired.
Some of the pieces were so topical, that the artists had new lyrics every night to put into the show.
Hugh Charles bought Jack Hylton out. Sadly Dolly died of cancer and Hugh took over the Fols. Joan Mann became the leading lady.
Hugh carried on the same traditions; St John Roper making the opening costumes, Michael Bronze and Alec Shanks making the Ballet and production costumes. New scenery was introduced every season.
Summer and Winter Tours
The 1960's saw "Fols" summer shows at Scarborough, Western Super Mare, Southsea, Eastbourne, Worthing and Torquay, touring before and after the seasons.
There were winter tours each year, on the Howard and Wyndhams circuit of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Newcastle and the Theatre Royal Brighton.
The production in the 60's was very strong. Peter Felgate, who sometimes appeared in the show, was the director, Cherry Willoughby had taken over from Thurza Rogers as choreographer and John Russell was in charge of lighting and staging, and the wardrobe supervisor was a fearsome lady called Sadie Johns who lived in Lewes and traveled daily to Horam all the year round to maintain the costumes.
The shows were very good, with good casts and had an air of class about them, which no other show of this type had, or others since.
Changes were on the way. Entertainments managers wanted TV shows and TV names within theatres and in 1968 (the last big "Fols show") Hughie lost the Congress Eastbourne to the "Black and White Minstrel Show". A sad day indeed.
In 1969 the show toured Scotland and England but audiences were thin and the show, now without Peter Felgate and Cherry and John, was not to the modern public's taste. Perhaps too genteel and without a TV "name", the "Fols" days were numbered.
In 1970 Antony Bygraves (the son of Max Bygraves) and Ray Lamar ( who had been a company manager for "Delfonts") had the Babacombe Theatre in Devon for the summer season.
They approached Hughie and asked him to put a "Fols" show. It had to be a down sized "budget" production and for the next four years a small company of ten did two "Fols" programmes during the week and on Sundays "The Good Old Bad Old Days", which had been a big success at the Hippodrome, Eastbourne in 1965.
The Babacombe "Fols" played 4 summer seasons, 1971-74 and was directed and choreographed by Jennifer Haley.
In 1975 the Robert Luft organisation ( Black and White Minstrels) presented the Fols at the De La Warr Pavillion Bexhill - and it was back to a big company again. The show was popular and the company traveled to Bournemouth on Sundays to appear at the Pavilion - quite a journey for them but Bexhill could not sustain a full weeks summer show, so that was the last of their resident summer seasons.
The Last Days of the Fols
In 1976 the Fols had two small six- handed shows playing at the Hollimaire holiday camp - swapping companies each week between Burham on Sea in Somerset and Nequay in Wales. The companies presented a different show every night - 1 Fols and 5 cabarets but the material was not really holiday camp fodder.
John Farrow put a tour of the Fols out - with Denny Willis and Joan Mann in 1977 going to all the big provincial theatres but the show was tired, no money had been spent on new costumes and scenery for about 9 years and there was no new material as Rex had really retired by now and the audiences were thin.
Hughie now nearly 80 was happy to live quietly at Horam, and he let his son and daughter in law - who had formed "Charles Haley Productions" use of the scenery and costumes for their own shows and pantomimes. Joan appeared in several pantos at Bexhill for Phillip and Jennifer.
Hughie died in 1998 and Joan in 2007. In 2009 the scenery and props were auctioned off. Some pieces were bought by the Paul Smith Company and are in their showrooms in Bond Street and others were bought by a Curio shop owner in Hastings who has them on display there.
I am so pleased to have photos, scripts and some music as a memory of the Fols - a wonderful show that spanned almost 100 years!