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Press Gang's final farewell tour

PUBLISHED: 14:05 09 January 2008 | UPDATED: 12:42 20 May 2010

The Press Gang has been delighting audiences with its homespun humour for 25 years. But the final curtain is to fall on the troupe at the end of this, their last season.

The Press Gang has been delighting audiences with its homespun humour for 25 years. But the final curtain is to fall on the troupe at the end of this, their last season. Beeston-born KEITH SKIPPER looks back on their adventures...

The great adventure began with a chirpy challenge from the Irish charmer.

“I think this squit will sell,” hinted Dick Condon, the charismatic showman who transformed Norwich Theatre Royal into one of the most successful centres of culture and entertainment in Europe. He put Norfolk's gloriously understated sense of humour on the same stage as his native Blarney.

It wasn't a question of which was the better - simply acceptance by a shrewd businessman that both could “put bums on seats”.

So, on a balmy Sunday evening in June 1984, we hatched a fresh mutual admiration society at the end of Cromer Pier, another spot where the Condon magic was weaving its spell. A full house of more than 400 at the Pavilion Theatre roared support for a cast of homespun performers.

I organised BBC Radio Norfolk's Night of Squit and acted as compere. Dick looked and listened with just the hint of a smirk as personalities who had become favourites on the local wireless pushed the boat out in the name of proper Norfolk culture.

I didn't need Dick to follow up with a suggestion that squit might be a good traveller around the county - and occasionally beyond - but he felt obliged to nourish a sudden burst of enterprise.

“I think you could make squit the antidote to Saturday night television” turned out to be one of the most prophetic lines from the Condon collection. It seems only right to return to the end of Cromer Pier to pay proper homage to our Irish inspiration when the curtain falls on 25 fun-packed years in village, town and city.

My troupe of entertainers, evolving into the Press Gang as demands increased and fixtures multiplied, has matured nicely together to form a mean, green machine, recycling the sort of material which used to fill village meeting places before that blinking box in the corner ruled so many lives.

We embarked on our First Farewell Tour in 2005, realising the need to take serious stock before committing to more hectic rounds from early March until late October. Now we have decided it is best to go out on a high, still on many wanted lists, rather than taper off apologetically.

Most of my current colleagues are popular solo performers in their own right. Comedians Pat Nearney and Dereham's Colin Burleigh, singers Danny Platton and Ian Prettyman and actor and broadcaster Greg Powles will continue to plough familiar furrows on local stages. Others have regular commitments closer to home, so there'll be no anguished cries of boredom when the squit wagon comes to the end of the trail on Cromer Pier. The End of an Error, as these two farewell shows will be billed, carries a healthy dash of self-denigration, one of our trademarks.

We have helped raise thousands of pounds for village halls, churches, schools and other vital local facilities. We've raised a few thousand laughs as well.

It is the unashamedly old-fashioned flavour of Press Gang concerts that has attracted big audiences and regular bouquets, especially in rural parts where the village social used to be at the heart of local life.

People who might not have been to their village hall for years have told us how much it reminds them of home-made efforts both before and after the second world war. I was weaned on such delights, a Nissen hut on the old aerodrome our palace of varieties at Beeston. I have heard wonderful echoes many times as Press Gang perambulations gathered pace.

There have been “posh” sessions and festival invitations to, among other places, Dereham and Hingham. Squit went international when we put on a show for the Cromer Twinning Association. Three rousing Squit on the Pier productions raised nearly £17,000 for the charity, BREAK. In recent years, our travels have featured healthy collections for the Eastern Daily Press We Care Appeal.

There have been a few changes in personnel over the years but the team ethic has remained paramount and objectives unchanged: to preach the local gospel with pride and passion. The Final Farewell Tour will simply follow well-rehearsed lines.

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