Last Night's TV: The Butlin's Story
An 'eye-opening' documentary about the history of Butlin's leaves Ed Cumming relieved to be part of the Ryanair generation.
The Butlin’s Story (ITV1), predictably, wasn’t really about Butlin’s. Sure, it went through the 75-year history of the holiday camps, with the requisite recollections from nostalgic old-timers and the occasional celebrity anecdote.
But really it was about old Britain, that fabled land, a place where children were children, Cliff Richard was sexy and foreign travel was for millionaire fops.
My was it an eye-opener. I’m sure I’m too soft, raised on cheap flights to Faro and low-cost skiing trips, but to me it looked like hell. Unsuspecting victims were marched into beauty contests and games of Twister, and force-fed strange-looking food. Grandmothers were raced in prams. At night, parents were herded into theatres with other parents they didn’t know, their children watched over by patrols of nurses. Lurking everywhere, the figures in red coats were waiting to pounce and do some more organising. The sinister atmosphere wasn’t helped by the music, which veered from bland country and western to creepy carousel.
Occasionally, the archive footage was hilarious. “Stop the plane,” said one plum-voiced, Honolulu-bound lady in a monochrome TV ad. “I’m getting off for Butlin’s.”
For some of those interviewed, Butlin’s was a dearly cherished memory, the setting for some of the best days of their childhood. Ironically, for all the organised fun, children still had more freedom to run around and play than they’re usually allowed in the health-and-safety-crazed sanitorium of modern Britain.
From the way the old Redcoats went all misty-eyed, it was also clear that for some of the older staff and guests there was a terrific amount of sex involved.
“It made us into different people, having gone to Butlin’s,” said one smiling veteran, but she didn’t specify whether this was a good or bad thing.
As with all good festive scheduling, the programme had a happy ending. Butlin’s got worse more or less as Britain got better, failing near fatally in the Nineties before being restored, a husk of its former self, to host chic gatherings and boutique festivals as well as family holidays. They’re with us still, these camps, but really as a reminder of what once was.
The documentary should be compulsory viewing for anyone watching the news from Europe and thinking we were better off as a small, isolated island. Shown the good and the bad of Britain’s past, I’m not sure we’d prefer to live there than the present.