From the archive: a weekend at Butlin’s, 1983

For the Observer Magazine in 1983, Ian Walker went along to Butlin’s Skegness holiday camp to see the new season begin (12 June). ‘Welcome to the house of fun’ was the headline inside – the Madness tune having been taken up by the staff as their camp song in this ‘fading pink and blue and cream never-never land where every Saturday lunchtime one 10,000-strong population leaves, and another arrives’.

In bold lettering on the clocktower was one of Butlin’s famous taglines – ‘Our true intent is all for your delight’ – taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Ain’t no Sundays,’ chirped one of the waiters. ‘That’s it. Every night’s a Saturday night.’ As Walker wrote: ‘Fun at Butlin’s is doing things together, being part of the show.’

In 1938, Billy Butlin lobbied hard for a week’s paid holiday for all industrial workers and, wrote Walker, ‘had calculated that by 1946, 8 million workers would be able to afford a week at the seaside. It is, still, the only kind of holiday many workers can afford.’

Among all the fun and games, Walker came across a ‘drunk and depressed off-duty bingo-caller’ who wearily informed him: ‘There’s three categories of people come to work at Butlin’s. Those who come to find someone to love. Those who come to find themselves. And those who don’t want to know, come for the work and keep themselves to themselves.’

It was raining, of course, so the ‘Midday Madness in the Regency Lounge’ was jam-packed for the ‘Sports Brain Quiz (sponsored by Holsten lager), the Supercook quiz (Chesswood Canned Mushrooms) and the Knobbly Knees (Hedges L260 Snuff)’.

Enforced jollity is one thing if you’re a family there for the week, but imagine the toll it must have taken on some of the long-term workers. But, then, as one of the catering staff said: ‘The camp is a cloud cuckoo land. If you can’t face reality, it’s a great place.’