Teignmouth had its Den, Scarborough its Floral Hall, and Lytham St Anne’s an Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while in Lowestoft there was a Sparrow’s Nest and in Clacton a Jolly Roger. There were many seaside pavilions... but there was only one Cosy Nook.
The year 1928 was momentous for many reasons. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, Mickey Mouse made his movie debut... and Newquay was entering the entertainment age. Realising the growing popularity of entertainment, most of which had been put on in a tent situated on the promenade, Newquay Urban District Council committed to building a permanent building close by.
But what is permanence? Today’s visitors to the resort find an aquarium there, but it was once a powerhouse of performing arts, well-equipped and, yes, cosy – a place that meant so much to so many.
The tiny theatre, built so close to the sea that Atlantic breakers could swamp an audience before it reached the foyer, drown out the words of performers and create a bow wave in front of coaches as they approached along the promenade, was for 60 years one of the busiest playhouses in the South West.
Summer shows like Hedley Claxton’s Gaytime easily filled the 388 seats (550 from 1962) and provided a springboard for aspiring stars like Benny Hill, Clive Dunn, Ray Alan and Billy Dainty, while the rest of the year saw local community groups take over.
To generations of local amateurs the theatre was home to the annual round of drama and operatic productions and to schools. Whether in pantomimes or plays, it was the Palladium of aspiring young performers’ dreams.
To local schoolgirl Helen Russell (Helen Briscoe now), it was the springboard to a professional career in acting. Phillip Schofield first tasted the thrill of audience acclamation there before heading for brighter lights in television and the West End, and it was where Benny Hill realised that characters of his own invention could upstage the principal comic’s scripted humour.
Clive Dunn’s “Don’t panic!” moment, when rescuing costumes from the Cosy Nook fire of 1947, could well have scripted his Dad’s Army catchphrase. And one well-known Shakespearean actor had cause to remember his Macbeth debut at the Nook when performing before what he described as the “noisiest audience” of schoolchildren he’d experienced anywhere in the world.
In his book, Theatre By The Sea, former BBC Radio Cornwall presenter Chris Blount writes: “Etched indelibly on my memory are the countless occasions when performances on the prom would lure my family down over the seventy-six steps, often in the teeth of a gale and sheets of rain, certain of one thing – the journey would be worth it. As a six-year-old, this was an adventure to match anything Rupert Bear or the Famous Five could offer. I would be transported to pantomime fantasy lands beyond the sea, and, a few years later, the slick and colourful scenes of mirth and music that ensured a Gaytime for everyone.”
Sadly, in common with many seaside theatres, the Cosy Nook suffered a slow and terminal decline. By the 1970s AND 1980s hotels were providing their own entertainment for guests and television was developing more sophisticated tastes. Its stars and celebrities became too expensive for small venues to hire.
Thanks to exhaustive research and an extensive knowledge of the subject, Chris’s book oozes entertainment throughout its 112 pages of information, colourful anecdotes and 85 illustrations.
Lecturer, dramatist and author, Dr Alan M Kent, described it as a book “anyone interested in the theatrical history of Cornwall should dive into immediately”.
“Chris’s prose is sharp, his scholarship meticulous and the whole is informed by his excellent knowledge of the subject,” he added.
Theatre By The Sea: The Story Of Newquay’s Cosy Nook by Chris Blount is priced £14.99 (including p&p) and can be obtained from bookshops in Truro and Newquay, from choughdigital.co.uk or from the author at 42 Penmere Drive, Newquay TR7 1QQ.