Butlin’s: Where wearing that iconic jacket was life-changing

From glamorous grannies to funky chickens, a summer holiday at Butlin’s was the height of sophistication back in the day. And for the staff, the chance to wear that iconic jacket was often life-changing, as former Redcoats tell Eimear O’Hagan.

Barry Lewis/In Pictures

‘It was a stepping stone to my TV career’

Stephen Mulhern
Paul Ross

Stephen Mulhern, 43, is a magician and presents the Saturday night gameshow In For A Penny. He worked at Butlin’s in Minehead between 1995 and 1996.

Back in my days as a Redcoat, I had no idea when I introduced PJ and Duncan on stage at Minehead that I’d end up working with them years later, as Ant and Dec on Britain’s Got Talent. It was a job that proved to be an amazing stepping stone for me.

Every year, when I was a child and teenager, my family holidayed at the Minehead camp.
It was something we really looked forward to. To me, the Redcoats may as well have been rock stars. When I was 16, an act dropped out of a performance and my dad volunteered me to take its place, because I’d been performing magic since I was 11. I did it and was asked whether I’d like a job as a Redcoat when I turned 18. It really was a dream come true, and I ended up working alongside some Redcoats I’d once idolised as a guest.

Barry Lewis/In Pictures

I loved every minute, from hosting the Western-themed Crazy Horse Saloon bar to judging the Knobbly Knees competition. As well as introducing celebrity acts like Freddie Starr, I also got to perform myself. When you were a Redcoat, the crowd was kinder. They knew
you weren’t a professional, so even if I had the odd hiccup, it didn’t matter and it gave me a chance to grow my confidence. I even had the foresight to get someone to film me when I performed, and left with a showreel on VHS which was so valuable.

My fondest memory is of the camaraderie between the Redcoats. Many of us were young, away from home for the first time and loving the experience together.

‘Being a Redcoat changed me – it gave me confidence’

Dawn MartinDawn Martin, 56, is an office manager and lives in Redditch, Worcestershire. She worked at Butlin’s in Brighton and Blackpool between 1983 and 1984.

My childhood family summer holidays in the 1970s were always spent at Butlin’s, and I grew up worshipping the Redcoats. To me, they were so glamorous. If one came to sit at our table at breakfast, I’d blush, I was so in awe of them.

When I was 19, I spotted an advert in the local paper for Redcoat auditions. The audition was very intense – I spent two days at a hotel being interviewed and performing with around 100 others. To my amazement I was chosen and told I was being sent to Brighton in the spring of 1983 to be a children’s Redcoat entertainer. I stayed until the end of September, then was moved to Blackpool, working as a Redcoat for around 16 months in total.

Try this for size! ‘Baron Wolfgang’ leading the conga, Skegness, 1982. Image: Barry Lewis/In Pictures

The early 1980s was very different when it came to holidays. A week in Butlin’s was a very big deal – something families looked forward to all year. The season I worked in Brighton, we offered day trips by coach to France, but often people didn’t have passports because foreign holidays weren’t the norm.

All the Redcoats lived in one wing of the hotel together, and after hours we socialised with the hotel staff in our own bar. There was definitely a work hard, play hard mentality. I can remember finishing work at midnight, going out in Brighton, then coming back for a shower and changing into my uniform before hosting breakfast on zero sleep!

My time as a Redcoat changed me as a person. Before, I didn’t have much confidence. But the Butlin’s staff who auditioned me saw something in me and gave me a chance.

‘I learned how to work – and play – hard!’

Lindsay Garvey-JonesLindsay Garvey-Jones, 47, is a national retail manager in the travel industry. She lives in Lancashire with her wife Jenny, who is in the Met Police force. Lindsay worked at Butlin’s in Pwllheli, North Wales, between 1990 and 1991.

The chalet parties during my 18 months as a Redcoat were legendary. I’ve no idea how we had the energy to drink and dance into the small hours after a day on our feet working, but we all needed to wind down and inevitably romances did blossom. In fact, two of my friends from those days are married now.

I applied to be a Redcoat when I was 18, and it was my first time living away from home. I’d been to Butlin’s as a child, so thought I knew what the job would entail, but I had no idea how hard Redcoats had to work. From 7.30am, when we would greet guests at breakfast and eat with them, until late at night when we were expected to join them dancing and drinking, it was full-on but I loved every minute.

Barry Lewis/In Pictures

We weren’t allowed pets of any sort on camp, so we adopted what we wanted from the petting zoo, and would look after them when we were off duty. I really loved ‘my’ chinchilla.

I would host Glamorous Granny and Bonny Baby competitions, but my main role was to look after children aged nine to 13. Back then there were far less health and safety restrictions, and we didn’t need qualifications to teach them skills like swimming and archery. Looking back, it was a lot of responsibility to have at such a young age, but we took it seriously. The kids used to write us fan mail when they went home and I was acutely aware that I was responsible for helping guests create special, lasting memories.

‘It turned us into the Chuckle Brothers’

The Chuckle Brothers
Barry, left, and Paul in uniform on the seafront in Margate.

Paul Elliott, 72, was one half of the Chuckle Brothers along with his elder brother Barry, who died in 2018. He worked at Butlin’s in Margate in 1966.

Barry and I jumped at the chance to become Redcoats. I was 18, he was 21, and we’d been doing our double act in clubs since 1963, but we were still ‘nobodies’. A season at Butlin’s meant six months’ paid work doing what we loved and it gave us a chance to work on our act.

It was invaluable experience. We’d do a Western-themed night with other Redcoats. We played the undertakers and brought the house down when we came on to collect whoever had been shot. As faces of the resort, we were told to keep smiling and be pleasant no matter what – still a useful skill after almost 60 years in the business! One of my duties was showing kids’ cartoons in the day and movies for adults in the evenings. I was also in charge of the filmed horse racing, and guests would bet two shillings a race. After weeks of showing the same races, I worked out who the winners were and because Redcoats weren’t allowed to bet, I’d ask a guest to put one on for me to top up my wages!

Barry Lewis/In Pictures

During the evening dancing there was a rule that the male Redcoats weren’t allowed to dance with anyone under 40 – I think so that older female guests on their own wouldn’t feel left out. I became a dab hand at the foxtrot!

Butlin’s really did set us up for our future, and in later years we would return to the resorts to perform as the Chuckle Brothers.

Paul Chuckle is supporting Marie Curie’s Emergency Appeal. Donate today: mariecurie.org.uk/donate.

‘It’s the closest I’ve come to being a celebrity’

Chalky Chawner-LilleyChalky Chawner-Lilley, 41, is a teaching assistant and lives in Grimsby with his wife Marian, 45, and their daughters Rosie, ten, and Poppy, eight. He worked at Butlin’s in Skegness between 1998 and 1999 and in 2006.

When I first applied to become a Redcoat in 1998, I had no idea that it would lead to my future wife. It’s a job that will always hold a special place in my heart. I spent three seasons at Butlin’s in Skegness – or ‘Skegvegas’ as we called it – and met Marian at the on-site nightclub, Reds, during my last stint. She was there as a guest and I was running the club, DJing and introducing celebrity acts. Six months later, I got down on one knee in front of 2,000 guests while dressed as Princess Leia – it was a 70s-themed weekend – and proposed to her. The crowd went wild. Thankfully she said yes!

Being a Redcoat was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like a celebrity. The on-site shop sold photos of us and guests would ask us to sign them. If I nipped into Skegness on my day off, I’d be recognised in the street. For an average bloke from Birmingham, it was surreal.

Barry Lewis/In Pictures

A big part of our role was ‘swanning’ which was basically socialising with guests – going from table to table at mealtimes, having a drink with them in the bar in the evening, and dancing. I’d lead the crowd doing the ‘Macarena’ or ‘Saturday Night’ by Whigfield. It was a big deal to have a Redcoat sit down with you, and we knew it. We were under strict instructions to mingle as much as possible, so lots of guests got to spend time with us. It felt amazing to be so popular.

One of my favourite parts of the job was working with the famous acts who came to perform. I met everyone from Keith Harris and Orville to Chesney Hawkes and Boney M. I’d look after them backstage and introduce them to the audience. Ironically, it was my love of hanging out with the acts that ultimately marked the end of my time at Butlin’s. In 2007, I partied a bit too hard with Vanilla Ice, drinking shots backstage before his performance. Not only did I not stop the stage invasion which then happened, I was too drunk to introduce the headline act East 17 later that night. I was sacked and frogmarched off the site!

Who needs a six-pack? ‘Seafood Phil’ flexes his mussels, Skegness, 1982. Image: Barry Lewis/In Pictures

In 2019, I took Marian and our daughters to Skegness for a family holiday to mark our tenth wedding anniversary back where it all began. I loved showing them where I spent some brilliant – and at times wild – years of my life.

‘It allowed me to perform – day in, day out’

Dawn CarterDawn Carter, 50, is a teaching assistant and lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and twin sons. She worked at Butlin’s in Pwllheli, North Wales, in 1991.

Standing at the front of a coach, singing along to ‘Summer Holiday’ with a crowd of excited Butlin’s holidaymakers I’d just collected from the local train station, I was in my element. I’d always loved performing and my job as a Redcoat allowed me to do it day in, day out.

My favourite duty was ‘calling’ the games of bingo. It was taken seriously by the guests and if I called a number wrong or got the giggles, I’d be booed! I also loved the Donkey Derby, where children raced donkeys and the adults bet on the winner. It always had the feel of a sports day.

I started work in February 1991 – the camp was busy all year round with school trips and special themed weekends. The 80s band Black Lace played every week, and I’d be invited on to the stage to perform ‘Agadoo’ with them, which was brilliant fun. On a 60s weekend, I was tasked with driving the Jordanaires – Elvis’s former backing group – to their hotel. The minibus was surrounded by screaming fans, banging the windows. Looking back, it was a bit scary for a 21-year-old girl!

Dawn Carter
Dawn Carter in Butlin’s style fancy dress, 1991.

The uniform at that time was the only bittersweet part of being a Redcoat. It had been designed by Zandra Rhodes, and it was a thrill to wear something ‘designer’, but the fitted dress and tight pencil skirt just weren’t very practical. I still remember how uncomfortable the red stilettos were. I much preferred the long shorts and trainers we were allowed to wear for sporty activities. We were warned not to leave our red coats outside to dry because guests were known to steal them – they were a coveted holiday trophy – and we’d have to replace them out of our pretty meagre wages.

Even now, if I mention to someone that I was a Redcoat they are impressed. It’s a privilege
to have been a part of British holiday history.

Butlin’s Holiday Camp 1982 by Barry Lewis is published by Hoxton Mini Press online, price £16.95, hoxtonminipress.com.