2005 Pontins Championships - The Pontins experience

26-Oct-2005

Pontins is a right of passage; an essential part of a player's and band's evolutionary process. If you haven’t been to the sun-kissed beaches of the North Wales coast in late October for a weekend of unadulterated pleasure, then you haven't lived.


Pontins programme 1974There is nothing quite like it.

It all started in the early 1970s and reached its undoubted peak in the mid to late 1980s. It has since maintained a high profile and successful niche by offering a no-frills, well organised and very well funded contest weekend which caters for the players and supporters needs to a tee.

However, Pontins should carry a Government health warning, for it has the ability to lay low more people in a short space of time than any dose of Asian bird flu is ever likely to do. Obviously it has nothing to do with the place itself, although 20 years ago there used to be legions of bandsmen and women calling to get a sick note from their doctor on their return from the contest.

Prestatyn at this time of year can be a cold, wet and windy place – and up until a few years ago that just used to be the chalets. Images of players wrapped up like Captain Scott on his Antarctic expedition were not an uncommon site, whilst there was something almost quasi religious about the procession of people making their way to the shop in the main complex to get a pocketful of ten pence pieces to feed to avaricious electricity meter in the chalet. If the weather was not the best, then surviving the Pontins weekend used to qualify you for a campaign medal.

Today, there will be a new generation of players and supporters who will wonder what all the fuss about the legends of Pontins is about. The chalets are now warm and comfortable; you get a television, a clean bathroom and beds that do not display the permanent indentation of the thousand of other bodies that have slept before you.

The food in the cafes is decent and wholesome and the facilities to pack the kids and mother in law off to are now great.

The health warning still applies though, because the number of bands who travel to Pontins with high hopes of returning with the treasurers pockets bulging with winnings, only to find all their hard work and preparation undone by the nightly delights of Lunars Bar, can be counted in their hundreds.  To win at Pontins, a band must take a partial vow of temperance, chastity and hedonism.

Years ago the bands used to have some idea what they could expect come October by going through the dry run that was the regional qualifiers at Southport, Hemsby and Bream Sands on May Bank Holiday weekend.  This was Pontins at its peak, as literally hundreds of bands had a day out (and lots stayed on camp) by the sea to try and win their way to North Wales. The Pontins product was essentially the same: Great prize money (top prize if we remember well used to be around £600 – a fair old wedge in the late 1970s), well chosen test pieces, a real turn out of bands from each region creating a great competitive atmosphere and above all else – the sun used to shine!

Fred PontinThese were the halcyon days of Sir Fred ('Book Early') Pontin, Walter Rowley and Christine Lawton. Who can forget her reading out the results as if she was announcing the return of Spitfire planes to a wartime aerodrome: "In third place. With one hundred and eighty eight points – wonna, eighta, eighta pointsa – is the band that played number five – number fiva……". Glory be, the woman used to crank up the tension like an interrogator at the Spanish inquisition.

Walter Rowley meanwhile seemed to be a man who had little idea of what brass bands were about, but by heck he used to make you feel important. All this and he used to announce the name of Harry Mortimer in the hushed revered tones usual reserved for the arrival of the Pope.

The great man used to make fleeting appearances at these contests accompanied by an entourage of regal proportions. For all his bonhomie and playing up to his ‘father figure' image though, he was still a very crafty wheeler and dealer.

I well remember him coming to the final rehearsal for Tredegar Band at Bream one year when the test piece was Goff Richards' 'Oceans'. A great hush descended as he walked into the rehearsal room on the camp and announced to an astonished band and officers that he had been keeping a close eye on us during the past year and that if we performed well today he would promise us a place at the British Open.

By heck we thought. Unbeknown to us though, he had played the same trick on at least six other bands that day – pumping each up to believe each was one performance away from the Open – as well as at the other two camps as well. At least 18 bands that day thought they were in with a chance of getting to Manchester – he even gave us a smile after we played, although we never herd anything from him after wards – especially as we came 17th!

However, if you did make it to Prestatyn, all that was quickly forgotten. Now was the chance to enjoy yourselves. Remember that health warning though?

The ritual of Pontins hasn't really changed. After booking in, having chips for your tea with the rest of the boys, finding out where the girls were staying and then going off for a rehearsal at the launderette, the night is still yours for the grabbing.

A quick change into your best ‘going out' clothes and with a few quid in your pocket (make that quite a few quid, as the bar prices are not cheap here) its down to the bar for a night of shouting at each other for conversation, trying to keep out of sight of the Band Manager who you have promised you will be in bed by 12.00pm and waiting for the entertainment.

Bavarian Stompers
Stompers: Brass, Beer and Buxom Bavarians

This is where Pontins comes into its own. Groups who had one hit in 1978 top the bill (they even topped the bill in 1978) whilst there is a comedian of the sort who is usually so unfunny that they are as embarrassing as an early entry in the 2nd baritone part of your middle movement.  

Pontins would not be Pontins however without the ubiquitous Bavarian Stompers Band, who are now as old as surviving members of the Third Reich and just as funny. Is there anyone out there who hasn't heard the bloke play the trombone with his foot? By all accounts there are tribes in the darkest reaches of the Amazonian rainforest who have seen him do it.  Still, Pontins wouldn't be Pontins without them.

The same thing goes for the institution that has crept in at Pontins in the past few years that is fancy dress. Call me old fashioned, but seeing a 58 year old bald bloke dressed in a nurses uniform isn't funny. Or am I missing something?  

Still, it is better than the female comedian who totally misjudged her audience here and tried to repeat the same show she had done the year before – thinking mistakenly that brass banders don't have long memories. She was forced off after a brilliant bit of heckling from a soprano player of the BTM Band which left her speechless.

If you have the constitution of Oliver Reed and the lip of Wynton Marsalis you will be able to get up the next day and play like a genius. If not – then disaster awaits. One year Tredegar Band made it to the Finals on ‘Year of the Dragon'. We were young and immortal, or so we thought, and for the occasion we had t-shirts printed with ‘Year of the Flagon' printed on them. Come the Saturday night and the majority of us indeed did what it said on the shirts and come the Sunday and after putting all that hard work in we played like plonkers. The following year we stayed off camp, came to the contest venue a few hours before we played and walked off with the first prize.

We have all done it – and all enjoyed it. And that is what Pontins is all about – remember though to read that all important health warning. Too old to do it know of course, but it won't stop you trying will it?

Iwan Fox

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