Remembering the last stand of the British cabaret scene - Dirty Stop Outs

Remembering the last stand of the British cabaret scene

Last cabaret in town - Chesterfield's Aquarius

The leveling of the site of one of the north of England’s very last cabaret clubs draws a line under a long-lost world of glitz and glamour.

It's hard to imagine - 50 or so years since the scene was at its height - that the magic of Las Vegas used to be common place amongst the working-class streets of the country.

Chesterfield - a town hardly renowned for its place in British entertainment history - was one of the scene's last stands.

While giants of the cabaret movement like Sheffield’s Fiesta and Batley Variety Club had all but disappeared by the end of the 1970s, the town’s Aquarius kept going until the early 1990s.

The cabaret movement's stranglehold on the UK entertainment scene all those years ago was underpinned by hundreds of Working Men’s Clubs, generally concentrated in Northern England around hubs of heavy industry.

The Fiesta cabaret club, a purpose-built venue that opened in the center of Sheffield in the summer of 1970, was the biggest nightclub in the whole of Europe and was so confident of its pulling power it even held a date over for Elvis.

Giants of clubland including comedian Bobby Knutt (left) and Fiesta compere Tony Whyte (second from right)

The international stars that got up close and personal with South Yorkshire audiences read like a who’s who of global entertainment: Stevie Wonder, the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the Four Tops, and hundreds more. It boasted an in-house orchestra, hundreds of staff, and seating for 1,300 in its main auditorium. It was a blueprint for many others dotted around northern England, with Batley Variety Club being a key rival.

Another unlikely Northern town - Rotherham - has its own special place in the story. It was, in many respects, a precursor to everything.

Its Greasborough Social Club made the national news in the early 1960s for its audacious attempts to persuade Sammy Davis Junior to ditch Vegas and London and perform in South Yorkshire instead.

They set the bar high and became the inspiration for the massive redevelopment of Working Men’s Clubs with the installation of sprawling concert rooms that could accommodate big-name stars.

Marti Caine, Little & Large, Cannon & Ball - so much of the hit light entertainment from the 1970s and 1980s had the cabaret scene to thank for its success.

It was underpinned by TV talent contests like Opportunity Knocks and New Faces, and Wheeltappers & Shunters - a series set in a fictional Working Men’s Club - was prime-time viewing.

Chesterfield’s Aquarius outlasted the majority of its peers, but all that now remains are memories as the bulldozers moved in to clear all that remained of the building recently.

However, the legacy of the cabaret club – unlike that of many of its peers - is being preserved thanks to a £70,000 National Lottery Heritage Fund project.

The Dirty Stop Outs have been busy over the past few months recording the memories of everyone from the stars that performed to people who worked there or enjoyed nights at the once-revered Sheffield Road venue.

Robin Colvill of the hit comedy troupe, the Grumbleweeds, says the venue played a key role in their success: “We used to do a lot of gigs at the Aquarius – we’d perform three to four weeks every year. We were very popular – it was always heaving. Because of the Aquarius, we did a BBC Radio show, and that led to a TV show.”

Central to the Aquarius project has been the restoration and digitization of hundreds of photos from the 1970s and 1980s that were taken by the club’s in-house photographer, David Miller.

The Aquarius, which first opened in 1972, attracted some of the biggest stars in light entertainment in a career that lasted nearly a quarter of a century.

The project was originally inspired by our ‘Dirty Stop Out’s Guide to 1980s Chesterfield - Aquarius Edition’ - a book that gave an early snapshot of the amazing archive of David Miller.


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