The age of Aquarius

The age of Aquarius

Chesterfield's Aquarius venue
Chesterfield really had seen nothing like the Aquarius when it opened in 1972.

Only a chicken in a basket meal stood between you and some of the biggest names in entertainment.

Cabaret was sweeping the country and the people of the town decided they wanted a slice of the Las Vegas glitz in the shadow of the Crooked Spire.

Though there town’s Working Men’s Clubs offered entertainment and bingo aplenty, they could never compete with the Aquarius.

Nobody was in the thick of the action more than Aquarius compere and all-round showman, Chesterfield’s own Bernie Clifton.

His career was on a vertical trajectory in the seventies and much of it was played out on home turf.

“In 1973 I was already doing quite well on the cabaret circuit and I used to compere at Batley Variety Club and I used to sing a lot. But then something happened to my voice and I turned into a monotone. It was something to do with the nodules on my vocal chords and I had to stop work. It happened at a time that Eddie Buchanan, who had been compere at the Fiesta, had just left. It was like fate as I just fell into the job and I lived 100 yards away from the stage door.  I used to leave my house, walk through the neighbour’s garden and I was in the Aquarius car park. I had to rest my voice for three months and I worked at the Aquarius through the summer of 1973.  But as a result of that, John Williamson the Aquarius owner, offered me the job of booking the acts. I used to work above the Blue Bell pub which used to be Punchbowl Entertainments. I was in the office all day on the phone to the London agents. I’d then go home, have my tea and it would be down to the Aquarius. I did that for about nine months.

“I remember booking Cannon and Ball, it was £300. They turned up for the band call on a Sunday afternoon and were horrified to find they were topping the bill. They were quaking in their boot and they said they’d never topped a bill before. They said ‘we’re a support act’. We took a chance because we knew how popular they were. They ended up topping the bill and went down a storm.”

It’s fair to say they never looked back after that!

“It was so good for me as they used to get the same people in various nights of the week so I could never do the same act twice. I had to come up with pranks and japes and new ideas.

“The Sunday night crowd was always best.

“It was a special, special place.

“In the summer of ’73 I’d still got a few bookings in other places. One was for a police club in Leeds and it was quite well paid so I needed a night off so I rang Marti Caine up. I rang her up and said ‘yes’.

Bernie agreed to leave a cheque for the £10 payment behind the reception desk at the Aquarius.

“I went to Leeds, did the show and when I returned on Thursday I said to Margaret that worked on reception, ‘Did Marti pick the cheque up?’. She said yes.

“In 1975 I’m in Wales going a tour of the clubs with my voice back and by this time Marti had won New Faces and was in orbit. She was top of the bill at the Stoneleigh Club in Porthcall so I decided to go backstage and congratulate her on her success.

“She said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you – sit down’. So I sat down and she went through her handbag and said, ‘I’ve been carrying this round for two years’. It was her cheque. I looked at her and said, ‘Why haven’t you cashed it?’ She said, ‘Look at the bloody date’ and I realised I’d missed the date by a year and in those days if you didn’t cash a cheque within three months it was gone.

“She said, ‘You wouldn’t believe how much I needed that tenner!’ and I said, ‘I swear it was a complete accident’.

“I always remember Bernard Manning coming. It was a Rotary Club function that would quite often happen on a Monday or a Tuesday. They’d booked it months in advance without knowing the line-up. They all turned up dressed for dinner and I always remember the head Rotarian coming backstage asking if he could have a word with Mr Manning. And I said, ‘Yes, no problem’.

“Bernard said, ‘Alright squire’ and the Rotarian said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me mentioning this but we have our ladies with us this evening and we would be so grateful if you would tone your act to suit the company that’s out there. And Bernard said, ‘Don’t worry pal, done a lot of these. It’ll be fine’.

“Well to say that to Bernard was like a red rag to a bull. He went out and his first gag went along the lines of , ‘…Well he’s giving her one and he’s giving her one good. And she said, ‘Just a minute, before you carry on, don’t you think you should take precautions?’ And he said, ‘I have done, I’ve tied a plank across mi arse’.

“Within ten minutes he’d emptied the club. He absolutely went for their throats. Talk about the wrong place at the wrong time for the Rotarians.

“The people that stayed were in hysterics.

“We had the Dallas boys who, in the ’70s, were a very successful cabaret act. But in the ’50s, twenty years earlier, they had been a very successful TV act. Like most things, their time came and went but they were doing well in the clubs.

“Well we were having a good week and there’d been a lot of banter with them and it got to the last night. Well in my loft I’d found a copy of one of their sheet music hits from the 1950s. It was called ‘One Finger, One Thumb, Keep Moving’. The picture on the front was of the five guys with their thumbs up.

“Well I went to their dressing room during the day before their last night and did the whole thing up like a shrine thinking ‘there’ll love this’. I put the photograph up of how they were and put some flowers around it and candles with the words ‘Lest We Forget, Where Are They Now’. Not forgetting that was 20 years ago and 20 years is a long time.

“So I waited with relish as to their entrance and they turned up about an hour before they were due on. Well they went absolutely bloody mad. They didn’t get it at all. They went absolutely ballistic.

“‘Who did this?’ they demanded to know. And Stan Dallas, subsequently a very successful agent, was the kind of mediator. One guy – Leon – had a short fuse and he was going to tear whoever had done this limb from limb.

“Well I had to looked shocked and say ‘what?’ ‘That’s terrible’.

“‘I think I know who it is. It’s that bloody waiter who thinks he’s a comic’. And they said, ‘Which one’. And I said, ‘Oh no, he’s not on tonight’.

“I got away with my life that night.”

“Probably the one aspect of my tenure there were the presentations. They started to become a kind of a cult thing. The first half of the evening would be support acts and then a long interval – maybe an hour. And then you’d start the presentations and you’d end up with probably half a dozen hen parties coming in. The prospective bride would be dragged up on stage and then all these obscene items would come out of a box.  There’d be champagne, drinks, flowers, photographs being taken by Gerald the photographer.

“The Aquarius was the place to come and celebrate.

“I always felt sorry for the main acts of the evening because of instead of going on at midnight they be wondering if these presentations would ever finish.

“Then there was Big George – he was a former boxer, man-mountain and no one ever saw him physically throw anyone out. He was about six foot four. He never needed to exert any physical violence as his presence was enough. He had  a team that would take no prisoners but Big George was again, a big feature of the venue.

“At that time it was like a pyramid of entertainment for acts. There was a vast number of Working Men’s Clubs where you’d get to practice your act, then you’d got the cabaret clubs where acts would have the chance of being seen by TV producers. They were great days and it just won’t happen again.”

Read more about the Aquarius in the 'Dirty Stop Out's Guide to 1970s Chesterfield'.