Barry Lewis captures the essence of a very British 1980s holiday
Inspired by Robert Frank and Tony Ray-Jones, the photojournalist took a “loving but harsh approach” to depicting the then-fading glamour of Butlin’s holiday camps.
- Jenny Brewer
- 11 May 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Billy Butlin, the founder of Butlin’s holiday camps, was a pioneer in many forms. Born into a fairground family, he cut his teeth running sideshows and is credited with bringing the first dodgems to Britain; but when he bought 200 acres near the Skegness seafront with a vision for a utopian holiday village, he must’ve endured some skepticism.
To surprise, when Butlin’s holiday camp first launched in 1936 it was immediately fully booked, and spawned an entirely new way for working class Brits to holiday. Photographer Barry Lewis’ own personal affiliation with Butlin’s started in 1966 when he worked as a kitchen porter in Bognor, his first job after school, where he says he “developed an odd affection for this enclosed, parallel universe”. Then he returned in 1982, this time to the Skegness camp (there were nine camps in all) commissioned by the Observer Magazine to “capture the essence of the very British holiday”. These photos are compiled in a new book by Hoxton Mini Press, which paint a portrait of a turning point in British culture.
“I was trying to capture the sort of innocence and organised fun I remembered from my annual family holidays in camps,” Barry tells It’s Nice That. “I think my pictures captured the fun and excitement for people letting go on holiday. But they also showed up Butlin’s fading glamour, a monoculture of unconscious racism, and the loneliness of some individuals desperately seeking escape and love.”
In its golden era, Butlin’s was an epicentre of British entertainment. In one of Barry’s shots you can see emblazoned on the side of a building a quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Our true intent is all for your delight”. And with its huge 1930s deco-style ballrooms, bars, discos and theatres, and Redcoats staff that are usually a bubbly bunch of aspiring performers, fun was the camps’ primary focus. The Butlin’s dance competition was the Strictly Come Dancing of its day, and in 1962 Paul McCartney and John Lennon came to the Skegness camp to ask Ringo Starr, its resident drummer, if he’d join their band. There were also shops, indoor and outdoor pools, sports facilities, fairgrounds, boating lakes… two camps even had their own monorail. When Barry returned, however, low cost flights to Europe meant Brits were starting to travel abroad and the draw of these camps was degrading, as was the decor. For the photojournalist, much of the atmosphere remained the same, and he looked to tell that story with brutal honesty.
“My picture style was strongly influenced by Robert Frank in America and Tony Ray-Jones’ photographs of the British on holiday… a sort of loving but harsh approach,” he describes. “The big difference was that I shot in colour. This is important as, in our current digital heaven, anyone who has a phone can get good colour in almost total darkness. The only good colour film in the early 80s was Kodachrome. It gave rich colour but was very slow, factory processed, and could not be manipulated. In darkened ballrooms with a mix of rainy daylight, green fluorescents, and yellow lightbulbs – it was impossible to shoot without flash."
"I developed a technique of shooting with softened flash, while using a slow shutter to allow the other lights to play their part," he adds. "When it worked, you didn’t have the feel of a glaring flash, but it was hit-and-miss since the slow shutter would often blur the image. At the time, magazine editors called me the ‘flash and blur man’ but I was only trying to get a good colour feel in an era still dominated by black and white photography.”
“Most people were at ease with me ducking and diving with the camera,” continues Barry. “They were happy to reveal their world, unashamed of who they were, and happy to be photographed. This has changed, especially in the UK, where a fear of instant exposure affects the public’s relationship to the professional photographer. ‘What are they for?’ ‘How is the photo going to be used?’, ‘Will my child be seen by monsters?’ are all real and valid fears perpetuated by a cynical media.”
The result, he says, portrays an innocence in its subjects, “a pre-internet trust of photography to show life as it was”.
Butlin’s Holiday Camp 1982 by Barry Lewis is published by Hoxton Mini Press.