From modest beginnings to a nightclub supremo, big wheel Newby has certainly made his mark
With a portfolio of successful pub and club properties stretching back almost 40 years there’s a feeling that this might literally be Basil Newby’s Blackpool.
Born in the resort, his parents ran a hotel where the major showbusiness stars of the day used to stay.
“People like Norman Evans, Winifred Atwell, Hilda Baker - who we had to ask to leave because she had a monkey which wasn’t house trained, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Kaye Sisters, Beverley Sisters, even Shirley Bassey,” says Basil. “In those days they were all massive.”
By the time he was 10 they had opened a country club in Kirkham and he thinks watching acts come and go whet his appetite for the entertainment industry.
Time spent at boarding school in Wales tempted him to pursue law or teaching, time at training college in St Annes convinced him otherwise.
Blackpool has always been very open minded
“I took a year out and decided I didn’t want to go back to studying,” he says.
Instead he headed to Pontin’s in Torbay to work as a Blue Coat.
“My parents were absolutely mortified but it was fabulous, I really enjoyed it and believe it or not I think I was the only gay in Torquay. Everybody was fascinated with me.”
Not one to hide his homosexuality he says: “I’ve never suffered homophobia or anything bad, even in those days when it wasn’t really spoken about. At Pontin’s everyone was so protective towards me - even the big butch chefs.”
Back in Blackpool he bought a fancy goods shop on Chapel Street and called it Gone Gay much to the consternation of a neighbouring shop called Go Gay.
“It was handbags at 30 paces but I said ‘I am gay’ not going gay!” he says “We used to stay open in the summer until 2 or 3 in the morning but in those days Blackpool was rammed even at that time. Going back to my childhood we had to sleep in the cellars because they’d let our rooms in peak season – the promenade was always packed, even near the Gynn. Wakes weeks, factory holidays, there was always something going on.”
He briefly fronted a drag act - Basil St James Plus Two – with two girl dancers but his heart wasn’t in the club circuit.
After a couple of years he sold the fancy goods shop and was thinking about going back to Pontin’s when his partner at the time suggested a new venture.
“He said there was no real gay club venue in Blackpool. There was only the original Lucy’s Bar and the Clifton Bar so we went to see the old Flamingo on Talbot Road. It was just a top floor place and I didn’t know at the time it was a ‘ladies of the night’ club.”
But he took on the lease in 1979 and after some initial confusion from its regulars (“I think they thought I was a madam!”) turned it into a gay venue.
“I kept the name because I was told it was bad luck to change it,” he says. “Not many places have stuck to that idea.”
A while later he bought the ground floor, the King’s Arms became the Flying Handbag (nearly the Queens Legs) and his In The Pink (ITP) empire was on its way.
The group now owns and runs the Flying Handbag, Buzz, Flamingo, Funny Girls and Roxy’s as well as leasing out Pepe’s.
“I never thought I’d be around this long,” he says. “I thought I’d last a couple of years but 37 years later I’m still here.”
Along the way “the scene has changed a lot from what it was” – and not all for the good.
“At one time I was never nervous when I went round town but sometimes now I feel it’s a bit threatening. I was always an advocate for late licenses but I think looking back now in hindsight the late licenses have affected things in a big way.
“When pubs were shut by 11pm the clubs would open and be packed by 11.15pm then close at 2am and you’d be in bed by 3am whereas now everywhere’s open until 3am or 4am or later, people don’t come out until later on, pubs and bars all have djs and dancing so no one wants to pay to go into a club.”
In addition the equality law changed things.
“I’d call the Flamingo transsexual not gay. Time was I could stand on the door and ask customers if they were gay. Now I’d be breaking the law. Even when getting the original Flamingo I was advised not to tell anyone I was gay or I could be deemed an unfit and improper person to hold a licence. I was probably the first obviously gay person to hold a full licence in Blackpool.
“Times have changed, people have changed, particularly younger people. Generally no-one bothers about the sexuality, no-one bats an eyelid but Blackpool has always been very open minded like that.”
Despite a wealth of knowledge and experience of the Blackpool scene he says he has never fancied standing for council.
“I wouldn’t like all the decision making. I’m Libra so I’m both sides of the scale, I’d never be able to make my mind up about anything or I’d side with the wrong people, or if some people were upset then that would upset me, so I don’t think I’d be strong enough to be a councillor.”
Despite his successes (and an MBE along the way) he does have one big “100 per cent regret” – having to move the Flamingo from Talbot Road to Queen Street.
“It was very close to my heart because it was where I started and it was a special club. Probably as well known in the gay world as Manchester’s Hacienda was in the straight one. It really was the love of my life and I find it very strange when I go shopping in Sainsbury’s because I can stand in the place where I stood in the old Flamingo. “When I think of who performed there – stars like Grace Jones and Take That, so many big names in 80s and 90s it’s sad.
“It was my jewel in the crown but it was a situation that I couldn’t have a big decision on because there was a Compulsory Purchase Order if I didn’t move.”
At the same time Walkabout was interested in purchasing the original Funny Girls in Queen Square and the council keen to keep In The Pink in the resort suggested a move to the former Odeon site on Dickson Road.
Despite reservations about its size (huge) and its location (less walk-up trade) the rest is local history.
ITP currently employs 150 people - all year round.
“To be honest in January and February it’s not really worth opening but we do that to keep the staff employed. It wouldn’t be fair on them to close. Plus knowing we are open is a good thing. The Flamingo is like the old Windmill Theatre, open seven nights a week even Christmas Day.”
The casino debacle was also disappointing.
“The Odeon would have been an ideal place for one but that all went pear shaped and there was no Plan B. Blackpool went through such a decline after the casino years that it took us a while to start getting back up again. We’ve just had a good season, about 20% up over all, which is encouraging.”
He’s still a big fan of the town but has his worries.
“The diversity of the people has always been fantastic. You either love Blackpool or you hate it and I think most people love it. Probably now though there’s a different clientele moving here and maybe some if it is a little bit undesirable which is a shame but I’m sure it will level out.
“It still has a special atmosphere. Even on a rainy day there’s always something you can do. It’s sad that a lot of the good theatres have gone because it was always the height of your career to appear in Blackpool for a summer season.
“Now there’s none of that. Summer seasons have gone so we should look at doing more big concerts. Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond proved they work.
“Maybe we should get a massive arena so we can attract big names again?”
But, he says, “the good things still outweigh the bad, there’s still plenty to choose from, we’ve still got the Pleasure Beach, Grand Theatre, Winter Gardens, The Tower – us.
“Maybe some 5 star restaurants wouldn’t go amiss but I’d come here on holiday for a few days if I didn’t live here.”
So if he could would he do it all over again?
“Yes, except when the old Flamingo went maybe I’d have packed it in then,” he says. “I still enjoy it but I don’t come out as much during the week now.
“I always said when I was 65 I’d call it a day and I’m 64 now. People say I’m wearing well but I don’t see much daylight, I’ve never smoked and never drank, so maybe that’s the answer.”
He did have a reality check a few years when diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“It was a shock really. I didn’t even know what a prostate was. But then I discovered my father and grandfather had died of it.”
An early diagnosis and prohibitively expensive proton therapy treatment in Munich put him back on his feet.
“There’s no price on your health is there? I was very lucky but it was a reality call. It brings you back down to earth with a bang and makes you think about the rest of your life and when do you call it a day. There are still things I want to do with my life.”
If it was his Blackpool though?
“I’d make it more like Las Vegas. The Illuminations need to be on longer and we could do with a big fountain where Yates’ used to be so the place feels alive, especially in the winter. We should try and make the season at least 10 months of the year. That would be brilliant, an all year round destination.”
And no more series like 999 What’s Your Emergency?
“That was just horrendous. Everybody’s business went dire because if it. People who had always felt safe coming to Funny Girls would ask if they were still alright.
“It did a lot of damage but have we made ourselves an easy target? Maybe we should be more choosey about some of the people we let live here because it puts other people off.”
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