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End of an era for iconic Batley Variety Club

12:00am | & News

One of the north's most iconic entertainment venues is finally closing its doors after 49 years.

In its 1970s heyday Batley Variety Club played host to some of the biggest names in showbiz, from Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones to Roy Orbison and Tina Turner. They all travelled to the little West Yorkshire town to play to a packed house at what was the ultimate working men's club.

Opened in 1967, the venture was financed by Yorkshire businessman and showman Peter Fleming in partnership with James Corrigan. They saw no reason why the right venue couldn't attract the same big names as leading London theatres, making top class entertainment accessible to ordinary Yorkshire folk. 

Their cabaret venue would be a step up from the usual working men's clubs, able to accommodate 1,600 and fitted with plush velvet-upholstered circular "pods" which could seat five couples around a table. One section of the pod was left open, facing the stage, with hundreds of these pods arranged in tiered rows.

For the modest admission price of six shillings and sixpence, people could enjoy a top level show and a meal, typically chicken or scampi with chips, in a basket – the height of sophistication in the '70s! While the small and unremarkable town of Batley seemed an odd choice for such an ambitious venue, it was actually very well placed to draw customers from the surrounding industrial towns of Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax, Dewsbury and many other smaller places.

Determined to launch in style, the club opened with a sold out performance by The Bachelors, one of the biggest pop acts of the day. The following year legendary jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong played the club just weeks after knocking The Beatles off the number one spot with his hit "What a Wonderful World".

By now the Batley Variety Club's reputation was firmly established and rather than chasing the big acts, James Corrigan suddenly found he was getting calls from agents asking if their clients could play Batley!

Just a few of those to appear at the club in its glory years included Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Cilla Black, Cliff Richard, Roy Orbison, the Spinners, Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, The Everly Brothers, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Mathis, Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, Dusty Springfield, Olivia Newton-John, Gene Pitney, The Four Tops, Eartha Kitt, Alvin Stardust, The Drifters and Tina Turner. When the Bee Gees played there in 1974, waitress Yvonne Spencely caught the eye of Maurice Gibb and the couple were married the following year.

Top comedy acts, many of whom had made their name on the tough northern club circuit, also played Batley Variety Club. They included Morecambe and Wise, Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper, Bob Monkhouse, Mike Yarwood and Freddie Starr, as well as Yorkshire's home grown talent including Charlie Williams and The Grumbleweeds, who always filled the club. At its peak the club was said to have more than 300,000 members and had turned back-of-beyond Batley into the Las Vegas of northern England.

Interviewed by the BBC in 1968, James Corrigan said: "The Variety Club was a joke. Everybody said it couldn't be built and it couldn't be done, and it should be a failure, but it's been proven that they were wrong. I knew the area. I knew I had five million people within 10 or 15 miles of it. My grandfather used to work in fairgrounds and he used to say 'Always go where the chimneys are'."

Sadly the dream couldn't last. When Batley favourite Shirley Bassey sang "The Party's Over" as part of her final performance at the club it would prove all too prophetic. Competition from other venues opened in the wake of Batley' success, combined with rising fees for the big stars and the growing popularity of entertainment on colour TV saw audiences start to dwindle at Batley. Even the bigger stars could no longer fill the club, which was starting to look faded.

In 1977 it closed, reopening briefly as the Crumpet nightclub, which also failed, with the building's contents auctioned off. But after a thorough refurbishment it reopened in 1981 as Batley Frontier Club, a nightclub hosting DJs and dancing plus live show and events. Now that too is closing, finally marking the end for the historic entertainment venue, which is to be converted into a gym.

Maybe some of those working out on treadmills and exercise bikes will listen on their MP3 players to the stars who once sang live on stage at Batley Variety Club.

• To watch an entertaining film about the history of Batley Variety Club, click here.

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