Monday, 31 December 2012

The Curious World Of Frinton-On-Sea

'The Curious World Of Frinton-on-Sea' was the first programme in the BBC documentary series 'Wonderland', and was originally shown in 2008.

Frinton is a place that I am extremely familiar with, having grown up a mere 15 miles away in Colchester. As a child, it was a quick drive out, although, more often, Dad chose to stop the Ford Consul short at the gaudier, stabbier Clacton-on-Sea, or circumnavigated it by a couple of miles to soak up the gentle seediness of Walton-on-Naze. The fact was, there wasn't much to do there for a car full of kids. The beach was nice, but there wasn't a one armed bandit, ice cream van or set of swings in the place - and it was full of old people, not the rosy cheeked, twinkly ones, but the ones who look at you like they fucking hate you.

In a way, a small triumph.

Angry old man, cheerful jumper.

This lady is cool. I hope she's still alive.

When I grew up into early manhood, it became a place of plunder. Old age plus money plus mortality meant the charity shops were always full of Easy Listening LP's, Super 8 camera equipment and M & S knitted ties. I'd never stay too long, just breeze in and get out as soon as I'd done the rounds. The young are scared of the dust of age landing on their shoulders, especially when they already have a car full of dead people's stuff.

Memorial Bench.


Beach Huts.

Frinton is a relatively affluent place, especially in comparison to Clacton and Jaywick, a little patch of ramshackle Jerry-built hell a few miles down the coast that I would describe as Canvey Island crossed with Tombstone. In comparison, Frinton is all leafy avenues, big houses, tea rooms, wool shops and a tennis club where Cliff Richard used to play in pro-celebrity tournaments. It has two places of worship, one C of E, the other the golf club.

The town has a history of protest, or perhaps more accurately, of digging its heels in lest it be dragged into the modern age. In its time it has been against fish and chips, takeaways and pubs, although, gradually, these things slowly appeared (the first pub only in the year 2000), each one adding to the erosion of the traditional Frintonian way of life (the initial Edwardian statutes for the town forbade a pier - too flashy - and other decadent fripperies, like cycling).

In 2008, the campaign was against the replacement of the manned railway crossing gates that had been in place for many years and, effectively, created a barrier separating the town from the barbarism of the outside world (the gates are the only one way in and out, so Frinton is effectively a big cul-de-sac - in more ways than one).

The creaky wooden gates offered no real protection, of course, but had a talismanic power. The proposal from Network Rail to replace them with automatic barriers operated by 'some lunatic from Colchester' (a residents words, not Network Rails) caused a fuddy duddy furore, and the BBC's cameras were there to capture most of it, including a farcical vigil where the elderly protestors messed up the rubbish chant ('What do we want? Safety! How do we want it? The gates!') and then started to wander off home at eight o'clock because they were cold.

As well as documenting the tinderbox atmosphere of Gategate for posterity, the programme also lingered on some interesting individuals who for various reasons (one claims to have been 'misled'), have made the town their home.  

Margaret runs Dickens Curios, an antique shop full of the most incredible tat. The stock doesn't matter, of course, as no-one ever goes in and, even if they did, I'm not sure anything would be for sale.

The Olde Curiosity Shop.

Margaret, suspicious.

The stock.

Margaret waits.

Elephant corner.

Margaret is one of those people who has lost her place in life (if she ever had one) and now just hangs about wearing a tabard. She has spent the last thirty years waiting for a man called Geoffrey to marry her, but Geoffrey denies even having a romantic relationship with her, the cad, while Margaret glowers and misses most of her mouth with a sandwich. To me, Geoffrey doesn't even look the marrying kind, especially in his sailor cap, but he just may not be the Margaret-marrying-kind.

Captain Geoffrey.

Geoffrey likes dancing, and Margaret has the grace of Boris Johnson, so he has another female partner. As Margaret is eager to point out, however, 'it's nothing romantic, just dancing'. When we meet Geoffrey's partner she grins and says immediately 'it's more than just dancing, you know'. Player / Bluebeard Geoffrey keeps his counsel.

The other woman.

Later we see the partners in the street, wearing almost co-ordinated red and green outfits. They walk as badly as they dance. The next shot is of Margaret looking out of her shop window before turning away, but this is clearly editorial trickery and her sad expression merely the Kuleshov Effect.  

Elderly Elves.

Charles is a sardonic, camp character who, for some reason, is always filmed while eating or smoking (perhaps that's all he does, I don't know). He moved to Frinton when he retired to join some ex-colleagues who promptly died and left him on his own. He doesn't give a shit about the gates. Charles is constantly hinting at a dark secret which, if revealed, would lead to that most awful of things in a small town, 'social death'. At first you think, 'well, he's just gay, isn't he?', until he begins to talk about his ex-boyfriend, Big John from Clacton, and you realise that, whatever he's hiding, it's not his sexuality. We never get to the bottom of Charles (so to speak) and, in a way, this lends calm, quiet, moribund Frinton mystery and, perhaps, even danger.

Charles, the enigma.

His sideboard, note chocs.

Charles always eats alone.
  'The Curious World of Frinton-on-Sea'* does one of the things that documentary does best - it turns a camera onto something mundane and makes it extraordinary. The funny, sad, odd people of Frinton are not at all unique, of course, they are simply representative of millions of people in the UK who simply exist from day to day and, as they age, slowly begin receding from useful life. In desperation, many will let littering or banning the wearing of shorts become as important to them as their jobs and families once were. The frightening thing is that we may be there before we know it: I already sign petitions and 'tut' a lot.

*A quick update on Frinton-on-Sea seems in order, as things have changed a lot since the programme was made in 2008. The gate revolution failed - the new barriers were erected the following year with a minimum of fuss as the work was carried out late at night when all the zimmer frame Che Guevera's were in bed. In the last few years, a number of bars and restaurants selling - ulp - foreign food have sprung up, as has an enormous toilet block at the top of the beach. There's a mini supermarket, new mock deco houses on the seafront that cost nearly a million quid each and, after eight o'clock, the beginnings of a cafe culture. The average age of the person on the street now seems to be about 40 and the men all carry brown leather satchels. I'll bet Margaret hates it, I certainly do.  


  1. How did I miss this programme? Great, entertaining bloggy re-visitation. Will be there for a New Year's Day walk tomorrow, weather permitting. Wonder if anyone in the programme is still at large? Happy New Year! x

  2. Thanks for your wonderful blog entry on "The Curious World of Frinton-on-Sea", loved reading this!! Have watched and thoroughly enjoyed the mini doc repeatedly!

    Online found that the BBC write-up is heavily slanted about the elderly of the town, stating that the village is "the most conservative", "doesn't like change", and refers to a peaceful demonstration as "a call to arms"...really! What an utterly ungracious, undignified, and narrow-minded view of the elderly.

    There is no reference to the fact that these elderly people are fully active, independent, voice their views, protect their rights, etc. A very sad day when the elderly cannot live out their lives without the negative impact of a fast-changing world which does not recognize the contributions of the elderly to bringing about the present generation. Must the elderly change? It seems all one-sided. I find the elderly so fascinating and would never attempt to edit what time has done to create so sparkling a diamond.

    The guard barrier issue could have been handled in a much more considerate and discrete way. Educating the towns people with a publicly shown video, for example, on the use in other communities of similar guard barriers could have helped enormously. The public hearing was a farce; the towns people clearly were being given some rubbish explanation to justify the train company agenda without any respect for the intelligence of those in the audience. Offensive, high-handed, and dictatorial.

    Of course there must be changes made and yet somehow in a sympathetic and respectful way, complementing the town and its memory.

    Thanks for your very interesting blog entry, loved it, and will come back to re-read it often!

  3. I love Frinton, having stayed with family who live there the past thirty years, but I also mock it with affection and enjoyed your account hugely :) A little humour never hurt anyone, I especially laughed at the Hussy comment.

  4. A great read. As a recent Wivenhoe immigrant, I loved it.

    an update on the barriers, although i suspect that doing it at 2am on a Saturday had more to do with no trains running than a covert operation, the vision in my mind of railway people in night vision goggles trying to quietly remove the gates did make me smile.

  6. I'm migrating back to get married at the small church by the seafront this year! I lived here for a spell and worked at Read House for about 4 years... you have nailed the place dead on! I love telling people about this weird little corner of the world and I love coming back, if only to sit and people-watch from Memorial Bench or outside the chocolate shop.
    Afraid you missed out on lots and lots of churches though! It's got to have the most churches per square mile I've ever seen.