Christmas With The Variety Girls is the second book by writer Tracy Baines in The Variety Girls series.
Born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, Tracy was eight when her parents took over the management of The Pier Hotel, a pub opposite the pier. Her father opened a room as a music venue which played host to performers such as Billy Fury and Wayne Fontana which in turn resulted in the beginning of Tracy’s passion for live entertainment.
Tracy would go on to work backstage during summer seasons and pantomimes on the pier. Whilst working as Assistant Stage Manager on a show for The Nolan Sisters, Tracy would meet her future husband., a performer in the show.
Tracy, who now lives in Dorset, has taken inspiration by setting the first two books in The Variety Girls series in Cleethorpes, within a square mile of her childhood home.
Here, Tracy talks to Andy Howells about her writing and The Variety Girls books.
You clearly love writing; how did you discover you had a talent for it?
I don’t think I ever did discover a talent – more like a love of writing and working hard to learn how to express my thoughts and ideas more clearly. As a child I was always reading and I had many pen friends, so I suppose I always enjoyed exploring other worlds, other lives. I had a pen friend in Hong Kong who sent her letters on beautifully ornate paper which she folded in origami shapes. It was always a delight when they dropped through the letterbox. So, I guess there was always a pleasure connected with words, however they presented themselves.
What inspired you to start writing The Variety Girls series?
An eye on what was selling in the market, advice from a great friend, and writing about what I love and what I knew. When I was 9 my parents took over the management of a pub on Cleethorpes promenade and my dad began putting on lots of live entertainment. From a young age I was exposed to all kinds of music as my dad brought in performers such as Dave Berry, Billy J Kramer and Wayne Fontana. He had folk nights, jazz nights and ‘Roaring Twenties’ nights. The pub was opposite the pier and so many of the acts appearing in summer shows and other shows came and drank in the bar. When I was sixteen, I got a job back stage on the pier where a couple of years later I met my future husband who was appearing in the summer show with The Nolans.
I had lots of experience from both sides of the stage to call upon, lots of stories to inspire me.
Can you give us a little bit of background about the central characters and what people can expect from the books?
In the first book, The Variety Girls we meet Jessie Delaney who lives with her widowed mother and brother at their Aunt and Uncle’s house in Norfolk. Jessie is desperate to get away and sees the theatre as her escape. Her agent gets her a booking in a small seaside theatre for the summer season and she joins a group of dancers billed as The Variety Girls. But leaving Norfolk means leaving her boyfriend, Harry and Jessie has to decide who she loves more – the theatre or Harry. It’s set during the last summer before the war, so I hope I have a created a feeling of change and expectation, an uncertain future.
Christmas with the Variety Girls finds the theatres closed – much as they are now. The girls are out of work and have to find alternative employment, hoping to manage until they can get back to their first love – the theatre. Of course, there are secrets, and secrets have a habit of being discovered. There’s a pantomime – Aladdin – and the cast gather in a chilly church hall to rehearse.
I’ve been able to use real locations of the period, and some of them still exist. The Empire remains but at the moment it’s an amusement arcade. It’s had many incarnations over the years but who knows if it will ever be a theatre again? I’d like to think it could.
The books have a backdrop of the second world war – how did you research that era for entertainment and historical context?
I read many factual accounts of WW2 and first-person experience accounts of what it was like, both in books and on the internet. There is a vast archive of information on the BBC site The People’s War.
My mother was a small child during the war, so I asked her lots of questions. I watched old British movies made during the pre-war period – Talking Pictures TV channel is an absolute godsend for this. Far and above the best part was reading many biographies of stars such as Gracie Fields, Pat Kirkwood, Evelyn Laye and Jessie Matthews to get a feel for time and place. I think I’m a bit addicted to them because I can’t resist a showbiz biography set in the 20s and 30s.
I loved Bud Flanagan’s My Crazy Life and Jimmy Jewel’s Three Times Lucky. They give such insight into the early days of their careers, real poverty and hardship – but also a determination, and I think it’s the determination to succeed that interests me most.
How did your own experience of theatre and entertainment help you write the books?
I think I’m a natural observer, I like being on the outside of things. Some people might call that plain nosey, but I call it curiosity. I enjoy watching from the wings, watching performers transform when they step out into the limelight, and the coming down after the performance, the boredom of long days away from family with nothing to do.
As I said earlier, my husband was a variety entertainer and he has millions of stories – and jokes. His father, Ken was a ventriloquist, and was involved with entertainment in the Fleet Air Arm where he was an engineer. He was a larger-than-life character, full of tales and contradictions. My husband, Neil and his brother were on stage as small children. Added to my own experience of my parents having the pub and then working in theatres it gave me a good grounding of what I’m writing about – and that in turn gives me confidence.
Who do you think will enjoy The Variety Girls books?
When I was writing it, I had in mind the audience for Call the Midwife and the kind of programmes that would take the Sunday evening slot on TV. I wanted to write about warm characters and a sense of community; of people overcoming their troubles and life’s challenges with the help of friends and ‘family’. I hope there’s a sense of warmth and humour that comes through the writing.
How was the first book received?
Really well, I’ve had some great feedback from readers via my social media pages. People who have never been to Cleethorpes have said how much they could imagine the place and plan to come to visit. One lady said she had taken her son on a tour of the places mentioned which I found absolutely wonderful. People have been very kind and generous and I’ve had fabulous support from local newspaper and radio as well as people putting the word out over social media. I sent some copies to Brinsworth House, the retirement home supported by the Royal Variety Charity #variety4charity and they shared fab photos across social media of some of their residents reading The Variety Girls – true variety girls! That was one of the big highlights for me this year.
Christmas With The Variety Girls is the sequel, what inspired you to go with a Christmas theme?
The first book covers a summer season and it seemed natural to go for a panto for the next book. These are the two periods in an entertainer’s life when they are in one place for more than a week or a few days. It gave me more scope to bring in local characters. The book opens on the day war is declared, 3rd September 1939, and ends on New Year’s Eve the same year. That period was called the phoney war because not much had really happened on the home front and I played around with the word ‘phoney’ in relation to my characters.
When you are not writing, what do you enjoy reading?
I do a lot of factual reading for research, and I read widely in my genre. I always look forward to a new book from Kate Atkinson but am just as likely to choose something that’s been published for years and I haven’t had time to get around to it. My to be read pile never gets any smaller. This year I’ve enjoyed escaping into books more than ever and particular favourites were Once Upon A River by Dianne Setterfield and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
What can we look out for from you in the future?
I’m outlining another book set in variety theatre but also working on a book set in Grimsby among the fishing families. The men on my mother’s side of the family were all trawler skippers, and over the years my grandmother told me many stories of the hardships the families went through. I’d like to explore a few of those stories and bring them to life.
It’s been a tough year for so many people and escaping into stories has been a welcome distraction – whether that has been reading them or writing them.
- The Variety Girls and Christmas With The Variety Girls are published by Penguin.
- Visit Tracy Baines website for further details on her work and how to purchase her books.