Tributes to Variety Show director Bill

Bill Watkins
Bill Watkins

A VARIETY show director who entertained the town’s residents for many decades has died at the age of 91.

Bill Watkins, popular director of the Entertainers Variety Show group, passed away recently. His funeral will take place on Monday (July 2).

Bill, and his brother-in-law Ernie Smith, were well-known for entertaining local community groups and theatre-goers with their comic miming and dance groups in the variety shows they organised.

In the late 1930s Bill’s organisational skills served him well and in 1942, while serving with the army in a heavy anti-aircraft unit on Wimbledon common, he formed the B Troopers concert party.

His musical talent as a drummer was recognised when he was asked to play a wide range of venues including open air on the common or in Hyde Park due to theatres in London being closed because of air raids.

In 1945 Bill met and married his first wife Iris and had two daughters. They all became leading performers in the concert group that Bill and Ernie set up in 1952.

Known as the Universal Concert Players, during the 1950s and 1960s, they built up a reputation for organising and performing in many traditional variety shows.

The shows helped to raise funds for numerous charities such as cancer causes, the NSPCC and the British Heart Foundation.

Over the years Bill and Ernie also helped animal welfare and guide dogs groups.

Changing the name of the group to The Entertainers in 1962, the shows became increasingly popular and filled a vacant niche in variety entertainment that was fast disappearing on the show scene during the 60s and 70s.

Bill’s employment in the printing industry took him to Cape Town, South Africa, in the 1970s but he returned to the UK after two years to resume his concert party directing.

Bill lost his first wife Iris and then in 1975 met and married his second wife, coincidentally also named Iris, who he persuaded to join concert party and perform along side a wide range of musical talent which he encouraged and guided over the three next decades.

Barrie De Winne, a friend of Bill’s, said, “Bill continued vehemently to organise and participate in all his charity shows until his 86th year.

“When The Entertainers disbanded it brought about a close to more than 50 years of variety entertainment in the town.

“With the loss of this admirable, persuasive and well loved local character comes the end of a variety entertainment era for Eastbourne.”

Another friend, Godfrey James, added, “I just think he was a marvellous little man who did so much for the community.”

Bill leaves his wife Iris and eldest daughter Pauline.

His funeral will take place at 1.45pm on Monday (July 2) at the Eastbourne crematorium.