HE WILL BE DISAPPOINTED TO LEARN IT, but the 45th president of the United States did not discover the concept of fake news.
Forty-one years ago this week I played a part in fooling Britain with a story that, if not exactly fake, was at least a fine example of “media manipulation”. All great fun, and very educational for the young would-be journalist I was on that September day in 1979.
The occasion? The final Butlin’s ‘wakey-wakey’ call, the last time sleepy holidaymakers would be summoned to breakfast at any of the camps’ vast dining rooms.
The place? Butlin’s Holiday Centre at Heads of Ayr on the west coast of Scotland, the only camp north of the border in the nine-strong leisure network.
And the fake news? A picture supposedly celebrating this historic moment showing company boss Bobby Butlin – son of founder Sir William ‘Billy’ Butlin – being showered with old 78rpm records of those famous ‘wakey-wakey’ calls which he then smashed, watched by polished and glamorous female Redcoats.
It was big news: incredibly, “the last Butlin’s wakey-wakey call” was broadcast live at 07.50 on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on that Friday, September14. It was covered by every newspaper and broadcaster of the day – even the Financial Times sent a photographer to Ayr. Only ITV was missing, thanks to a 75-day technicians’ strike that year.
The impressive media circus was organised by Butlin’s London PR company and I was the seasonal press officer at the Ayr camp that summer. I was usually kept busy sending out press releases and photographs to Britain’s local papers telling readers that ‘little Johnny Simpkins has won the Under-Sevens fancy dress competition’ or that ‘pretty Kirsty McGregor has triumphed in the Miss Lovely Legs contest’.
I had no experience in PR, but after being fired from the Weekly News after five-and-a-half months of a six-month journalistic trial I wasn’t in a position to be picky; thirteen weeks summer work in a small unheated chalet on an 85-acre former naval training camp south of Ayr turned out to be an interesting experience.
The “last wakey-wakey call” stunt pulled in the best feature writers from Fleet Street, including the Daily Mirror’s Paul Callan, whose chalk-stripe Savile Row suit and large bow-tie contradicted the typical image of the nation’s red-top scribblers.
To the annoyance of we ‘regulars’, the London press corps’ overnight accommodations and dining room had been tarted up for their stay. Their bar, predictably, was free and the ‘special’ menu for their evening meal was far from our usual holiday-camp fare – my first experience of how professional journos like to enjoy themselves when someone else is footing the bill, although I was to become very expert in this area in later years!
At breakfast the following morning a slight kerfuffle erupted when one of the hack pack alleged that a rival had spent the night with a Butlin’s waitress, a prize denied by the accused who nonetheless expressed disappointment that he had not enjoyed any such ‘perk’.
The Last Wakey-Wakey Day dawned to a light shower but the live broadcast on Radio 4 passed without a hitch and the photo opportunity with Bobby and the glamour-girl Redcoats – repeated several times over – went well; from a PR perspective, this was a spectacular success. Yet in reality this was ‘fake news’.
Firstly, it was NOT the last ‘wakey-wakey’ call. That would happen the following morning, the final day of the season when that week’s visitors would be leaving. And the wake-up call was shifted from the usual 8am to 7.50 to suit the BBC news schedule.
Secondly, the 78s presented as old ‘wakey-wakey’ records were no such thing: the local Ayr management had been asked by London to source some nondescript shellac discs. Even the glossy Redcoats were not genuine – they were photographic models hired for their looks, not for any ability to entertain children.
The “wakey-wakey” description itself was a bit of a misnomer: in 1979 the early morning ‘alarm’ was actually a recording of the gentle guitar instrumental ‘Cavatina’ (better known as the theme from The Deer Hunter) rather than the raucous yelling of a Billy Cotton soundalike. The press, I discovered, does not let the facts get in the way of a good story.
It was, however, the end of an era. Butlin’s phased out the ‘wakey-wakey’ call because they were ending mass catering. The ‘all-in’ concept Sir Billy had introduced in 1936 was designed to give hard-working parents (especially mums) a complete break from chores, so all meals were provided. Feeding housands of holidaymakers (Ayr, for instance, routinely catered to 5,000) meant two sittings, so a wake-up call was intended to ensure the first sitting took place at the right time.
By 1979, however, visitors wanted a less regimented schedule and all Butlin’s holiday centres – bar its Scottish outpost – had moved over to more self-catering accommodation, negating the requirement for two sittings and the wake-up call. Ayr was to be redeveloped towards self-catering before the 1980 season started.
Oddly enough, the centre on the Firth of Clyde had been built by Billy Butlin on behalf of the Admiralty as a Navy training camp in 1940. During the Second World War, it was styled HMS Scotia. The site was handed back to Butlin in 1946 and started its run as a holiday destination in 1947.
And the first and most important instruction we seasonal press officers received was to refer to Butlin’s only as a holiday centre, never as a holiday camp, despite its history, appearance and lack of any creature comforts.
Sir Billy could hve taught Trump a thing or two about media manipulation!