August 2, 2018 by Mike Madden
This article first appeared in the High Peak Review.
When Bill Weston dressed as Luther Billis from South Pacific to appear in the 1974 Buxton Carnival, he could not have predicted the chain of events that will ultimately lead to the 1,000th performance of his majorette troupe The Billerettes at this year’s Buxton Carnival.
Bill was part of the amateur dramatics society that were performing South Pacific at the Buxton Opera House, and they had a float in the carnival. Bill is not keen on floats, so he travelled on a scooter and quickly got to the front of the carnival procession. He noticed that many of the majorettes were simply going through the motions, and they did not have the enthusiasm and excitement on their faces that would normally be associated with a carnival day. This was certainly no Mardi Gras, and Bill decided that he would set up his own majorette troupe for the following summer.
He got together with two friends, rustled up some uniforms, and that was that. No rehearsals, it was just a case of “follow the leader”, and Bill was adept in that role. The performance was warmly received, and as far as Bill was concerned, that was the end of it. Buxton Carnival, however, had other ideas, so there was another performance in 1976, and then again for the Queen’s Jubillee in 1977 when they were dressed in smart red, white and blue outfits.
Although each performance was supposed to be the end of the adventure, in 1979 they appeared at a Café Continental gathering as part of the carnival, and by this time their fame had spread. Bill dug out an old sewing machine, and adopted the now familiar orange colour as he made costumes for the entire troupe. The intention was to ensure that the costumes did not present the troupe as drag artists, these were actually men dressed as women majorettes, and the result was phenomenal.
In the audience for the 1979 performance were the production team from the television show The Innes Book Of Records, and they were interested in getting The Billerettes to perform during the show. At first they were looking at a 20 second slot in the background, with some children picking flowers as Neil Innes sang in the foreground, but this led to an additional three minute slot for a subsequent show, in which they came out of the Doctor Who tardis to perform.
Bookings were beginning to take off, and Bill found that he had a growing list of willing participants. Each show required eight to twelve performers, and he had around 25 to choose from. In these early days they performed approximately six shows per year, but this quickly progressed to upwards of fifty at their peak. Today they will do around thirty to forty shows per year.
With the thousandth show approaching, I asked Bill why he keeps on doing it. “That is simple,” he said. “It makes people smile and it makes people laugh, and in the moment when someone is laughing it is impossible to think of anything bad. Laughter is like a medicine.”
After 999 shows you may think that The Billerettes would be like a well oiled machine, but this is far from the case. The troupe have rehearsed just three times in 35 years. They generally turn up at the last minute, work out where to stand, and then just follow Bill’s lead. It may seem a bit haphazard, but it works just fine. Traditionally, Bill rings round his twenty or so contacts a week before an event, just to find out whether he will have three performers or a dozen or more. For carnival performances they simply follow the carnival band. They have no prior knowledge of the music that will be played, so they just make it up as they go along.
On a carnival day there is always the procession followed by a performance of The Billerettes, but they have also performed in many other arenas, including at 26 weddings. For Bill they are always memorable performances, but the first time they appeared at Crewe theatre was particularly special. “We arrived 15 minutes before the curtain went up which gave us the luxury of a run through first,“ Bill explained. “As soon as we got on stage we just gelled. The audience loved it, because the rest of the show was filled with nice dance acts, and this gave them a kind of relief.” Buxton Carnival will always be Bill’s favourite, and for a very special reason. “When I perform at Buxton, to paraphrase Al Jolson, its my town,” he said.
Although the theme to The Billerettes is men dressed as women majorettes, his daughter appeared as mascot in 1978, and several wives and girlfriends have also featured, firstly as flag bearers, and then as Billerettes in their own right when numbers were a little sparse. In fact, one couple met whilst performing with The Billerettes, and a few years later got married in full Billerette uniforms.
Alongside The Billerettes, Bill is chairman of the High Peak Mayoral Charities organisation, a position he has held for 15 years, and he is the Charity Steward for a variety of Masonic organisations. He is also involved in Liberation Day with the police, Emergency Services Day, and he is an active assistant at St Ann’s Primary School. He still finds time to be Town Crier as well as an after dinner speaker, and he was deservedly awarded the MBE by the Queen in 2004 for his “Outstanding Contribution To The Community Of Buxton In Derbyshire”.
Over the years The Billerrettes have had 420 performers, including notable celebrities such as Liz Dawn and Matthew Kelly, though Mr Kelly caused a problem as he never does anything without a rehearsal. Every one of these, and indeed every Billerette show, has been meticulously recorded by Bill in “The Billerette Chronicles”, a series of pages that Bill is being urged to publish. Incredibly, Bill has missed just 3 Billerette performances, and that is only because they were performing in majorette competitions at which he was an organiser and one of the judges. He is also writing “Men In Skirts”, a history of The Billerettes, and his autobiography is ready and waiting to be snapped up by a publisher.
The 1,000th performance will be notable, but it will pass with little or no fuss, as is Bill’s way. There will be a party afterwards, and he is hoping to be joined in the parade by some of the performers from yesteryear. The Billerettes have performed at Old Trafford, the MEN Arena and many other large venues. They have also been seen by millions of viewers in 110 countries on television, but Bill is rightly proud that the 1,000th performance will be at his home town of Buxton on 16th July. For more information on The Billerettes please visit www.billerettes.org.uk.