Review: Elvis Festival

“There are only two kinds of people in the world, Beatles people and Elvis people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis and Elvis people can like the Beatles, but nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.”

If Mia Wallace is correct, and I for one don’t doubt it, then the thousands of revellers descending on the Welsh seaside town of Porthcawl have made their choice – they are most definitely Elvis people. Many of them are dressed as Elvis. In fact they are dressed like Elvis, sing like Elvis, move like Elvis, even curl their lip like Elvis. And this is because, for the last weekend in September, Porthcawl is home to the largest Elvis event in Europe.

Official shows like the Elvies (the world’s leading award show for Elvis tribute artists) takeplace in the Grand Pavilion theatre: an elegant building near the town’s pleasant central strip of cafés and shops. This is not where the real action takes place. This is a long way from where the obsessive and passionate amateurs shake their hips and wet their lips. At the other end of the seafront, in the primitive pubs and shops around the Coney Island amusement park, the festival really goes off.

Buses work tirelessly, ferrying groups of leery locals from the Valleys and depositing them outside the Cabin Bar which sits at one end of an intense Elvisey throng that stretches to a marquee located near a giant caravan park. In their hundreds they stumble off the buses, all shook up from the bottles of booze consumed like water on the journey, and join the teeming drunken mass. What lies between the Cabin Bar and the marquee is quite simply insane.

Forget the Welsh stereotypes, Wales is a distinct reality in itself, and then there is this – a bizarre hyper-reality, a parallel universe where Elvises wander the seafront like something from an episode of Quantum Leap.

There are a number of items that are omnipresent in Porthcawl this weekend – gold-rimmed shades, black wigs, cardboard faces, latex forehead-quiff combos, brightly coloured Hawaiian leis, polka-dots, and any item of clothing or accessory imaginable adorned with the image of the man himself. And the tell tale signs of alcoholism.

There are some startlingly well-recreated Elvises, with coiffured hair, immaculate period-specific costumes and practised mannerisms. As I photograph my way around, the Elvises attempt to conceal the ubiquitous pint and fag as if they somehow shatter the mystique they have so carefully created. From the pasty and peaky Elvises to the perma-tanned and portly, there is a plethora of types, hundreds of them striding proudly or stumbling smiling through the crowds that delightedly drink in the last watery bursts of September sun. It is glorious, for now.

It is 11 am and I am tired after an early start and a long drive. I am standing in an elegant marquee, all cream drapes and chandeliers, that along with the nearby Hi Tide bar marks the ‘real’ festival’s epicentre. I am surrounded by drunk people and strange people, each honouring the King in their own unique way.

I would like to say the crowd gathered in the marquee are waiting with bated breath to find out if the festival has achieved its goal of breaking the world record for the largest gathering of Elvis impersonators in the world ever. But they are not: they are drinking, chatting, and largely uncaring. Vodka bottles clink pseudo-surreptitiously under tables and laughter bubbles over constantly.

Somewhere outside, marching towards the marquee, are over 800 Elvises. Each one of them sings Hound Dog at the top of their lungs as they smash the world record in some style. BBC Radio Wales presenter, Owen Money MBE, a man described to me as the Welsh Terry Wogan, takes to the stage with beer in hand. He works the crowd in stand-up mode, insulting each member of the audience with practised ease, casual charm and little concern for political correctness.

If the situation was not sufficiently overwhelming for my sleep-deprived mind, Owen instigates a yodelling competition between a pensioner and a young woman whose hoarse yodel repeatedly gets stuck in her throat. And then it all stops. Owen switches from cheeky comic to On Air pro as Darren ‘Gracelands’ Jones bounds onto stage. Darren, from Cwmbran, is officially Wales’ Best Elvis and its easy to see why – he is resplendent in a large-collared paisley shirt and black flares. He proceeds to announce live on BBC Radio Wales that over 800 Elvises convened, walked, sang, and broke a record.

With that, the last of the formalities are out the way: the record smashed, the live broadcast nailed and it’s time to get down to the important matter of drinking and singing Elvis songs. Owen Money heads off to grab a burger and everyone else heads to the bar. The first of hundreds of Elvis impersonators takes to the stage. Game on.

The first few impersonators are far from convincing – each one seemingly only allowed a single good attribute, never a complete set– one may have natural hair, another might be tonally good but out of tune, another will have a cracking voice but look like a dug-up Shakin’ Stevens. Jimmy Elvis does a good turn on Teddybear, but applause is hard to come by. On a day where you are likely to watch upwards of 50 impersonators without even trying, you have to measure out your praise.

After around five impersonators, I have had enough and decide to go out to explore. It’s not long before I end up in the Coney Island amusement park, which is offering an out of season reduced fare of 50 pence a ride. A bargain, you may think. But this façade of fun is as fragile as any child’s dream; behind the flashing lights and bright colours is nothing but rust and decay. This is a land which not only time forgot, but health and safety too.

I do however love a ghost train so make a beeline for it. The first thing I notice is that the teenager operating the train is far scarier than the ghouls depicted either side of him. He has a puffy face, piggy-eyes and an Igor-esque stoop. Inside, it is scary. There are no mechanics to propel some undead creature towards the train, in fact there are no moving parts apart from the train that shunts its way along fifty metres of track. Instead there are ghosts, goblins, vampires and monsters drawn in fluorescent paint by what can only have been a demented child. There is no semblance of artistic talent, but a terrifying lack, giving these creatures an unnerving eerie dimension. At no point is there darkness, due to the exit signs chucking out more light than the autumn sun. The scariest things are the rag cobwebs hanging from the ceiling that occasionally brush your face, smelling of paraffin and scrotum.

Around 3 pm, I re-enter the Elvis fray. Things have become volatile. T-shirts have been removed, grown men hug each other for stability, and women eye each other catishly across a sea of over-sized collars and quiffs. Wigs have become increasingly dishevelled, quiffs unfurling, and sideburns have become unstuck and flap disconcertingly in the breeze. Any sense of decorum has disappeared. The atmosphere is lively and like a giant piece of touch-paper, just waits for ignition. At which point Porthcawl will descend into the Mod vs. Rocker Brighton Beach clashes of the sixties, just this time without the Mods.

As Suspicious Minds twangs into life for the umpteenth time and drunken voices rise up to greet it, I make the decision to leave. Being a Beatles man, English, and not in Elvis costume, I have become strangely conspicuous and increasingly vulnerable. The King hasn’t left the building and won’t do so for several hours yet, but this bird has flown.

Words: Tom Spooner