Shaun Pickup is one of an increasingly rare breed. Blackpool born and bred, he’s proud of his roots and quick to defend his birthplace.
He’s also a very busy man. He’s the brains behind Dahlia’s Kitchen, the burgeoning coffee shop and restaurant at the Garden Place on Cropper Road in Marton which these days also includes a farm shop, butchers, delicatessen and fish counter.
But that’s only the day job. He’s also the chairperson and trustee of Blackpool Pride Festival – the fast expanding celebration of all things LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender).
His dad came to Blackpool from Blackburn aged around 11, his mum arrived in her late teens from Radcliffe.
He looks years younger than 43, and went to Roseacre and the then Warbreck schools.
“I was quite heavily involved in the music side there, played in a brass band and was in Blackpool Brass for many years since the age of eight up until about 15 years ago when I got extremely busy with work commitments so it had to take a back seat,” he says with some regret.
He’s always worked in and around garden centres, studied horticulture at Myerscough College then worked for Wyevale until 10 years ago when he went into partnership and bought the land Dahlia’s sits on.
Hobbies? Well Blackpool Pride probably started out as that but like Topsy, it just grew.
“Pride has existed for 10 years but the festival as it is now was formed three years ago,” he says. “It needed a kick up the backside. When you look at what’s going on at Prides throughout the country in major places like Manchester, London, Newcastle and Brighton they are absolutely huge events and really important to the economy of the area, bringing in millions of pounds.
“Blackpool has lagged behind other parts of the country and yet with the LGBT community that it’s got - one of the greatest in the country population wise per square mile - Blackpool should be having an event to match your Manchester and your Brighton Prides.”
So that’s why he got involved and pushed for it to move into the Winter Gardens as a permanent home.
“It started on a car park in Bank Street 10 years ago, went onto North Pier, went up to Dickson Road, then the car park which is now Sainsbury’s, then back to the pier and finally the Winter Gardens,” he says. “I think personally we’ve got everything there - a good iconic building, all the facilities with theatres, a ballroom, the Spanish Hall, bars and we can spill out into St John’s Square. So I think it’s a good home.”
Then there’s the weather.
“In the past it’s always been known as a wet event, so we put it inside and ever since it’s been the hottest weekend in June!”
But heading indoors also meant a boost in attendance.
“Pride numbers had always been around the 3,000 mark,” says Shaun. “This year we topped 8,500 to 10,000 so that’s a huge leap and obviously now it’s got to keep growing and because of that were already getting a lot of interest in the event from sponsors and prospective sponsors.
“Blackpool BID and the council have been very supportive of it and I’ve got companies now coming to me to see how they can get involved instead of me always having to go to them.”
Did he say the council?
“Over the last three years they’ve been 100 per cent supportive,” he says. “The way it was before I don’t know how much they were approached to get involved but these last three years they’ve been extremely supportive particularly Councillor Graham Cain and John Jones, they’ve helped me push the event forward.” But to the uninitiated what is Pride?
“Years ago it was a campaign for equality for the LGBT community. Prides were set up as a way to get that voice across, I suppose you could say it was a protest march to get their voice heard.
“Over the years equality has gradually come through and last year the final piece in the puzzle in England was gay marriage.
“The thing we’ve tried to do with Blackpool Pride is to make it a festival so it’s open not just to the LGBT community, we put family areas in and we’re looking at possibly putting a youth area in, basically we are wanting everybody to get involved in it.”
And it doesn’t stop there.
“Eventually my vision is that we end up with fringe events going on, not just over that weekend but over a week or two weeks, try and encourage people to come into Blackpool not just for one day but for a period of time.”
It’s not all rose petals though.
“Obviously we’ve got equality in England but the world hasn’t got that so there is still a big part of it which is obviously educating people about the likes of Russia, certain parts of America, even Australia which has one of the biggest Mardi Gras in the world.
“Yes, you look at Sydney now, it’s absolutely huge, millions of people go to the Mardi Gras, like some other places it’s become a major part of the economy, bringing people in.
“That’s why Blackpool Council supports it, they can see that it’s got legs and will be an important event on the calendar.
“Manchester had 65,000 attend this year, Newcastle 52,000 over the weekend and an estimated £3.5 million boost to their economy over the two days, so it’s important that people in this town get behind it and support it.
“Blackpool as a whole has always been very supportive to the LGBT community,” says Shaun. “It can be traced back to Blackpool’s heyday when it was full of shows for the summer season, it was always a part of Blackpool so we should be like Brighton when it comes to Pride, we should have the biggest one in the country really - that’s what I’m working on. Think big.”
Plans for next year’s event on June 10 and 11 are well on but, he says: “We are hoping to start on a three to five year plan.
“I want more arts and culture into it because that’s reaching out to a different part of the community, not everyone wants to go into the Winter Gardens on a Saturday afternoon to have a few beers and dance up and down.”
So there’s more to it than just seeing Sonia on stage?
“I’m hoping to be working with Left Coast and the Grundy Art Gallery for LGBT based exhibitions, bringing in artists and sculptures, maybe an LGBT film festival using the Opera House screen.”
He admits combining his two lives can be stressful but adds: “Pride is my release but Dahlia’s comes number one.”
So with everything positive at Dahlia’s and positive at Pride it must be very upsetting to read bad publicity about Blackpool?
“To me, yes. I love Blackpool. I don’t think there’s anywhere else like it.
“Travel round the country and where else can you get what we’ve got in Blackpool – the Pleasure Beach, three piers, the Sandcastle, Tussauds, the Tower, two ballrooms and so on.”
So why does it come in for such a hammering?
“Bad press and seaside resorts go hand in hand. Perhaps it gets a hammering because it’s so successful as a seaside resort.
“If it was Burney or Blackburn would anyone really care? But you say Blackpool and it’s a headline. People talk about Central Drive and multiple occupancy but you can get that in any town or city.
“There are areas like that anywhere in the country, they’re not all upper class areas, they’ve all got the downtrodden streets and shopping areas so I think people don’t look enough at what positives are happening in Blackpool, how it’s changed, how it’s been evolving over the last few years with the new promenade, the town centre attracting more eateries, chain restaurants, bigger brands.
“I’d hope that would make the town centre somewhere that people would go out to again, to eat, stay on longer, I’d hope the chain restaurants will then start to attract more privately owned restaurants.”
A Dahlia’s 2 perhaps?
“In town? Not at the minute, I’ve got enough on my plate. I’d like to at some stage of the future, but not yet.”
But other operators?
“It’s getting more attractive, once you get a solid base of chain restaurants in the town centre people will start travelling in to eat.
“People eat in certain chain restaurants because that’s what they’re used to, people coming in from out of town, they know what they are going to get. Look at Harry Ramsden’s, the name is what they recognise.”
So what needs pushing?
“Its improvements need shouting about more, the promenade, the work that’s been done, the Comedy Carpet – there’s always someone looking at that, we should be shouting more about the positives in the town, we shouldn’t let bad stories pull it down.
“Look what they’ve done with Sainsbury’s where the old Flamingo was.”
If he had a day off in Blackpool where would he spend it?
“Along the promenade. Some nights when we walk the dog along the promenade and look along it - it’s an amazing sight to see, the Illuminations are on, the sunset, the three piers and the Pleasure Beach in the distance, there’s not many seaside resorts where you get that kind of view.
“There’s the hustle and bustle of people, when a lot of other places are well and truly packed up, when the schools go back and most resorts shut down, we’re just starting again.”
So what would he change?
“Some areas of the promenade still need doing – Foxhall to Central Pier, Chapel Street, that stretch there really needs looking at, so many people see that. The council should be looking at it and tidying it up because it pulls down the rest of the work that they’ve done.
“Then there’s the dreaded closed hotels. We keep reading that something is going to be done and nothing is.”
Stags and hens?
“They’re not all that bad. I was in Prague last year and that was full of stag and hen parties but you don’t hear anyone saying don’t go to Prague because it’s full of stag and hens.”
Bar and club zoning then?
“I can’t see how it would work. People will go where they’re going to go. I can understand trying to get the bars in certain areas more family friendly but keeping people away from them is hard to put into practice, people will go where they want to go and businesses – how can you shift them just because they are not in that zone?”
But is Blackpool truly gay friendly?
“I think again with equality the gay scene has really changed, the gay scene as such is dying thing. Younger LGBT people now feel safe because they can be themselves and they can be in Walkabout and Revolution, they don’t need to be behind a closed door.”
A good thing then?
“It’s a good thing for equality but for people who’ve got LGBT venues it’s not a good thing, they’re suffering because they’re not getting the numbers through the doors, they’ve just become like other venues, you go to the Flying Handbag or Flamingo and Kaos, they are all same gay friendly as Walkabout is.”
Extended licensing hours have also added to the change.
“People followed the opening hours. How many nightclubs have you got these days? Businesses have had to change, I used to like the shorter opening hours, when we used to go out you knew the bar shut at 11pm then you moved onto the nightclubs, your body clock told you it was 2am, get a taxi and go home, unless you’d had too much and you’d try and find a hotel somewhere that was doing late drinks.”
Back at Pride, Shaun is hoping to boost its annual ball into a major social diary event.
“I’m hoping for a proper masquerade ball in a proper ballroom,” he says. “Birmingham Pride has its at the NEC because it attracts about 2,500 people.
“Blackpool Pride has been a harder sell because the others are well known and pulling sponsorship from big names but as we are now starting to put our name on the map we’ve already got as much sponsorship now as we got all last year - so it’s becoming an easier sell.”
If it really was his Blackpool?
“I’d like to move it nearer to the sun but I think it’s already one of the best seaside resorts in the country.
“We’ve got the Illuminations which no one else has and I think more should be made of them. A history of electricity and things like that, why haven’t we got a tram museum in Blackpool when for so long we were the only place to operate trams?
“Look at what we’ve got – our two ballrooms, the Opera House, The Grand Theatre – in a small town like this.”
The passion is in his blood. His father worked at the Pleasure Beach for 42 years in charge of signs, animation, props, all the painting (he was the last person to have the Big One painted). Mum was a theatrical costume maker, starting at the Pleasure Beach, then working with the legendary Ray Cornell, later at Funny Girls and currently (in semi retirement) for Thomson cruise ships
“So entertainment is in my blood,” he admits.
And today’s shows?
“Sadly summer season shows are a thing of the past but some of the musicals they’ve started to attract, like Mamma Mia, I think if we can get more of that calibre it will start putting us back on the entertainments map.
“We’ve got the facilities here even though we’ve reduced the amount of theatres in Blackpool.
“I’d like to see more big shows in Blackpool to bring more people in again, tied in with eating and staying.”
Would he come here on holiday?
“Yes, I go to Benidorm so why wouldn’t I come to Blackpool? It’s Blackpool with sun. My partner and I restore classic cars and when we have chance we go off touring the country. We have a driving holiday for a week or so, and like I say, there’s nowhere like here.
“We’ll be in a resort in Wales or down on the South Coast, and there’s nothing to do, so we come back to Blackpool.
“If we came as an outsider there’s so much to do….. just a walk along the promenade is enough to remind you.”
What does Blackpool mean to you?
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