‘It’s a music festival for the whole family’

A Certain Ratio
A Certain Ratio
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Once upon a time there was a chap called Michael Eavis who hit upon the idea of the Glastonbury Festival.

It seemed quite a stretch for a bloke who worked as a dairy farmer but 40 odd years later, Glastonbury is one of the biggest music bashes on the planet and Time magazine lists Eavis in the top 100 most influential people in the world.

Now it’s unlikely Mark Davis, a very affable 44-year-old from Bispham, will turn out to have the same impact upon British society, but he does have some similarities to Eavis – namely he is the organiser of a festival that is growing in size each year, and one which is starting to put Blackpool on the music map.

Davis is a DJ by trade.

He’s always been into music that’s a bit left of centre, like house, and began promoting events in the town at the end of the 90s.

He’s performed his DJ set all over Europe and was doing very nicely for himself.

Then a few years ago he took his sons, Joel and Samuel, to a music event called Camp Bestival and realised there was something important lacking.

“When we went to the main stage there was absolutely nothing for the kids to do,” he said.

“They were bored so I never got to see the acts because I was too busy keeping them entertained.”

An idea struck. How about a festival that provided music for the adults and fun for the kids, a mini-Glastonbury if you like?

He went ahead and did it. Basing it at Blackpool Cricket Club at Stanley Park and calling it Alfresco after an old outdoor club night he used to run, a few hundred turned up the first year.

But he persevered, booked better acts, spent more time publicising the event, and this year more than 4,000 revellers are expected, with many travelling from outside the resort.

He gets no financial help and organises everything himself.

And it’s taking up so much of his time that he has just quit his job as a DJ.

“I had a residency at a club in Leeds and I drove there every weekend and didn’t get home until 6 in the morning,” he said.

“With a festival to organise it was just getting too much, so I thought it was time to call it a day.

“I’m still going to do the odd DJ appearance here and there – in fact I am at a club called The Heavenly Social in London at the weekend for an Alfresco warm-up event – but I am now concentrating solely on the festival.”

Which indicates just show successful Alfresco has become.

Mark wouldn’t quit his job if it wasn’t working.

But it is, so much so that he is getting offers to take it elsewhere, to other towns and cities.

“It’s something I’ll look at but I want the main event to be in Blackpool. That is important to me because I am a born and bred local lad who went to Warbreck High (now Unity),” he said.

“I don’t think we have a credible festival here. There was the indoor thing at the Winter Gardens before Christmas (Blackpool Rocks, part organised by Radio One DJ Danny Howard), which was fantastic. But it was aimed at a younger audience. I want Alfresco to be the established family festival that puts Blackpool on the map.”

So down to the nitty gritty. How does it work?

Well the whole event is held on the cricket pitch, an area, according to Mark, licensed to hold a crowd of 17,000.

At the moment he has a limit of 4,000, for sensible reasons.

“It gives us more room to have all the artists doing their stuff and the different stages – a main stage, a marquee, and a hip-hop stage. And most importantly it just feels more spacious and safe for the kids in that environment,” he explained.

“If we sold 8,000 tickets we’d be in a scenario where you’d be following your kids around all day, and that would go against the whole point of what the day is about.”

Ensuring it’s suitable for the kids is something Mark is passionate about.

“It’s why the cricket club is the perfect venue because it is literally a level playing field, so parents can chill and watch the music and the kids are all supervised and safe,” he said.

“The thing that makes us unique is that everything is free for the kids, so they are happy all day.

“We don’t allow anyone to charge for any acitivities on the day. That’s our big selling point. If you go anywhere in Blackpool it is always £2 for this and £2 for that. So instead, I pay all the entertainers a daily rate and that way the kids get to do everything for free.

“It also allows the adults to just enjoy the music.”

This year’s event, which takes place on Sunday May 25, when for the first time festival-goers will be able to camp at the venue, features an impressive line up, with the likes of A Certain Ratio, Mr Scruff, Andrew Weatherall and Chris Duckinfield – all big names – on the bill.

The family element even applies to the acts.

“I make it clear to the artists what the day is all about and on the main stage there will not be anything that causes offence,” said Mark.

“I have to be careful because when you describe something as family or child freindly, some people might get the idea it’s some kind of teddy-bears picnic.

“It’s not. This is a proper music festival with some fantastic acts, it just so happens that it’s perfect to bring the kids to as well.”

And there is an extra element this year.

A art festival in Bristol called Upfest, scheduled for the same weekend as Alfresco, has been cancelled.

“Loads of people are coming to Blackpool instead, so this year it will be as much about the art as the music. We have some world class artists coming, doing some big pieces on the day,” added Mark.

What he could do with now, to save him some fretting, is local people booking their tickets early.

“Blackpool folk always seem to leave it till the last minute,” he said.

“For instance we’ve sold more tickets in London – 1,600 – than we have in Blackpool so far.

“Last year we sold more tickets in the week before the festival than we did the previous six months, and then on the day another 700 people paid as well.

“That is great, obviously, but hopefully people will get their tickets a little earlier this time.”

With this year’s line up completed, Mark has turned his attention to Alfresco 2015 and reckons he’s already booked more than 50 per cent of the line up.

“I have to keep planning ahead and keep on top of it, because it is a festival which is now getting national recognition and growing,” he said.

“My wish next year and the following year is that it sells out in advance, just like the major festivals.

“And the idea is that in the future we can expand it by adding lots of other little stages and embracing different kinds of music and cultures – so it becomes a proper Blackpool festival.

“If people want to call it a mini-Glastonbury then that’s fine by me.

“I feel very proud that it has grown the way it has and become a recognised event that is drawing people into the town.

“I am very protective of Blackpool at the moment because I think it gets a lot of bad press. And the one reaction I am getting from people out of town is that they are quite shocked we’ve been able to do something like this in Blackpool.

“If we just wanted to put on a festival and have your Olly Murs, Radio One type characters, well then we’d be rammed and Blackpool would be the best place for it.

“But to try and put on underground music to this size is quite difficult. But we’ve managed it and that is hugely rewarding.”

Watch out Michael Eavis, there’s a new kid on the block.

*Tickets for Alfresco 2014 are available from www.skiddle.com/festivals/Alfresco with prices for adults £15 and special offers on child and family tickets. For more information about the festival head to www.facebook.com/AlfrescoFamilyEvents