When Blackpool began its quest to get on the “tentative list” for World Heritage Site Status five years ago many laughed – taking it for an April Fool’s joke. The timing didn’t help. The town hall sent out the press release on April 1.
No-one’s sniggering now, not with the restoration of the Winter Gardens, The Tower under new management, and a whole series of events, under the heading Showzam, celebrating the resort’s rich entertainment heritage, and tempting more to come to town through Blackpool’s festival of circus, magic and new variety.
Art and design historian Caroline Hall and Sheffield University academic Prof Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive, the driving force, as founder and now creative adviser, behind Showzam, didn’t laugh either. The resort’s case is second to none, both reckon.
Caroline worked at Ironbridge, a world heritage site, and took that expertise into work with Blackpool Council’s heritage team. Since May she’s been involved in a project funded by Sheffield University, working with Pleasure Beach archivist and leading local historian Ted Lightbown.
Vanessa, of fairground stock, grew up in Morecambe, and came to Blackpool to see what her mum loftily referred to as ‘The Other Park’.
“It was a novelty because I had to pay to go on the rides and didn’t at home,” she recalls.
Her favourites were the rollercoasters. Nowhere else boasts such a comprehensive collection of traditional and modern coasters, she adds. Including the Wild Mouse, built in the ’50s, one of just three in the world.
The design of the ride stations, twists and curves of the park’s skyline, fired her imagination, as much as the thrill of the chase of technological innovations.
Tonight, Vanessa’s new pictorial history is launched at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Second in a trilogy, the first on the Winter Gardens, the third to come on Blackpool Tower. Mind, heart and soul, as she puts it.
While the Winter Gardens engages her as an academic, the Pleasure Beach is “THE labour of love,” heartfelt passion pouring into her portrait of its origins, development, enduring appeal. In family hands, it remains one of the cherished cornerstones of tourism.
It took Vanessa a month to pen Blackpool Pleasure Beach – More Than Just An Amusement Park, thanks to unprecedented access to all areas of owners, the Thompson family, archives.
Vanessa was struck by managing director Amanda’s likeness to her grandmother, great matriach of the clan, the late Doris Thompson, widow of the late Leonard, who built on William Bean’s vision for an American-style amusement park. Tellingly, it was the Pleasure Beach Walt Disney’s men visited in the 1950s to see how the Brits stayed ahead of the game (Disneyland would come in 1955).
Vanessa drew upon the meticulous research of archivist Ted, with assistance from Caroline, to weave a rich and seamless social history from pictures, posters, costumes, props, blueprints, and other artefacts. The park’s creative director Anthony Johns brings the story up-to-date in pictures.
Vanessa’s passion for the Pleasure Beach enables the rest of us to see it with new eyes, revisit the legacy of the golden years, the 1930s in particular. Three of the finest exponents of design of the age, helped fulfil Leonard’s vision for a venue which was “more than just an amusement park”.
Architect Joseph Emberton, who helped pioneer the “total artwork” ethos in European Modernist architecture, applied his skills to buildings.
Tom Purvis, greatest and most influential British poster designer of the 20th century, designed Ice Drome Jack, later used as the model for Mr Funshine, and even the children’s menu at the Casino.
The family lured Royal Mint artist Percy Metcalfe to fashion fabulous cubist creatures for the rebuilding of resident artist Walter Bernasconi’s Noah’s Ark in 1936, new River Caves entrance, and costumes for the ice shows.
Today, under Amanda and brother Nick’s lead, supported by innovative architect sister Fiona, there’s another first to come - Nickelodeon Land. The last word goes to Amanda Thompson: “It is always our intention to exceed people’s expectations.”
n Blackpool Pleasure Beach: More Than Just An Amusement Park, by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, commissioned by Blackpool Council (Boco Publishing, £25) from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Tourist Information Centres, and, from Friday, Showzam Central at the Olympia Building).