Welcome to Blackpool’s Big One Hundred. The centenary of the Illuminations.
The austerity Lights? Not judging by the show to spotlight what’s to come – the preview at Lightworks depot.
As tourism portfolio holder Coun Graham Cain declares: “We listened to our critics – and we acted.”
So after a lacklustre showing last year the full six miles are back and shining bright from August 31.
Staffing levels at the “imagineering” department has been cut in recent years but Coun Cain says the centenary display will be “installed on time.”
The council is investing in additional security to deter cable thieves who left some sections in darkness last year.
There are 15 brand new features, including illuminated urban (street) art tableaux. “We played police sirens to speed up the artists,” quips Lights manager Richard Ryan.
There are Centenary Heads, faces in Lights: for £100 you can join them.
Children’s favourites from Nickelodeon. A canny corridor of lights leading off the Prom to Brilliance on Birley Street.
Designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, creative “curator” of the Lights, has designed signs to showcase themes – and added new features.
There are 11 restored favourites, major overhauls, some brought out of retirement, others mothballed too long. The Rocket tram will have pride of place on Gynn Island, a 1970s astronaut above. Bispham’s swinging bears have been blinged by L-Bo (Laurence) so no longer scare kiddies as they relay road safety messages.
Switch-on’s August 31. It’s going to be free, says Coun Cain, in spite of talk of charging. It will be on Tower Festival Headland.
“Contingencies are in place” if inclement weather threatens the party. No-one wants Rocket Tram to suffer Rocket Man’s fate.
Coun Cain adds: “This will be the show of shows, I’m passionate about it. I’m hands on. I’m at this depot every fortnight.”
No resort does Lights like Blackpool does Lights.
Gratifying turn out of telly and press, even the revered Radio Four hanging on L-Bo’s every word. Marketing Blackpool’s managing director Natalie Wyatt is delighted.
She points out there are two illuminated crowns, courtesy of our Lights, over Wellington Arch, handy for the Olympics, even if we can’t cash in on the “brand.”
For first timers it’s sensory overload, the newly restored Haunted House pumping out There’s a Ghost in My House while visitors park in the overspill area, opposite the innards of the Rocket tram. We don’t get to meet the heritage tram champions who have worked on the Rocket’s restoration. Or the Kirkham Open prisoners who have worked on the Jubilee tram. Or the local kids who helped out with the artwork for the latter. Nine local youngsters have also worked on a giant interactive sign for North Pier.
The council’s arts officers have mucked in. “Engineers and artists, we’re like oil and water,” says Richard, “yet it works.”
Smart booted suited corporate types sheepishly follow Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob Squarepants on to the coffee in which they can’t partake – not with foam rubber hands. But they high five passers-by who pass their illuminated counterparts.
Pleasure Beach managing director Amanda Thompson and deputy MD Nick look tempted to do the same. It’s a nice tie-in, Nickelodeon Lights tableau opposite the fun park’s themed attraction. “I couldn’t be more pleased,” says Amanda. “It’s what Blackpool needs, Children will love it.”
Not that she ever liked old children’s favourites the Daleks. “I hated anything to do with Dr Who.”
L-Bo (Llewelyn Bowen) courteously addresses SpongeBob as Robert and shake hands, blinding onlookers with blingalicious cufflinks which make the Mirrorball look understated. He intends to present a “cold buffet of Lights delights, an explosion of colour and light and entertainment as an antidote to what is turning into a grey scary year.”
He also denies the blue-chinned cherub added to his newly tarted up Theatre d’Amour is based on Lights chief Richard.
Heritage, says L-Bo, has long been used as a “tool of snobbery”.
“In fact it’s about people’s lives, your’s and mine, our parents, their parents before.”
Walk the Lights and you make your own history. “Don’t forget the chips,” adds L-Bo.
The Friends of the Illuminations are out in force to make the penny drop.
Hotelier Shirley Hunt will go on the knock to local businesses to drum up funds. Coun Cain warns the council “cannot continue to do this alone.”
The Friends have plenty of friends in cyber space but need hard cash too.
“Mention the Lights and people think council and go on about yellow lines and iffy parking systems,” says the gloriously irreverential Richard.
“We need Friends. They care.”
One influential friend is Prof Vanessa Toulmin whose fourth and final Blackpool book, on the Lights, is out on November 5. One of her finds is Emilios Hatjoullis, who helped design the Lights in the ‘60s – then left to work on the Beano’s Baby-Face Finlayson.
There is a similar quantum career leap for former Imperial Hotel general manager Alison Gilmore who has retrained as an electrician. She now has her own business, Bright Girl Electrics.
Her first major contract – to supervise the lighting rigs installations on Blackpool Tower for MPM North West, the firm carrying out the £6m refurb there.
Hands-on work as the paint on her hands proves. “It’s played havoc with my nails too,” she admits. “But it’s worth it. The only way is up.”
Let’s hope the same goes for Blackpool.