Don’t be fooled by all the initials after her name and the Professor prefacing it.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the 10 day Showzam! festival which ended yesterday, is at heart a show woman.
“And just look at it now,” she declares raising her hands to the heavens of the restored Dome above the Winter Garden.
As academics with an impressive list of credentials go by far Professor Vanessa’s greatest qualification to champion Blackpool rests in her own roots. She is of Morecambe travelling fairground stock. As such she can still deliver a meaningful wink. It’s aimed at me, devil’s advocate on her last hurrah - the tour of the Winter Gardens which has proved such a hit with Showzam! regulars, visitors and residents.
It’s a good few years since we met for the first time here, and I glanced upwards at the greenery sprouting from the roof while Vanessa held forth on her vision for the Winter Gardens restoration. “So you think it can’t be done?” she challenged, hands on hips. In truth, I didn’t. She was one of the pivotal heritage campaigners who talked the council round to recognising the value of heritage even after Blackpool’s bid for world heritage site status had failed.
The Winter Gardens (and Tower, rivals of old) are now under council ownership, a courageous decision given the recession. And as one of the landlords who would still rather like to see the place full I’m delighted to report the greenery is back where it should be – in pots and vases as befits the Palm Court ethos.
Professor Vanessa (the title as much part of her as the exclamation mark punctuating Showzam!) says Morecambe bigwigs joined her tour the other day and had a go at her for forsaking them in favour of Blackpool. “But my heart’s here even if my roots aren’t,” she admits.
She’s a seaside spieler of the old school - all those weighty tomes on the Tower, Winter Gardens, Pleasure Beach and Lights, and academic papers on her National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University, apart. Vanessa introduced Showzam! to Blackpool, sideshows, burlesque, variety, music, circus, magic, mayhem, talks and tours. Now she’s off to sprinkle magic over other social histories at home and abroad leaving the festival in Blackpool’s hands.
Now we just need residents to rediscover the place. Visitors have got the message through Professor Vanessa’s tours. Some, such as Sally and Tony Martin and teenage sons Joby and Tristan, have headed here just for Showzam! as they have for the last three years. They pose for pictures behind the cut-outs of Pineapple Jack in the foyer. “There’s nowhere like Blackpool and nothing like Showzam!” enthuses Sally. “And Professor Vanessa is a marvel, a real superwoman.”
Locals agree. Heritage champion and official Blackpool tour guide Abigail George is among them and ready to take over such tours in her own right. “Vanessa’s brilliant.” John Bough, one of Blackpool’s great Cuban solidarity campaigners now crusades for more community access to the Winter Gardens to build for the future.
Marjorie Nye, Blackpool Civic Trust member, would like a campaign to restore the pretty Pavilion Theatre, the pocket theatre within the Winter Gardens, to former glory. It’s little more than the facade of a theatre at present – bricked up just beyond the curtain, dressing rooms which once accommodated Eric and Ernie and Sarah Bernhardt, if not at the same time, long gone.
Professor Vanessa reckons it would cost £20-£25m to do that, and given we’ve got “Britain’s most beautiful theatre” in the form of the Grand, why not keep the Pavilion’s features but focus on the Winter Gardens’ glass house roots as our own Crystal Palace?
The tour goes on, each feature light, maple and cherry panel, tile, bas relief babe, drape, plush upholstered chair, reported with reverence. It’s a surreal stroll through the imagination of generations of architects, a Narnia of our own, with surprises at every turn, such as the nouveau-style muses newly revealed after 40 years under cover of panels - or the decapitated head (an actor’s prop) swinging in the gothic fireplace of the Baronial Hall.
As Vanessa draws attention to the chandeliers above the Empress Ballroom I chat to the reigning British Latin American dance champ Rachael Heron who’s putting two young dancers through their paces below.
“This place is magic,” “But it’s dancing that really brings it to life...”