‘Blackpool has proved it’s the home of variety’

Royal Variety Performance at the Opera House, Blackpool Winter Gardens.'The Queen and Prince Philip arrive. PIC BY ROB LOCK
Royal Variety Performance at the Opera House, Blackpool Winter Gardens.'The Queen and Prince Philip arrive. PIC BY ROB LOCK
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Households up and down the nation settled down in front of their TVs on Monday night for the annual spectacular that is the Royal Variety Performance.

It’s been five years since the legendary show was filmed at Blackpool’s majestic Opera House, with the Queen in attendance.

Among the many famous images from that fantastic night, December 7 2009, was that of the Queen meeting eccentric pop star Lady Gaga.

At the time organisers claimed a return to the resort would be on the cards.

But it has yet to materialise, with the past three years’ performances taking place in London.

The event marked its 100th anniversary in 2012 at the Royal Albert Hall, and the London Palladium has played host this and last year.

Giles Cooper, the chairman of the Entertainment Artiste’s Benevolent Fund, which organises the event, said a return visit to Blackpool was always a possibility – but organisers’ hands are tied by the Royal family’s schedules.

“Blackpool is the home of variety and we would, because of that, love to come back,” he said.

“The Queen always requests that we go outside of London in the years when she attends, and she absolutely loved coming to Blackpool.”

This year’s show, filmed on November 13, was attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for the first time.

And even before the broadcast on Monday night, plans were already under way for next year’s event.

First confirmed is the availability of the royal family. In recent years, as well as the Queen, the Prince of Wales and Princess Royal have also attended.

“It’s very much up to the Palace who is available,” Mr Cooper said. “The Queen is slightly reducing the amount of events she does, but is still the sole patron of the Royal Variety charity and as such she’s still very much involved.

“She will still attend the show for special occasions, but it’s not something we can plan quite the same way as we used to.

“And the younger royals are increasingly busy, so fitting in the performance in the regions is not easy.”

The added travel for a show outside of London makes the planning more difficult too.

“When the Queen came to Blackpool, she came by train in the royal carriage and was parked in a siding,” Mr Cooper added. “She was here taking almost two full days out of her diary, and because of that it’s slightly more complicated to make it happen in the regions.

“Last year, when Charles and Camilla attended, they could only do London – and that’s just an evening out in the schedule.”

Once the royal attendance is confirmed, organisers can make

their approach to venues – whether in the capital or not.

Since 1999 the Royal Variety Performance has regularly taken place outside of London – with the North West getting the lion’s share, as shows came from Liverpool Empire, in 2007, the Opera House in 2009 and The Lowry theatre at Salford in 2011.

Other cities to host have included Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

“The Opera House is brilliant for us as it’s so huge,” Mr Cooper added, with the large audience capacity boosting the charity’s coffers through ticket sales.

“There are only a few cities which can host an event of our size, and we have been to them. Without going to an arena we are limited.

“And Blackpool has one of the best theatres in the world, as far as we’re concerned, in the Opera House.”

As the home of variety in the UK, Blackpool’s own stars are also able to shine on the night.

Among those who took to the stage in Blackpool was comedian Roy Walker and the late Frank Carson was in attendance.

And host for the night – self-confessed Blackpool fan – Peter Kay made a big entrance on the Opera House’s Wurlitzer organ.

The Blackpool Opera House has the honour of being the only venue outside of London to have hosted the show twice – and was the first regional host back in 1955, followed by Manchester’s Palace Theatre in 1959.

The massive logistics of staging the Royal Variety in the regions does not just fall to the Entertainment Artiste’s Benevolent Fund’s team.

Staff at the Winter Gardens worked for up to 18 months behind the scenes to prepare for the 2009 broadcast, under the watch of complex manager Michael Williams.

“What set us apart, for the production team and artists, is that when they are in other venues, there’s not one place with the facilities all under one roof,” he explained. “Shuttling artists from rehearsal rooms, to dining facilities and the theatre is something they don’t have to do here.”

The artists’ green room, for relaxing between rehearsals and during filming, was in the Empress Ballroom, including catering in the balcony, while the arena hosted catering for the production and broadcast staff, and the Spanish Hall was used for a 750-person three-course dinner after-show party.

And there can’t be many theatres in the country equipped to fly in Lady Gaga on a swing to play a 20-foot-high piano on stilts, fit in waltz maestro Andre Rieu’s orchestra and dancers, and strong enough to have Miley Cyrus drive on to the stage in an American truck.

Despite the mammoth task, there is no doubt in Mr Williams’ mind that should the call come again to host the show that the Winter Gardens his answer would be ‘yes’.

“Logistically, it was a massive task,” Mr Williams added. “But there was such a great sense of achievement and pride for the team to have been part of that.

“From the moment people started arriving, to when the Queen was greeted by fanfare, through to the finale, it went without a hitch and we delivered a fantastic night for Blackpool

“It was 54 years between the two performances from the Opera House, which were both attended by the Queen, but we hope we don’t have to wait so long again to welcome her back.”

No stranger to spectacular stage shows, Blackpool Pleasure Beach managing director Amanda Thompson was in the audience for the show, and met the Queen on her arrival at the Winter Gardens.

She said: “Having the Royal Variety Performance back in Blackpool five years ago was wonderful for the profile of the resort, and was a proud moment for us all. It would be fabulous if Blackpool had the opportunity to host this prestigious annual event again in the future.”

And Gazette readers remember the event fondly too, despite the wet and cold conditions on the night.

Michelle Bostock said: “I stood out with four kids waiting for the Queen.

“They had all made Christmas cards for her, but unfortunately she was running late and was ushered straight inside.

“I sent the cards on to London in the post explaining that we didn’t get to hand them over and we got a lovely reply. Disappointing that we didn’t see her that well, but pleased that we got a letter from the Palace.

“Would love to see it here again but maybe not during the cold, dark winter nights.”

And for Marjorie Taylor it was a last minute treat for her family. She said: “We had a great family night, sat at the back of the stalls as we got a late opportunity to get tickets after being told they were all allocated.

“It was certainly value for money – Peter Kay an hilarious compère, Andre Rieu and Michael Buble plus Bette Midler and Lady Gaga. Where else could we have seen them and more?”

Elizabeth Tax said it was ‘a wonderful show’ having been surprised with tickets by her children, and Barbara Lumb had a ‘night to remember’ courtesy of her son’s treat.

Linda Astley was another of the lucky ticket holders, and said: “It was a great night, good for the town. I would definitely buy tickets again; it was worth every penny. We had seats in the circle and were very lucky and had a great view of the Queen.”