Prince of the piers

THERE'S no shortage of fresh air at North Pier. It comes right off the sea – bracing breezes which buffet you into a sense of well-being, restore that holiday feeling. Even when you're not.

A new boss has arrived like a breath of fresh air. Paul Fairclough, northern operations director for Six Piers, includes Blackpool's three piers among his network of 13 attractions.

He spends 90 per cent of his working time here and also brings his own family here most weekends to enjoy all that Blackpool has to offer.

The piers are closest to his heart as a Liverpudlian who used to visit as a lad with his parents, and North Pier, as the most historic of the trio, is particularly special to him.

Paul is piloting all three piers to a brighter future, under Six Piers control, and, even in recession, the emphasis is on reinvestment and reinvention.

Each has a distinct identity. Central has the Big Wheel and hit show Legends, which has become the one must-see show of each season for visitors.

South has the all the fun of the fair but with none of the fiver admission charged by the Pleasure Beach over the road. Now it also has more space as Central will, in time, thanks to the new headlands provided by sea defence works.

The newly extended areas flanking both piers come under Paul's command and he's

already considering what will be provided there.

"You've got to give people reasons to come here and we've got a tremendous opportunity to make the most of the additional space on both sides of South and – ultimately – Central Piers."

Meantime, at North Pier, he's consolidating what the pier does best ... offering tranquil time out as well as entertainment day and night.

The Petulengro family now have three outlets on the pier – the gypsy fortune telling booth, the ice cream parlour and the diner.

Sarah Petulengro admits: "Paul's made a huge difference since coming here. You can really see the pier going places now."

One of the first visible signs of change is the new-look cafe, with part of it transformed into a plush reading room-cum-coffee lounge with throws on sofas and a well equipped mini library.

It looks like the set of Friends. The One Where They Go To The Seaside?

Jo and Brian Farris, from Bolton, are enjoying a latte and a library book when we drop by.

"We love this pier," says Jo. "We've escaped from the roadworks and upheaval outside and it's warm and welcoming and the new look is lovely."

Brian's a heritage buff, first came here in 1946, and likes the fact the makeover is preserving the traditional appeal of North Pier.

"This is the oldest pier, and the most beautiful," he adds. "It needs to be taken into the 21st century but without losing its inherent charm. It's a fabulous place, really."

David Windle is one of Paul's secret weapons about to be unveiled in time for the next bank holiday weekend. He's an organist, not just any organist, but a classically trained, former cathedral organist, who can play Widor .. and the Wurlitzer .. with the best of them.

And he's moving into the Sun Lounge, at the end of the pier, just past the carousel, and opposite North Pier theatre, where the stage, and lights, and many of the seats have been refurbished, in preparation for a new season offering a faster turn round and more variety of acts than ever before.

David and fellow guest organist Michael Conrad is taking over from where Raymond Wallbank, now 75 and retired, left off – in entertaining the sunseekers who flock to the Lounge.

It's currently the domain of amorous pigeons and courting couples and some restful pensioners who realise it's a suntrap away from the cutting edge of the wind.

Geoff and Kathleen Williams are over from the North East with Geoff's mum Joan and their daughter Pauline Hewitt, staying at the Norbreck Castle Hotel and thrilled with their Monday to Friday for less 100 deal.

Blackpool's still good value, Joan maintains, and, from her wheelchair vantage point, the Sun Lounge is just the place to be ... when an organist is playing.

"It'll be like the good old days," she adds. "The place needs to get a bit of life to it."

Organist David will be playing twice daily, from 11.30am and 2.30pm, Sunday to Friday, with Saturday reserved for live jazz.

He aims to jolly things up with some stirring tunes and popular programmes with some light classics thrown in for good measure and requests. He's installing a Yahama FX 20 organ on the stage shortly, an organ capable of packing a powerful punch and producing sounds similar to a cathedral or theatre organ but at a fraction of the size.

"I'm really keen to get people requesting music," says the man who used to work as Ronnie Hilton's musical director and who arranges music as well. He's also worked with the Coronation Street cast 12 piece orchestra - charity gigs and recordings for the actors' charities.

"This is a great chance for me to entertain people and enjoy myself too - and the daily walk will help keep me fit," adds the 51-year-old.

His partner's a singer and they hope to theme some events, singalongs and concerts, to other features in Blackpool, such as veterans' week in June.

Then there's ops chief Paul's other secret weapon – giant hanging baskets! The North Pier display won last year's Blackpool in Bloom event and Paul is keen to build on that success this season but this time with the support of local schools.

"If you can involve the people of Blackpool with Blackpool attractions, half of the battle's won because so many of them don't come into town, or go on the pier, or see a show any more.

"And if I can encourage children to get involved, and feel part of things, here, it gives them ownership of the pier – and they are the visitors of the future.

"Face it, so many of us come here today because we were brought here as children. Even if it didn't quite sink in at that time, it registers since ... and we find ourselves doing the same with our kids, and having a genuine affection for Blackpool."

Paul admits he has a passion for the town. He's determined to make a go of the piers and is particularly keen to preserve the once-threatened North Pier Theatre.

Psychic shows, demonstration darts, tributes (Abba, Beatles, Queen and more), they're all there with the comedians, the ubiquitous Bachelors and more. And, like Freddie Starr, back after lambasting Blackpool last time out, they know a good thing when they see one...

The last word goes to Paul: "I don't see this as a job, I see it as an opportunity."