Putting Blackpool in the right light on screen

The Promenade at Blackpool -  landmarks and light make this a prime screen location
The Promenade at Blackpool - landmarks and light make this a prime screen location
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They say all publicity is good publicity.

But that wasn’t the case when Blackpool came under the small screen spotlight in the autumn of 2012, when Channel 4 screened 999: What’s Your Emergency? in the resort.

While praise was laid on the hard-working police, fire and ambulance crews in the area, there was huge controversy over the portrayal of the resort’s darker side – right in the middle of the peak Illuminations season.

A drop in trade and cancelled visits were attributed to the show, and hoteliers and tourism businesses fought hard to regain Blackpool’s reputation as a fun and safe place for families to visit.

Blackpool Council’s media group, comprising representatives from the resort’s tourism and business community, was formed in the aftermath of the show in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the experience.

At the time, the council itself admitted it could not have stopped 999: What’s Your Emergency? being filmed, and no permission was sought locally from the production company as it worked with the 999 teams. But it was deemed that better control could be taken in the future.

That’s not put anyone off attempting to come here to film – in 2014 requests for filming soared and 62 filming permissions were granted, almost doubling 2013’s 36 instances. Just 13 requests were turned down, compared to 16 in 2013 – and only two of those proceeded to go against the media group’s decision.

“It’s brilliant that more than 60 positive things were filmed in Blackpool last year, but for me the most important figure is what we refused and especially that only two went on to ignore us,” said Sarah Rhodes who leads the media group and handles all filming requests on behalf of Blackpool Council.

“There’s no law in place to stop crews filming in a public place, but their experience is bound to be a better one if welcoming accommodation can be recommended and parking made easy, among other things.

“It’s less attractive to the producers when the partners in Blackpool say no, and that’s what the media group is about – we say ‘yes’ as a group and ‘no’ as a group.

“Sometimes the response from producers will be ‘well, we’ll go to so and so then’ as an alternative, and I’ll contact them straight away and explain the situation.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time the location managers or scouts will move on to the next town.”

One of the two rejected requests which went on to film in town, regardless of the media group’s decision, was Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole for Channel 5, looking at unemployed people in Blackpool and how they use their benefits.

The producers distributed leaflets looking for ‘larger than life characters’, just a week after the Lights season came to an end, with the leaflet saying: “Are you an unemployed or a seasonal worker struggling to make ends meet? Channel 5 is making a new programme looking at seasonal work and unemployment in seaside towns.

“We are offering individuals and families the chance to speak about their personal experiences.”

But businesses responded, after being informed of the show’s intentions – sending a clear message to ‘Stay out of our town’, especially after the success of last year’s bumper summer season.

At the time, Coun Graham Cain, cabinet member for tourism and leisure, said the council had “chosen not to co-operate with” the programme, and added: “while the issues it appears to be filming are not unique to Blackpool we do not think it will be positive for the town to be highlighted in this way.

“It is always a worry when vulnerable people take part in TV programmes like this as they rarely result in a positive outcome for them. In the case of 999: What’s your Emergency? there were a few people whose problems were made much worse once the show was aired and they were publicly known.

“Throughout the year we work closely with lots of production companies that want to come to Blackpool and portray the resort in a positive way.”

The ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ of approving or declining a request is not always about Blackpool being portrayed in a bad light, Sarah explained, adding that it’s more important the media group judge what the town has to gain from the opportunity.

“Everybody remembers the bad experiences with TV,” she said.

“That’s why we work to embrace the positive. We have to keep working together to ensure the negative doesn’t happen.”

While working with many of the town’s businesses and attractions, there’s little the group can do when producers go direct to individuals, as was the case with Channel 5’s Benefits Britain.

“It’s always interesting to find what people think after they appear on screen. That’s what really tells the tale, especially when it’s in a show we had said no to,” Sarah added.

“While we can make decisions, when it comes to private individuals it’s their choice if they want to appear.”

One very public refusal last year was to MTV reality show Geordie Shore, turned down as it was to focus heavily on the ‘stags and hens’ drinking culture through the eyes of the show’s party-hard stars.

“It didn’t do any harm saying no,” said Sarah.

“It sent out a message and no-one criticised it. Yes, it was prime time but it just doesn’t fit with Blackpool as a family resort.”

Whether to approve a request or not can often be based on what the perceived benefits are to Blackpool, not just the subject matter.

Even when a filming request is approved, the media group keeps an element of control over how things will proceed and how Blackpool is portrayed on screen, vetting scripts and direction notes ahead of shooting.

Sarah explained: “It’s always our concern with reality-type documentaries that there’s no editorial control.

“With a soap or a film we ask to see the script and go through it with a fine toothcomb. We will say yes, but more often than not there’s something we’ll ask to have changed.

“It might even be something as relatively minor as a detail in the background of a scene, not necessarily what the focus of it is.

“We want to work with people, as at the end of the day, it benefits everybody.”

Blackpool Council’s assistant chief executive Alan Cavill says the media group’s work is important for the town and local businesses.

He said: “Since the group was established to discuss filming requests we have a really positive response from Blackpool businesses.

“They appreciate being kept in the loop and it also gives them an insight into the lengths the council will go to when protecting the image of the town and in terms of their businesses.

“Any decision we make is in the best interests of the town’s residents and businesses – they are the ones who benefit from good coverage.

“By promoting the positive aspects of Blackpool as much as possible, that can help bring trade and money in to the town, which ultimately ends up in the pockets of local people, either through people directly being employed in the related industries or by companies investing in the resort.”

The BBC’s move to Salford, and subsequent developments at Media City, have been a massive reason for the boost in requests for Blackpool.

With the Beeb’s children’s offerings now being based in the North West, Blackpool has an automatic appeal for the family market.

And while many of the requests are made because of the town’s celebrated skyline and Promenade, creating a dramatic backdrop on location, many TV professionals also choose Blackpool because of the quality of light here which works well on camera.

Sarah added: “Filming has always been massive here.

“We have some really big projects in the pipeline which are really positive.

“Whether it’s an ITV drama or soap, or CBBC or Ant and Dec – they did Saturday Night Takeaway on the Prom a couple of years ago – everybody benefits – it’s another good advert for Blackpool.

“The publicity we get from filming is increasing and in the main it is incredibly positive.”