Britain’s First Photo Album has been 150 years in the making. That’s how long it’s been since a young pioneering Victorian photographer set about snapping all the towns, cities and villages of Britain.
His name was Francis Frith and any Blackpool historian will tell you that this resort – Victorian England’s definitive playground – figured large on his landscape.
Today another fairly nifty mover is out to take over from where Frith left off. TV presenter John Sergeant, togged out in the kind of kit Francis would have worn, has hit the road – with his own camera and umpteen more tagging along for the ride.
Britain’s First Photo Album starts on BBC 2 at 6.30pm tonight (Monday). It’s a 10-part series, a photographic odyssey, John putting his quirky stamp on the images of old from the Francis Frith Archive in each 30-minute episode airing weekdays until March 23.
Blackpool is featured a week tomorrow, March 20. It promises to be the highlight of the series – and a marvellous accompanying book now out (published by the Francis Frith Collection/www.francisfrith.com, £20).
Frith and his team of top notch photographers captured the masses having fun, milling around, dressed as smartly for play as they would for church, always a hat on the head, buttoned up in their Sunday best, for it was an era when people promenaded, whether in the park, the fun park, or the Prom itself.
And Blackpool brought out the best in its visitors. We had it all, even then, as the Frith shots show, the Tower, the North Pier, the Big Wheel. Time and again you find yourself double checking dates because, bar the clothes and what passed for Shared Space then, Blackpool hasn’t taken the hammering other towns have from bombers – or planners – since.
John strolled the beach with Blackpool Council’s archivist Tony Sharkey to see where so many famous shots were taken, particularly of the Tower shortly after it opened.
The local historian lauds the skill behind the photograph. “The photo emphasises the height and grandeur of the tower.” Frith achieves much the same with the original Big Wheel in 1896 from a bird’s eye viewpoint – although that Wheel proved a financial disaster, unpopular because of the stop-starts for people boarding or disembarking.
Tony adds: “The Frith collection is undoubtedly one of national importance. Images are often of a high quality and it is clear that great pride was taken in them. Their scope and range was enormous. Their images are well known to historians. Quite apart from the valuable record they give us they have become part of our social history.”
Other pictures show crowds milling around the Pleasure Beach – and the early thrill rides which drew them. Including Sir Hiram Maxim’s Flying Machine which is still going strong to this day. Pleasure Beach company secretary and director David Cam met up with John to show him the park and archives – and to pose for a picture and take part in the programme. “I think both Frith and John enjoyed their visits here – although it was the producer who actually took the picture of me,” David adds.
Off camera as well as on, John owns up to a soft spot for Blackpool and says the resort’s back on the up and up.
He tells me: “I visited Blackpool every summer as a political correspondent for more than 20 years in the 1980s and 90s. So coming back for Photo Album was quite emotional.
“It brought back a host of memories, of encounters with Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown. But also of the town itself.
“It seems much more prosperous than it was.
“Blackpool in those years really did seem a bit ‘end of the pier’, with its glory days long past. But now it has a spring in its step.
“British holidays are making more financial sense and Blackpool can more than ever offer a good day out for all the family.
“ I was surprised and pleased at what I found, even if I had to decline a trip on the biggest of the big dippers. Some things just have to wait for another time...”
n The Francis Frith Collection contains over 365,000 photographs depicting 7,000 towns and villages throughout Britain. www.francisfrith.com
n Audiences are also being encouraged to visit bbc.co.uk/photoalbum to learn more and search for related events taking place from Saturday (March 17). The events will be coordinated by BBC Learning in partnership with museums, libraries and historical societies.