Council boss defends turn out for ‘smashing’ switch-on

Blackpool Illuminations Switch-On 2013 on the Tower Festival Headland.
Blackpool Illuminations Switch-On 2013 on the Tower Festival Headland.
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A leading Blackpool councillor has clashed with a major concert promoter over the resort’s first pay-to-view Lights Switch-On event.

Peter Taylor, joint organiser of Lytham Proms, has slammed Blackpool Council’s organisation of the two-day event – labelling it “a shambles”.

Gary Barlow performing on Friday evening.

Gary Barlow performing on Friday evening.

But Coun Graham Cain, the authority’s cabinet member for tourism and culture hit back, claiming Mr Taylor and other critics “should know better” and said the weekend had gone “smashingly well”.

The extended two day show was the first time people had been charged to see live music and the Switch-On.

Official attendance figures have not yet been released but Coun Cain estimated 20,000 people attended the events over the weekend, a figure that has been being heavily questioned – one critic saying the actual figure was less than half that.

The arena was no more than half full on Friday.

Jonathan Ross throws the switch on the 2013 Illuminations.

Jonathan Ross throws the switch on the 2013 Illuminations.

It is yet to be seen if this was down to headline act The Script pulling out less than 48 hours before the show – to be replaced by Take That star Gary Barlow – or the £34 ticket prices themselves.

The weekend was organised and promoted by the council’s tourism arm Marketing Blackpool.

Mr Taylor said: “I presume the council will have lost a colossal amount of money.

“The organisation was a shambles. Fundamentally, they shouldn’t gamble with taxpayers’ money and promote events.

Madness headline the Saturday night of the Iluminations switch-on weekend.

Madness headline the Saturday night of the Iluminations switch-on weekend.

“I went on Friday and it was embarrassingly quiet. Gary Barlow should have had 13,000 people on the Headland. The pricing structure was wrong.”

Tickets were priced at £34 for Friday night’s show with Gary Barlow the headline act and chat show host Jonathan Ross pulling the lever to light up the Prom.

Madness headlined Saturday’s show and were joined on the bill by chart-topping opera stars Richard and Adam Johnson.

Mr Taylor added: “I do appreciate The Script pulled out but they had hardly sold any tickets by that point anyway.”

Coun Cain said the issue of ticket sales would be part of discussions to be held this week, and so he could not give details.

However, he claimed Mr Taylor was upset because his events company – Cuffe & Taylor – had not been chosen to stage the Switch-On event.

Coun Cain said: “The whole weekend has gone smashingly well and we have had some really good feedback from people who were there both on Friday and Saturday, and it’s a credit to everyone involved that we made it a successful Switch-On weekend.

“There was 20,000 people there over the two days. I can’t say it was 5,000 on one day and 15,000 the other because it was balanced.

“I was there on Saturday – the whole place was buzzing.”

He added: “From the stories I’ve heard Lytham Proms wasn’t as successful as it has previously been and he (Peter Taylor) won’t be pleased with anything that happens unless he is involved himself.

“He thinks he is the only promoter that can put on any event and because he wasn’t chosen for our event he doesn’t think it was a success.

“Local businesses should know better and support the town. If it’s that bad I suggest they look somewhere else for business because the more negative they get the harder it is for us to put a positive message together.”

Joey Blower, aka Mike Simmons, a comedian on the resort’s North Pier and former Switch-On night compere, took to Facebook to voice his disappointment and has so far received 2,370 ‘likes’ of a photograph which shows the arena less than half full.

The entertainer said he was “all for concerts on the Promenade just not a paid Switch-On event.”

He added: “The council shouldn’t be putting concerts on. If a promoter comes in and wants to do it, we should give them our backing.

“Without a doubt the Switch-On weekend should be a festival to celebrate everything Blackpool with DJs, a retro event and a main show on each of the piers.”

Coun Cain defended the ticket pricing strategy for the event, the first for many years not to be done in association with a radio station.

He added: “We tried something different because we have to look at other ways of putting events on – we can’t stick to what we’ve done in the past.

“We are analysing everything and we gave Marketing Blackpool the decision (to charge for tickets) and they took that bold choice because we wanted a Switch-On event.

“I can’t give you a decision now on what will happen (to ticket prices next year) but we need to analyse all the aspects of the issues up to and including the Switch-On night.

“I don’t believe we have lost money because there’s always been a cost involved with any event we put on, including the ones we have put on in years gone by, we pull money back in.

“The days of a totally free event are in the past now because we have to make savings of millions of pounds next year. That’s not us doing that, that’s central Government making the cuts.”

Gary Barlow officially confirmed he was playing on Friday night just 24 hours before the gig. Script fans have been offered a refund.

The Take That star said he would do the gig in return for a donation to Children In Need.

The council is understood to be giving a sizeable six figure sum to the BBC charity.

A spokesman for Marketing Blackpool said: “Feedback from people attending both concerts has been fantastic.

“Of course, we were hit with unforeseeable problems less than 48 hours before the event, but with help from Gary Barlow we were able to host a great weekend and we thank everyone who took part and supported it.”

Not everyone agreed with the conclusion’s drawn by Mr Taylor and Joey Blower.

Fylde coast businessman Robin Ross said: “Whatever was going to happen was going to be criticised by people in the town.

“We can’t keep giving things away for free because everyone has had their budgets cut.

“It was a brilliant night on Friday and Gary Barlow pulled something together in 48 hours which other artists would have struggled to do in a year.”

Claire Smith, president of Stay Blackpool, added: “I thought it was absolutely fabulous.

“We know the council has had to charge, to get the big bands you have to – that’s just life.

“It would’ve been great if it could’ve been a bit cheaper but The Script are current and big bands like that are very expensive.”

Many in the crowd on Friday and Saturday praised the event. The stars, too, said they enjoyed the experience.

But the issue of a free versus paid for event has stirred up a storm on social networks.

Maria Deakin posted on The Gazette’s Facebook page: “There was no way I was paying nearly £200 for my family to watch the show.”

Denise Red Wells posted: “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous. I’m from Blackpool and to have to start paying for something that has always been free is a real let down.”

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