Duncan Jump has seen them all. From Elton John and Barry Manilow to Peter Kay, Shirley Bassey and even the Queen, the technical manager of the Winter Gardens has been back stage to make sure the show really does go on.
He has now marked 40 years working at the grand old lady of entertainment in Blackpool and is looking to emulate his father Derek, who did 52 years at the Winter Gardens, working into his 70s on the stage door.
In fact, it is a bit of a family business. His grandfather worked on the fun fair that used to reside in the Olympia exhibition hall along with his wife and two of Duncan’s uncles, while his sister Shani also did a stint on the stage door and his daughter Samantha works part time in the front of house team.
Duncan, 56, started at 16 working with the stage electrics, including operating one of the big old carbon arc spotlights that follow the start of the show around the stage.
In his 12th year he became assistant stage manager and just a year later full stage manager, a role he carried out until 2009 when as technical manger he took responsibility for the whole complex’s shows.
Talking in the stalls of the huge 3,000-seater Opera House, with the stage set for the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz, Duncan said his job was different every day thanks to the sheer variety of shows and events.
His office is in the wings of the cavernous Opera House stage with its 96 “flying bars” up above to carry the scenery for the shows. He said: “It is a fantastic stage. It’s big, that’s why the ballet dancers love coming here, they can have room to really dance.
“Every production is different. The biggest was Summer Holiday. We had a full sized London bus, which came in four pieces.
“You can tell if a show is going to be big by the number of artics that run up. That one had 18, the current show has five.”
He said the stage crew varies per performance –anything from 12 to 40 – and his job is to co-ordinate everything. The team builds the stage from the pieces and equipment brought by the travelling company, sets up the lights and sound and makes sure everything runs smoothly backstage throughout each show.
“So I have never worked normal people’s hours. Evenings and weekends.
“Setting up is hard work. Getting the set in, lighting the show, setting up the sound. After the first two run-throughs everyone knows what they are doing.
“I remember when we had the London Festival Ballet in the early days. They had huge sets and half way through the run they would change everything. From Swan Lake to the Nutcracker. It used to take all night to change the sets.”
Nowadays things have been made easier with the smaller more versatile LED lights and digital sound. But the number of staff needed has fallen.
And of course working behind the scenes has meant Duncan has seen so many stars close up.
“Some of them are not how they appear on stage. Off stage they are often very different, some very nervous. Dad was very good on the stage door looking after the performers.
“Because he was older it was comforting to some of them to have an old hand. He was good at calming people. Elton John and Barry Manilow were really good big shows and good to talk to off stage. Peter Kay is wonderful to work with, really friendly. We had his Car Share show screened here in April which was great.
“We have had Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones who are great performers. I particularly liked Jane McDonald who is just as she appears on TV.
“The biggest single thing I worked on was the 2009 Royal Variety Performance with ITV. We had three orchestras to cope with, the one in the pit, Michael Buble’s and Andre Rieu’s, and some world stars. Whoopi Goldberg, who was amazed by the building and went round with a camera, Bette Midler, Lady Gaga with Peter Kay hosting and, of course, Her Majesty the Queen.
“We had scenery out in the car park, artists and orchestras waiting in the Empress Ballroom. It was amazing. The performers loved it as the stage is so much bigger than the London Palladium they usually use.”
But it’s not just about the Opera House. Duncan is responsible for the staging at the Pavilion Theatre and Empress Ballroom too. Everything from the homing pigeon show, international darts, ballroom dancing events, the Hits at Christmas show for children, to rock acts in the ballroom. The bands love it. They are used to playing arenas where there is nothing much to look at. They come here and they all stare at the ceiling.
“No two days are the same. It is the variety, not the Variety Shows, but the different challenges.”
Even the big stars get nervous before a big performance, but does Duncan?
“Yes I do. If something goes wrong on the night, if the lights are wrong or the sound or something does not fly right, they all look to me.
“But the rewarding thing is to see the audience at the end when they give a standing ovation. That makes it all worthwhile.”