Shedding light on Blackpool Illuminations

They’re as much Blackpool as the Tower, rock and the Golden Mile, and every winter the Illuminations bring huge numbers of visitors here from all over Britain and further afield.

The displays are magical to everyone who sees them; they ‘ooh and ahh’, chat about their favourites, then set off home again, promising to return next year and do it all over again. But do these starry eyed tourists ever consider the work that goes on behind the scenes? And what about you? Yes you! You’re local and think you know Blackpool… but can you find the mysterious place called – gasp – Lightworks?

Locating the depot on Amy Johnson Way, within a jet engine roar of Blackpool Airport, is no mean feat. We wandered aimlessly for a while before rounding a bend and spotting our destination. The Two Birds, cameras in hand, were not so lucky – until a quick anguished text appeal set them on their way and they were safely roosted. The trick is to head towards Warburtons factory, then take a right and keep right on to the end of the road.

We were in a group of around twenty people taking the free behind the scenes tour of this purpose-built facility. The proceedings opened with an informative talk by Tony Starkey, librarian of Blackpool’s historic collections, who gave us a potted history of the Illuminations. They first saw light of day – literally – in 1912, during a daytime visit to Blackpool by Princess Louise, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. It was decided that they’d be better viewed in the dark, and when they were turned on again that autumn, the Illuminations proved a huge success with visitors.

The First World War put a stop to all that, and it wasn’t until 1925 that the illuminations returned. Up to this point they were merely strings of lights, but by the end of the 1920s the first tableaux were introduced on the North Shore cliffs and illuminated pylons became a popular feature along the prom. The rest, as they say, is history, with celebrity designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen the man in charge of this year’s new displays – and we got a sneak preview of what he has in mind for 2014… Curiouser and curiouser is a clue!

Lightworks is the home of the Illuminations Collection Project, set up by Blackpool Council with the help of Heritage Lottery Funding. This 20,000 strong collection of artwork, photos and other assorted ephemera related to the Illuminations and their history, is in the process of being catalogued and digitally archived. We were lucky enough to be allowed to view a selection of the artworks in the flesh, including an original piece by Walt Disney’s own artists, produced in the early 1950s and showing some of the Aristocats. You can only marvel at the skill required to turn a sketch into a fully-fledged tableau, or panoramic (yes, we picked up some of the terminology too, along the way!).

During Tony’s talk, we were shown photos of 50s movie star Jayne Mansfield performing the Illuminations Switch-on – and once our tour of the depot began, we were thrilled to see the very switch-on button she used. Art deco in design and festooned in lights, it proved a huge hit with both young and old members of our tour party – all of whom were keen to be photographed alongside it.

It was a taste of things to come, as more delights were revealed around every corner, from Daleks and TARDISes to spacemen, a mummy, and even Basil Brush – and all made on site by a 26-strong team. Modern-day financial constraints mean that only a percentage of the Illuminations can change each year, but the Light Workers certainly have to be on their toes to keep up with the sheer volume of  jobs that have to be completed before the all-important switch-on day.

The lights may be hi-tech these days (and much more expensive, hence the ‘buy a bulb’ campaign), but it was good to see that some of the old, tried and tested machinery dating back to the 1930s was brought to the new depot when Lightworks moved a few years ago – and is still used to create the modern-day displays.

All in all, we were given a fascinating taste of things to come – and a tantalising glimpse back into the Illuminations’ glittering past. To pinch a couple of phrases from the vintage advertising posters we viewed, I’m really looking forward to seeing ‘Blackpool’s Gleaming Nights of Beauty’ during ‘Autumn Days of Sheer Delight’. In other words – Illuminations 2014? Bring it on!

Further Lightworks behind the scenes tours are planned. Call Laura on (01253) 301004 for more details.

Follow the progress of the Illuminations Collection Project at their blog.



Images courtesy of 2 Old Birds With Cameras.

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