Blackpool Museum Project staff have been exploring what makes Blackpool special. Every week a member of the museum team will publish a post about the places, behaviours, attitudes or events that they think make this seaside town so unique, dynamic and exciting. This week Jill Caruthers, Exhibitions Coordinator at Blackpool Museum Project explores Blackpool Illuminations.
The Illusive Lights
Growing up as a child, my parents would often use the phrase “it’s like Blackpool Illuminations in here!” and proceed to plunge a bemused me into darkness. In the run up to Christmas, we would make a special effort to drive past a house “lit up like Blackpool Illuminations” that had the most extraordinary Christmas light display all over its façade and gardens. I used to wonder what these illusive ‘Blackpool Illuminations’ were.
So when I moved to Blackpool to work on the museum project I couldn’t wait to see the lights up. I was also thrilled to hear that the Illuminations department has a vast collection of many of the designs for the lights, dating back almost as far back as the Illuminations themselves. And as Professor Vanessa Toulmin quite rightly says, they are “The Greatest Free Show On Earth.”
Learning about the Illuminations
Throughout the years the Illuminations designs have often responded to topical events at the time. For example, after Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, the 1970 Illuminations featured flying astronauts, rocket shuttles and space aliens. They would often feature characters and themes that were popular at the time, such as Lego men, Disney characters from recent films. Other themes included Zoo Time (1974) to celebrate the opening of Blackpool Zoo and Doctor Who in 1975 when the lights were switched on by Tom Baker.
Blackpool Illuminations have worked with a number of designers who have been responsible for creating iconic features and regularly updating and altering the displays. The first official designer to work on the illuminations was Sid Howell, from 1950-52. He was responsible for a 120 foot high New York Skyline tableau which was the biggest ever made at the time. He was replaced by Charlie Crowther, who amongst other things designed the tableau when Blackpool Football Club won the FA Cup in 1953. Bob Bradshaw from Preston designed the lights from 1960 – 63 during which time he created some truly iconic designs, often working closely with Disney on features including 101 Dalmatians and Sword in the Stone.
The designer who saw the introduction of 3D fibreglass models and improved electronics which allowed for movement in the illuminations was Emilios Hatjoullis who was designer after Bradshaw for seven years. I had the pleasure of meeting Emilios a few weeks ago, and he’s helped shed some light on items we have found in the illuminations depot! (Pardon the pun!) During Alan Cockcroft’s time as designer (1969 – 87) the Illuminations department were creating three new road sections per year. Cockcroft was responsible for the iconic 1970 Space Age design, parts of which are still seen on the prom today. Graham Ogden was illuminations designer for 20 years, from 1987 – 2007 producing particular classics such as Pirate Pranks (1996) and Tiffany Delights (1999) which, even though I didn’t see in the ‘flesh’ is my favourite. The current Creative Curator is interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, who has worked alongside the illuminations team on the creations seen today.
Like a Kid at Christmas!
So this year I was finally able to see the lights in all their glory, marching down the Prom, and I felt like a kid at Christmas! What a wonderful sight! My family and I tried to drive the lights on a Friday (mistake!) – but we gave up and walked instead! This year saw an exciting new element to the Illuminations; a stunning projection on the facade of the Tower exploring the history of the town, and I was pleased to see some designs from the illuminations archive included too.
I have such admiration for all the illuminations staff who work tirelessly putting the lights up in the run up to the Switch-On, what a feet! The town was packed and I especially loved seeing the children waving their illuminated light sabers and glow sticks. The Blackpool Illuminations recently celebrated its 100th anniversary after first appearing in Blackpool in 1912. Here’s to another 100 years of these iconic lights and true Blackpool institution!