There’s a huge traffic jam just past the airport. It’s 5pm and dark as mid-night—it’s also freezing cold and drizzling rain and car windows are fogging up. Everyone huddles into coats, pulls collars up and beanies down and tucks gloved hands into pockets and sleeves in a vain attempt to keep warm. The streets are packed as families with young children waving bright laser wands meander along the footpath making their way to the beach.
We’re in the north west of England in a rather raunchy and burlesque seaside town; that in general conversation you might say ‘had seen better days’. It’s late October and the traffic and people are here for one reason only—Blackpool Illuminations, known locally as ‘The Lights’.
The Lights’ website proclaims that this is an annual multi-million dollar extravaganza of artificial lights including coloured globes, fibre optics, strobe and search lights, neon and lasers. Some are strung across the promenade and over the road so you drive underneath them and the car’s headlights reflect prisms of colour from the wet road. Other lights decorate the famous Blackpool trams with some converted into rockets and sailing ships that travel slowly and majestically along the 10 kilometres of promenade. More lights illuminate the landaus—the horse-drawn carriages that patrol the promenade for passengers who prefer the slower pace of a bygone era.
On the beach side and facing the road and tramway, enormous fairy-tale tabloids appear animated by a sequence of twinkling lights. There’s Puss in Boots, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty just waking up with a kiss from her Prince, while further along Little Red Riding Hood chats with the wolf. All this stretches along the beachfront—past the three piers and the Tower which is so highly illuminated it’s probably visible from space.
The Lights program includes an orchestrated and minutely choreographed ‘switch-on’ which often includes someone rich or famous, but most likely both, to actually flick the switch. The switch-on concert is free and usually takes place in front of the Tower, with an estimated audience in excess of 10,000. In 2010 the switch was flicked by Robbie Williams (quite obviously rich and famous), and past flickers (or should that be flashers?) include David Tennant, Geri Halliwell (formerly a friend of Posh Becks) and the Bee Gees! The identity of the flicker is kept secret until opening night.
The event first kicked off in 1912 using around 10,000 light globes and the Council estimates that it now costs over $A4.2 million to put on the show each year with equipment worth over $A17.5 million. That’s a lot of light globes.
The Lights run from September to November and extend the summer season by a good eight weeks giving an extra financial boost to the town before it closes for winter. This year it’s estimated that over 3.5 million visitors will pour into Blackpool during the summer season and spend approximately $A482 million during the Lights alone.
Meanwhile the traffic is still bumper to bumper northwards along the Promenade. Past the Disney theme where everyone ooh’s and aah’s at the enormous animated cartoons, and progressing to Hollywood with its larger-than-life movie star entertainment and celebrities old and new. Humphrey Bogart sits alongside Johnny Depp, while Clark Gable takes tea with Emma Watson (nice one Emma—but he really doesn’t give a damn).
Dr Who is up next including the Daleks and the TARDIS, though unfortunately not the afore-mentioned gorgeous Doctor number 10 (who could take me into space to see the Tower anytime he likes), before visiting the underwater Coral Islands teeming with twinkly tropical fish, and on to the finish.
It’s now 7.30pm and the entire drive has taken two and a half hours but at least it’s stopped raining, and with a fish ‘n’ chip supper to look forward to on the way home it’s a good night’s free entertainment.
The writer grew up in the town and still has nightmares about family outings every year to view the Lights. Of course, the gorgeous Doctor wasn’t included then …
In 2012 the Lights will celebrate its centenary.