‘Jesus is the light of the world,’ reads the sign outside Blackpool’s Central Methodist Church, but all along the promenade the lights are going out. I’d returned to my favourite seaside resort to catch the end of the Illuminations, an annual attraction that brings several million visitors here every year. Since 1879, this vast canopy of fairy lights has stretched Blackpool’s summer season into autumn, flooding the seafront with ‘artificial sunshine’. But even Blackpool, with all its razzamatazz, can’t turn winter into summertime. From the Central Pier to the South Pier, the Illuminations are now all dormant. Only a modest cluster remains, between the Tower and the North Pier. It feels like a fitting metaphor for the shifting fortunes of Britain’s biggest seaside town. Ever since the railway arrived, in 1846, tourists have been pouring into Blackpool. But now the tide of history is flowing the other way.
In the history of British entertainment, Blackpool is unique. For a hundred years it was Lancashire’s Las Vegas, a place where millions of people went year after year to let their hair down for a week (or a fortnight if they were lucky). Britain’s other seaside towns tried to imitate it, but Blackpool was always bigger and brasher than all the rest. It had three piers and 11 theatres. The lifeboat station was the only one in Britain to have its own brass band. There were 60 ice-cream stalls and 40 oyster stands along the front. A troupe of 40 midgets lived in the roof gardens in Blackpool Tower. They manned the miniature railway at the Pleasure Beach. The midgets are long gone but the Pleasure Beach is still Britain’s most popular tourist attraction. Cheap package holidays to the Costa del Sol did away with Blackpool’s raison d’être, but half a century since those first charter flights, somehow it’s still here.
Marooned on a lonely flood plain, at the mercy of the Irish Sea, a less suitable holiday location is hard to imagine. Yet 150 years ago, this was the ideal spot — the nearest stretch of beach to all those Lancastrian mill towns, back in the bad old days when mill workers worked six days a week and needed a resort that was near enough for day trips, close enough to travel to in time for church on Sunday morning. When the mill owners were finally forced to give their workers a week’s annual holiday, the mill towns took turns to shut up shop and let them come here for a week. Those towns are still there, but the mills have disappeared. The industry that put Blackpool on the map has vanished, and by rights Blackpool should have vanished too, but it refuses to lie down and die — the only place in Britain where traditional variety is still alive and kicking. It’s like alternative comedy never happened.
Time was, Britain’s biggest names played Blackpool. You could come here and see Ken Dodd on the same bill as Morecambe and Wise. Today’s bills aren’t quite so starry. The Christmas matinee at The Sands (‘the UK’s premier live music venue’) features Keith Harris and Orville. Harris’s TV heyday was in the 1980s, and back then, as a knowing teenager, I thought his act was awful. Yet 30 years later, with more than half my life behind me, I can think of nothing that would amuse me more than to watch this evergreen ventriloquist quarrelling with an incontinent DayGlo duck. That’s the beauty of Blackpool. You’re never too old to enjoy it. You just have to embrace the naff, the kitsch, the trash aesthetic, and forget about good taste.
Of course it’s very easy to take the piss out of Blackpool. Local comedians have been making a living out of it for years. Yet the people who pay to watch them keep coming back, so Blackpool must be doing something right. And the thing it does best of all is bargains. It’s like an enormous pound shop. Where else can you buy ten sticks of rock for a quid or bed and breakfast in an ‘award-winning’ hotel for £15 per night? ‘Kids eat free all day every day,’ promises the Coral Island amusement arcade. ‘Everything has to go,’ reads a banner above ‘Blackpool’s biggest discount and souvenir shop’. The entire town seems to be holding a collective closing-down sale.
So why do I love it so? Because Blackpool is irreplaceable — the last remnant of a golden age of leisure that’s completely disappeared elsewhere. Britons still holiday in Britain, sometimes, but not en masse — not with entire towns decamping to the same resort, the same guest-houses, year after year. As the acme of this defunct phenomenon, Blackpool is a conurbation like no other. I know of nowhere else in Britain where fortune tellers are so prevalent, where superstition reigns supreme. ‘Nature’s gift, not learnt from books,’ reads the blurb outside Carmen Petulengro’s booth, one of several palmists, on the seafront. ‘Advice given on all matters — health, wealth and matrimony.’ Her celebrity clients range from Lenny Henry to Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown.
Blackpool’s glory days bequeathed some glorious architecture. The Pleasure Beach casino is a superb slab of art deco. The Grand Theatre, built by the great theatrical architect, Frank Matcham, is an exquisite example of Victorian belle époque. But the finest building is the Winter Gardens — a dozen venues under one ornate roof, including the palatial Opera House. Its Wurlitzer organ is one of only five in Britain still in its original location. The roll of honour in the foyer lists the legendary entertainers who’ve played here: Lillie Langtry, Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Askey, Tony Hancock… Even more poignant is the smaller memorial beside it. ‘This plaque commemorates all those who met and fell in love here, and marks the enduring affection of those people for this place.’
Of course there’s a seedier side to Blackpool: the lewd stag and hen parties; the novelty stores selling ‘Liquid Gold’ (alkyl nitrite) and edible jockstraps (yuck). There are shops that cash cheques for people too poor for bank accounts (at a price, of course — poverty is expensive) and offer loans for as little as £10. Jesus Christ. How broke must you have to be to borrow £10 from a pawnbroker? Even the sex shops seem to be feeling the pinch.
And yet Blackpool still has something that no other town in Britain offers — a sense that anything could happen here, and if it does no one else need ever know. Maybe it’s the legacy of all those dirty weekends, a whiff of hedonism that mingles with the smell of cheap perfume and stale beer and batter (Harry Ramsden’s do a great fish supper, with draught bitter in a dimpled glass). I wander through a gay quarter festooned with rainbow flags, past clubs with names like The Flying Handbag. Perhaps it’s just my imagination, but these queer bars and B&Bs seem a lot less rundown. Will the pink pound save Blackpool, and preserve it for future generations? We protect our other monuments — castles, stately homes and suchlike. Why not this one?
Below Blackpool Tower, where those midgets used to live, is a massive new artwork called the Comedy Carpet: 2,200 square metres, laid out like a load of old playbills, featuring hundreds of comedians who’ve played Blackpool in the past. Some of them are long gone (George Formby, Frankie Howerd) but alongside such old names as Tommy Cooper are newer comics such as Peter Kay, still barely 40, with a timeless act that would have worked here 100 years ago.
Where will Blackpool be 100 years from now? I’m not optimistic. It’s telling (and rather ominous) that Blackpool’s main selling point is nostalgia: 1970s nights, 1980s nights — the town where disco never died. Blackpool still gets the visitors, but folk come for a weekend nowadays, not a fortnight. Best go now, before it’s too late. As I retrace my steps along the windswept prom, the bard that springs to mind isn’t Les Dawson but Dylan Thomas. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night./ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
William Cook is the author of ‘Morecambe and Wise Untold’ (HarperCollins).