Be careful what you wish for…
From The Gazette newspaper, Blackpool, England, 1899:
“If the front land is covered with howling cheap-jacks, swindling catchpenny trickeries, etc. while the shops behind are let for giantesses, fat women, penny-in-the-slot indecencies, etc. then what a disreputable pandemonium will Central Beach eventually become!”
A hundred-and-five years later, I’m in the century-old Yates’s Wine Lodge, mere metres from the very same Central Beach.
The pub is heaving and drink flows down the necks of a good-natured crowd just as fast as overworked staff can pour it. Tonight’s draw is Lionel Vinyl, a one-of-a-kind combination DJ/stand-up comic whose act pays tongue in cheek homage to the 1970s. He sports a trademark frizzy afro wig, and a fluorescent orange, one-piece polyester body suit. His phoney American DJ-speak, peppered with profanity and barbed observation, sends waves of bawdy laughter through the young, juiced-up audience.
Then, the moment. Lionel cranks up a song, ‘It’s Raining Men’ — the earthy original by the Weather Girls — and as the chorus breaks, the door from the street swings wide. Heads turn, and in walk two men wearing nothing but baby diapers. The audience roars a welcome, and the two oversized infants interrupt their beelines for the bar to flutter regal waves. Just another groom-to-be and his Best Man, out on the Stag Night raz in Blackpool by the sea.
They may not exactly constitute penny-in-slot indecencies or giantesses, and I’ve only been in town for a day or so, but already the episode sums up the enduring appeal of the Northern escape hatch that is Blackpool. Blackpool is raunchy, it is leery, it is risqué, it is close to the bone. But, above all, it is fun. The 1899 leader writer of the Gazette, if he could see Blackpool now, might not be too surprised.
The English, and the Scots and others besides, have been letting their hair down in Blackpool for a very long time. Long enough that the hedonism of today’s Blackpool visitor has roots going back centuries.
In the mid-1700s, the Northern England labour force that powered the Industrial Revolution sought out Lancashire’s Ffylde coast to partake of the bracing, clear air, the restorative waters and the broad flat beaches. As Northern industries expanded and workforces grew, so too did the need for escape from the workzone.
After the first road across the marshy coastal plain from industrial Preston opened in 1781, Blackpool’s popularity blossomed year after year, until the summer of 1828 brought about a tourist surfeit of quite biblical proportions. And so it came to pass that a heaving multitude slept in barns and stables. The arrival of the railway in 1846 put Blackpool squarely on the tourist map, and nearly 160 years later, the town remains one of the most popular recreational magnets in the entire U.K., attracting over eleven million adult visits a year.
With its entertainment roots set firmly for three centuries in the needs and expectations of Britain’s working classes, perhaps it should come as no surprise that, at the beginning of the third millennium, the town continues to cater so clearly for the working-class demographic. Fun, in a place like Blackpool, has a very real edge to it.
‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats, like the old cartoon postcards of busty damsels in various states of undress, always summed up the innocent naughtiness of the English seaside resort. At Blackpool’s Funny Girls, just along the waterfront from Lionel Vinyl’s show, the fun is as ribald as any postcard, and the busts every bit as phoney. But then again, Funny Girls is the most successful transvestite showbar in the country.
If you want to book a table at Funny Girls, don’t even think about getting one in the next six months. Which leaves the rest of us in the line for the standing-only bar area, a line that can number six hundred hopefuls at weekends. The showbar is open 364 days a year, and is always jammed.
The attraction here is the same old raunchy Blackpool, but with a twist. This is transvestite entertainment for the enjoyment of an audience aged from nineteen to ninety — straight, gay, or whatever.
A busty transsexual takes your money at the door. Statuesque, revealingly-clad transvestites serve drinks at the bars and deliver them to tables. And a cast of first-rate transvestite dancers, headed by Betty ‘Legs’ Diamond, break up the night with regular bouts of slick, high-production-value mimed song and dance routines on the showbar’s stage.
All of which is overseen by the hostess DJ, Zoe, another transvestite, one blessed with a store of wicked one-liners and an impressive, surgically-enhanced cleavage that she shows off at every opportunity. Like when she emerges for the dance finale, encased in a body-hugging, low-cut dress:
“I know what you’re thinking,” she says, “‘That dress would look good on my bedroom floor’.”
Earlier in the day, the Blackpool Tower Ballroom gives a very different insight to the resort’s long-running popularity. A spotlight bouncing off an old-fashioned ball of mirrors sends hundreds of lighted squares clambering over decor of the most monumental tackiness. If Liberace had a ballroom, it would surely have looked like this. Fake palm trees. Crystal chandeliers. Preposterous rococo flourishes. And banks of 1930s wood-and-velvet cinema seats clinging to twin balconies that reach towards a spaghetti disaster ceiling of curlicues and gilt.
Above the stage, in tall letters, an inscription reads:
“Bid Me Discourse, I Will Enchant Thine Ear.”
Later, much later, I look it up. It’s Shakespeare, from a poem called ‘Venus and Adonis’. And no, I still can’t work out what the heck it is doing in the Tower Ballroom.
Music is courtesy of a man in a white suit, who gently teases the keyboard of a Wurlitzer organ that earlier rose through a stage trapdoor — as it has done every afternoon for decades.
The cavernous hall mocks a tiny sprinkling of ageing ballroom dancers who exude genuine relish as they partake of the daily Tower Ballroom Afternoon Tea Dance. I watch one elderly lady in a luxuriant red dress limp painfully from table to floor, helped every step of the way by her partner. Then, when they assume the heads up in-your-face forced gentility of ballroom dancing professionals — they set off around the floor in seamless, flowing moves. The agonising disability of moments before is gone.
The Tower was the brainchild of a Blackpool businessman who came back from the Great Paris Exhibition of 1889 convinced that what his home town needed was a smaller version of the Eiffel Tower. Inside five years it was built, and more than a century later, it continues to dominate the promenade’s skyline, 160 metres of metallic sculpture that remains one of the town’s biggest attractions. Visit Blackpool and not go up the Tower? You must be joking.
The view from the top must be impressive if you’ve never been up the lift in a modern office building. Visitors tread gingerly around the perspex-floored ‘Walk of Faith’, and the building at the tower’s base is jammed with indoors activity that is immune to whatever the unpredictable climate can throw at it. The ballroom competes with childrens’ adventure playgrounds and fast-food restaurants, but for my money, the highlight in this complex is the Tower Circus.
Nestling in a gloriously intimate domed amphitheatre formed by the four arched legs of the tower structure is a 1600-seat circus that has operated since 1894, long outliving illustrious touring competition like the Barnum & Baileys Circus of 1898 and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show of 1904. In 1906, in what was then the world’s greatest circus, one Tower act alone boasted forty polar bears. Incredibly, animal acts remained on the bill until at last they were outlawed in 1990.
The circus does two or three shows a day, seven days a week. Shows of the old school, with trapeze acts and jugglers and gymnasts and Mongolian contortionists and, of course, clowns. The clown with top billing today is Mooky, who has the unenviable task of filling the clown shoes of Charlie Caroli, for forty years the face of the Tower Circus until his retirement in 1968. But the wide-eyed kids in the audience have never heard of old Charlie, and as Mooky puts himself through another punishing routine, he is clearly the star of the show.
The finale is a water spectacular, for which the floor sinks to form a tank that fills with 320,000 litres of water. Just as it has done every day for over a century. Imagine that. A hundred-plus years of spectacular, dependable, British-engineered efficiency. Nobody who ever bought a British car or British vacuum cleaner would ever believe it.
In front of the Tower, three miles of 1870 promenade ties together the waterfront, and three, grand, 150-year-old wooden piers — ‘The Three Piers of the Realm’ — reach out to the Irish Sea. Every inch of waterfront is devoted to fleecing, sorry, serving the tourist. Burger bars, chip shops, slot-machine and amusement arcades. Whole shopfronts devoted to ‘rock’, tooth-rotting candy with ‘Blackpool’ all the way through. Clairvoyant fortune tellers, like the one ‘As seen on TV and also on radio’. Bingo halls. Waxworks. Aquaria. Karaoke Bars. And pubs. Pubs everywhere, none of them short of custom. Set inland are a host of grand theatres and show venues, ones whose past roll-calls boasted names like Lily Langtree, Sarah Bernhardt, Tallulah Bankhead, John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh and Noel Coward.
At the south end of all this tack and glitter lies the Pleasure Beach. A twenty-hectare funfair with over one-hundred-forty rides, the Pleasure Beach started out in 1896 with only one ride. Today it is Britain’s single-most popular tourist attraction, with over six million visitors annually. At the heart of it, the £12 million ‘Big One’, at 140 kph and 70 metres, is the tallest and fastest rollercoaster in Europe. The ride is blessedly short, and all that screaming is surely coming from the Lancashire lass sitting next to me.
How very Blackpool that its most popular beach is not a beach at all. For good measure, a nearby hotel is called the Beach View Hotel — a kilometre from the nearest sand, and with a view of the Pleasure Beach complex. (Irony is everywhere in Blackpool. Another guest house is called the ‘Imperial View Guest House’. From its windows, guests enjoy an uninterrupted profile of the Imperial Hotel.)
As Blackpool slides towards its fourth century of laying on entertainment for all, plans are afoot. Big plans. Changes to the nation’s gaming laws see major syndicates on the verge of megabucks development plans to turn Blackpool into the ‘Vegas of the North’. Huge casino and family entertainment complexes are talked of, and their touts present them as the answer to decades of declining tourist arrivals.
Blackpool re-invented as a British Las Vegas? It’s not so unimaginable, and hardly a threat to the resort’s enduring values, such as they are. So what if the town is forced to take on a slightly more tasteful veneer. It will only be a veneer. And the old Blackpool will always be there for the scratching.