The famous tower of the Black Age. A new Showtime museum will showcase the resort’s entertainment heritage.Photo: Pawel Libera/Getty Images
Marsh jokes have long been a feature of stage shows in Blackpool, a fun seaside town in Great Britain. Traditionally, many of these are told at the expense of the town, which is famous for its illuminations in the autumn, with nobler gags noting how well it does in the dark.
Now the London opening of Jez Butterworth’s latest play, Hills of California,set in a Lancashire resort, more variable lines have been added to the list. It begins inside a boarding house in Linndubh in the baking hot summer of 1976, with one character complaining: “Up in town it’s all kiss-me-quick, mine’s a coc-ice‘ – out here in the back streets, carnage!”
In a month’s time, Blackpool’s great heritage of holiday entertainment, from donkey rides to variety shows, magic tricks and ballroom dancing, will all be honored on a grand scale, with the opening of Showtown, a major new museum. Costing £15m and planned over the past decade, many now rely on its dazzling displays of sequins, music hall posters and showbiz artefacts, including the late Tommy Cooper’s famous red fez and, of course, a sample of the essential tourist’s kiss. -fast hat.
“We want to celebrate the brilliance of the Black era,” said Showtown chief executive Elizabeth Moss. “It’s about restoring pride and putting the spotlight back on us.”
The town’s association with the entertainment industry dates back to its emergence as a premier vacation destination for the working man and woman more than a century ago. It provided affordable excitement for struggling families, as well as glimpses of popular performers.
It also inspired an escapist desire for the all-important Hollywood glamour Hills of California, which is now winning acclaim in London’s West End. Directed by Sam Mendes, the writer’s collaborator on the Bond film as well Skyfall and 2017 theater hit The Ferrymanthe show tells the story of four sisters whose star-studded mother is scheming for them all to make it big.
Inside the new museum of the Black Sea, six galleries, spread over 100 square meters, will give plenty of space to the pioneering days of seaside entertainment and the famous people. They range from singers such as Rochdale’s Gracie Fields and Wigan-born George Formby to clowns and comedians Charlie Cairoli and Cumbria’s Stan Laurel, to Liverpool’s Ken Dodd and northern modern hero Peter Kay.
Dodd’s widow, Anne, has donated money for a learning space that bears her husband’s name, where local youth can study their wise legacy.
But Showtown, just behind the town’s famous tower, will have to deliver more than fun. The launch of the project is part of a promising regeneration project for the Blackpool, supported by a major partnership of business and heritage funds and designed to boost the economy by attracting more than 200,000 visitors.
In 2021, the Blackpool council agreed to pay £250,000 a year for a lease, and then the Blackpool Heritage Trust and Museum was set up to revive a resort which, behind the elegant shoreside, had largely to lose his ancestors.
The town, reeling under the weight of the cost of living crisis, is one of the poorest in England. Research in 2019 found that almost a third of its children lived in deprived homes, compared to 17% nationally.
On board the tram that runs down the Golden Mile, passing the three piers in the Blackpool, the conductor was full of civic pride last week, promising visitors “it’s a different town from April”, and breaking off the gray sky and the empty streets.
On the prom, many February visitors did not know that a large museum was coming. One dog walker, Martin, said he had been coming to Blackpool for 35 years, and still loved it. “There’s so much here and it’s great value.” He is a carer for his partner, Siobhan, and the couple travel by bus. “Morecambe needs help. There is nothing,” he said.
Louise, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Leeds, booked a half-price deal at a guest house and has also visited since she was a child. “It’s nice when you look out to sea, but back there, behind the prom, it’s like Beirut,” she said. “I usually go to Spain now, but I wanted to get out of the city for a few days.”
On the North Quay, posters promote shows featuring comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown and, set back from the sea, entertainment arcades with dedicated booths, such as Gypsy Petulengro, an established family business to be celebrated in the Showtown exhibition. .
On the staircase leading into the museum, seaside colors set the tone beneath the hanging letters that spell out a welcoming “Ha Ha Ha”. Billed as “all-singing, all-dancing excitement for the whole family”, it hopes to showcase interactive exhibits for children, including a clown car, but also to provide people with instachable moments young, including an endless light room and opportunities to jive and twist, or to learn about disco and the northern soul boom. (Quite appropriate for a venue that once hosted a 1980s ITV music show The Hitman and her.)
Ballroom dancing and the town’s links to the BBC Strictly Come Dancing also play a major role, with behind-the-scenes details and narration from the late judge Len Goodman. But there is also serious history, with rare archival images and unique curiosities, such as brass keepsakes of Nelson’s retired flagship, HMS Foudroyant, beached on the shores of the Black Sea in 1897; an early Punch and Judy puppet; and a real lion tamer stick, together with a deer antler, one of 27 objects donated by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Curator Jill Carruthers is also happy that Showtown will not shy away from difficult material. The circus exhibits address the issue of animal cruelty and invite visitors to reflect on the misogyny of freak shows, which were popular a century ago.
It will be clear in time whether this museum, together with renovations to the Winter Gardens, the surrounding hotels and plans for other museums, can draw in enough crowds. Investors including the Heritage Lottery Fund, Coastal Communities Fund, Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund and Lancashire Growth Market are all banking on it.
“This is a different kind of museum,” said an optimistic Moss. “One that will give people an insight into many worlds, including magic, which will have its biggest international conference at the Winter Gardens later this week. Blackpool is central to so many aspects of entertainment.”