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Light Research @ MMU

Art of the Light Fantastic

Last chance to see the Art of the Light Fantastic, an exhibition at the Stanley Park Visitor’s Centre in Blackpool, featuring designs for seafront tableaux and installations from the 1920s to the 1970s unearthed from the Illuminations archive by Professor Vanessa Toulmin. The exhibit is on display until 10th March.


March 4th, 2013 - 08:52am

Blackpool Illuminations lecture at the Manchester Geographical Society

Giving a lunch-time lecture today at 1pm to the Manchester Geographical Society.  The lecture will examine how the production and consumption of Blackpool Illuminations presents important challenges to the rebranding of places as creative centres.  Drawing on ethnographic work and interviews undertaken in Blackpool, the lecture will include historic photos of the goings-on inside the now demolished Rigby Road depot, where the Blackpool lights were formerly constructed and maintained.  The lecture concludes with some thoughts about what we might learn from Blackpool in terms of lighting the public realm

Brian Griffiths

Grundy Art Gallery

The lecture starts at 1pm in the Cross Street Chape, Cross Street Manchester. M2 1NL

February 26th, 2013 - 11:53am

Modernity, municipalism and light: 100 years of Blackpool Illuminations

I have been working with the Manchester Modernist Society , North West Film Archive and Manchester City Art Gallery, curating a season of monthly archive film screenings as part of the Gallery’s Thursday Lates programme.

Entitled The Changing Face of the North West: Modernist Dreams and Utopias, the films chart the transformation of the North West landscape through the aspirations of 20th Century dreamers, citizens and planners.

This evening I showcased three films about Blackpool, sourced from the NWFA: Blackpool: A Nation’s Playground(1939); Holiday!(1957); and Northern Lights (1959).

A Nation’s Playground

Blackpool: A Nation’s Playground (1939) was made by the London Midland & Scottish railway Co, which made over thirty films between 1934-1939. Playground was probably shot in the last summer before the outbreak of WWII to promote Blackpool, which they hoped people would then travel to, using the company’s trains of course.


Holiday! (1957). With the coming of peace and the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, individual railway film units, such as, the London Midland & Scottish railway Co, became part of the British Transport Commission. Made by British Transport Films in 1957, Holiday is one of over 1300 educational and promotional films commissioned made by the BTC. In 1955 the film unit had travelled to the North West to work on a promotional film for the region’s resorts entitled Lancashire Coast. But with so much good material available, another film was created, said almost to have been made up of the ‘leftover trims’. With the addition of a jazz soundtrack by Chris Barber and his band we end up with a film simply called Holiday!

The pre-war art deco landscape is submerged by resolutely post-war design, where concrete, colour and pop-cultural stylings contrast starkly to pre-war Blackpool. In 1950s Britain, the post-war optimism of the new Welfare State and the 1951 Festival of Britain continue to resonate in Holiday!, which foregrounds progress, technology and change. The shots focusing on the Illuminations, in particular, underscore these themes, as the lights themselves were reinvented.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights (1959), features both Morecambe and Blackpool illuminations. The film includes footage of the 1959 switch-on ceremony, noted for how the Mayor deals with the sexual presence of Hollywood superstar Jayne Mansfield. Thisceremony remains a key event in the Blackpool Calendar. Whereas other resorts shut up shop after the summer season, the switch-on event at the end of August marks the beginning of Blackpool’s busy period. In recent times, the event has been reinvented as a televised extravaganza, featuring chart topping pop-stars and TV celebrities.

The array of ‘people’ who have switched on the lights is bewildering, from George Formby to Red Rum. The chosen personality is often figure at the centre of British popular culture at the time. And so Stanley Mathews in 1951 is no surprise. And neither should we be surprised that in 1971 it was the cast of Dad’s Army, whereas in 1991 the stars included Judith Chalmers and Derek Jameson.

In the 1950s, however, the ceremony became particularly fascinating as a balcony attached to a municipal town hall in North West England, become the focal point of the Cold War. For reasons, we still can’t quite understand, a delegation from Soviet Russia visiting housing developments in Manchester, were invited to switch on the lights in 1955. This party included the Soviet Ambassador, Jacob Malik, who was to become a key figure in the Cuban Missile Crisis. To restore international diplomatic balance, US ambassador, John H Whitney was invited to switch on the lights two years later. But typically for Blackpool, sandwiched in-between these two global political figures, was Reginald Dixon, inventor and long-time player of Blackpool Tower’s famous Wurlitzer.

The film concludes with an interview between the technical director of the illuminations, Harry Carpenter, and Professor Stanley Unwin, a British comedian fluent in the language of Unwinese, or “Basic Engly Twenty Fido”. Carpenter was appointed in 1950 and become a key figure in transforming the lights during this decade. Carpenter introduced fibre glass mouldings, which enabled the illumination’s team to create and shape a much greater menagerie of three dimensional objects and figures. This material also enabled them to create plastic panels that could be illuminated to create new forms of animated tableaux. Both these technologies remain significant elements of the Illuminations today. Gone, however, are Carpenter’s huge theatrical animated tableaux, which dominated the North Shore, including a huge 650 ft long Merry England display. Tableaux remain important, but many of the traditional displays, including the wonderful Alice in Wonderland tableaux, were damaged beyond repair during recent bad weather, leaving huge gaps along the seafront. Unfortunately in age of austerity, we are unlikely to see large scale displays like this return to Blackpool in the near future. At least Northern Lights gives us some indication about what these spectacular displays were like.

For information about future screenings please check out:

Thursday Lates

February 21st, 2013 - 14:25pm

Blackpool Illuminations

Blackpool Illuminations celebrated its centenary in 2012 and to mark the occasion, developed a range of new features.

Blackpool remains Britain’s most popular holiday resort, despite a gradual decline in visitor numbers over the past four decades, a continuing popularity indicated by the more than three million visitors to the autumnal event, Blackpool’s Illuminations. Following earlier experiments, in the 1920s the display was established to extend the traditional holiday season and has remained an annual institution ever since, war and rationing permitting. Each year, the Illuminations run throught September and October. Extending for nearly six miles along the sea front, the varied mix of illuminations includes more than 500 scenic designs and features lasers, neon, fibre optics, LEDs, the world’s largest mirrorball, searchlights and floodlighting. image004Illuminated designs attached to roadside lamposts form successive themes, lighting picks out landmarks such as the Tower, illuminated trams glide alongside the promenade, and large, animated tableaux flash and pulsate.

The designs are diverse in their animation, colour and form, and the different icons, motifs, forms and styles that have varied throughout the past century constitute an astonishing range of changing tastes and trends in British popular culture. Though enormously diverse, common themes include celebrity, film and television, myth, the ‘exotic’, modernity, toys, folk tales and nursery rhythms, Blackpool scenes, nature, glamour, national identity, science fiction, historical scenes and the supernatural. What is remarkable about Blackpool is that in an era of contracting out services and competitive tendering, it remains a largely locally produced and funded display – although celebrity designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen has had substantial creative input in recent years.image002 Illuminations are designed at the depot by people who understand the particular tastes of visitors and the traditions that make the lights so distinctive. This means that the Illuminations sidestep ‘cool’ trends and fashions that install a sense of sameness elsewhere. The millions who come to Blackpool tend to follow longstanding family traditions of visiting the resort, their excited behaviour contributes to the unique, convivial atmosphere during the Illuminations. We consider Blackpool Illuminations to be a fabulous example of the power of illumination to produce a strong sense of place and a space of excitement, despite it being overlooked by most taste-makers, perhaps like the lights of the fairground and the Christmas Lights referred to elsewhere.

February 18th, 2013 - 13:31pm