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Blackpool Tower

Blackpool Illuminations

Everything you need to know about the world-famous Illuminations - from their history to the famous names who have switched them on.

Click on the headings below to find out more:




What are they?


To fans they are known as the “Eighth wonder of the world” or “The Greatest Free Show on Earth”: six miles of illuminated Blackpool water front, from Squires Gate to Red Bank Road, glitters for 66 nights from late August to November. The lights are an important draw for tourists as the summer season comes to an end.

Here is one 15-year-old visitor's description from 1953 (as quoted in the 1954 Illuminations Souvenir Brochure)


“We had only been outside for a few minutes when a great sigh came from the millions of people strolling along. All the colours of the rainbow suddenly winked into the darkness of the night, as the illuminations came on. We felt very excited as we climbed on to a high horse-drawn carriage. Slowly we went along the promenade, gazing at the masses of colour and feeling very happy. We turned round to look at the Tower standing like a guard over the rest of the lights." Jennifer Grahame


The Illuminations consist of almost every kind of light display you can imagine: lasers, neon, light bulbs, fibre optics, searchlights and floodlighting. In 2005 there were more than 500 scenic designs and features. There are set pieces made out of wood studded with light bulbs: the characters and objects portrayed seem to “move” by way of winking lights. Three-dimensional illuminated scenes are also popular. There are 500 road features attached to lamp posts linked together with festoon lighting. Strings of lights along the structure of buildings pick out landmarks in luminous detail – you can always make out the Tower and the Pleasure Beach rides in this way. All the hotels on the east side of the Promenade are floodlit in colour sequence. Even the trams on which you can tour the lights are illuminated and decorated with specific themes. There has been a Wild West tram, a Space Rocket and the Trawler (sponsored by local business, Fisherman’s Friend). You become part of the magi


The displays aren’t completely different each year, old favourites are kept on and a few innovations introduced. 


A brief history of the illuminations

Illuminations
The world-famous Blackpool Illuminations
©Tim Gartside / Alamy
September 19, 1879


A world first: eight arc lamps are used to create “artificial sunshine” emitting the equivalent of the light from 48,000 candles. The technology is extremely new - it is only in this year that the first English patent for a light bulb is granted. More than 70,000 people travel to Blackpool to see the demonstration.


May, 1912


First Royal visit to Blackpool: festoons of garland lights are used to decorate the new section of promenade being opened by Princess Louise. It looks very impressive.


September, 1912


Back by to popular demand! The same display is re-staged as it had proved to be such a big draw for tourists and a boost for commerce.


September, 1913


And again! This time the displays are overseen by Frederick Fields, who becomes known as “The Magician of the Lights”. Mr Fields remains director of the lights until 1949.


August 4, 1914


Britain declares war on Germany. No Illuminations for several years.


1923 and1924


Carnivals held in these years feature modest light displays.


1925


Ambitious display schemes make a comeback! Lights are festooned along the Promenade from Manchester Square to Cocker Square. The lights become an annual event.


1932


Clifftop extravaganzas! Animated tableaux on the clifftops between North Shore and Bispham are added. Four million visitors come to see the lights this year. They have now reached their present day length of six miles.


August 31, 1939


A special preview of the spectacular lights planned for that year is held, including the first appearance of the famous searchlight from the top of the Tower. The very next morning, German troops storm into Poland taking Britain into the second world war. A countrywide blackout is imposed and the lights are never switched on. Rationing of fuel means that the lights stay dark even after the end of the war.


September 16, 1949


Government permission is granted to burn the amount of fuel required to bring back the lights! Much is made of the fact that Frederick Field comes out of retirement to supervise proceedings. A spectacular display on the cliffs portrays a deep sea diver’s world of tropical vegetation. At over 200ft long and 22ft high it is an amazing sight. Actress Anna Neagle is the celebrity chosen to switch on the lights. For a list of others who have had this honour, see the section below on the Switch-on ceremony. The lights now become an annual event, with no interruptions!


1953


Nursery rhymes come alive! The first 3D illuminations are displayed on the cliffs in Nursery Rhyme Land.


1982


The future arrives: lasers are used to illuminate the Tower for the first time.


2005


Your name in lights: the fusion of text messaging and the Illuminations. By paying £1.50 you can text your message and see it written by laser on a 100ft x 20ft screen on Blackpool Promenade. All proceeds go towards the Illuminations budget for the following year.


The Illuminations and the Tower


The Tower is illuminated at night all year round but is a focal point during the 66-night run of the Illuminations each year. 


In 1953 the Tower was given the nickname “Queen of the Lights”. The Tower itself is always decorated with strings of lights, outlining its structure against the dark sky. It takes 10,000 light bulbs to stretch up past the crow’s nest to the flagpole.


The famous searchlight which shines out from the top of the Tower was designed to be part of the 1939 Illuminations, but didn’t actually get used until 1949. To find out why, see the Brief history (above).


The Illuminations have always been at the cutting edge of lighting technology. 1982 was the first year when lasers were used in the illumination of the Tower.


Due to its prominence as a landmark, the Tower is a hugely desirable spot for big companies wanting to promote their products. In order to help keep the Illuminations free, sponsorship is always being sought by the organisers. 1994 was the first year that the Pepsi logo appeared on the Tower as part of the Illuminations and others have since followed suit.


The best place to see the Illuminations in all their splendour? The top of the Blackpool Tower, of course!


Old favourites

We’d like to hear from you about which displays you enjoy visiting from year to year, or any particularly spectacular illuminations you remember. Write to us at [email protected] and we’ll try to feature as many as we can! Maybe these examples will jog your memory…

  • Popular displays in the post-war years often had a nursery rhyme theme: Mary, Mary Quite Contrary watering her garden, for example, or the mouse running up the clock. In 1953, the first 3D illuminations were tried-out in Nursery Rhyme Land.

  • A rejuvenating machine which showed old men going in one end and being transformed into fairies and children when they came out.

  • The Juggling Seals.

  • The Fairy Wedding.

  • The Palace Of Fountains.

  • On a more human note, 1949 saw the inclusion selection of five golfing tableaux, a favourite from before the war.

  • The Windmill.

  • Some of the displays celebrated moments from English history. In 1952 there was a stunning display, in the style of a stained glass window, showing Elizabeth I and Francis Drake playing bowls. A tableau of Merrie England was also a long-running favourite.

  • Literary scenes are also popular - especially the novels of Charles Dickens, which provide some recognisable dramatic moments. The centenary of the death of Lewis Carroll was commemorated with an Alice In Wonderland tableau. Click here to learn more about Alice.

  • Well-loved pantomime scenes are often included: Dick Whittington, Cinderella and Aladdin have all had their moment. The 1955 lights included a special section entitled Pantomime Land. The lights that year were switched on by Russian Ambassador Jacob Malik – what do you think he made of these English traditions?

  • The displays also tried to look beyond England in their scope. 1950 saw an elaborate tableau at the South Shore Bath showing scenes from early American pioneer life complete with cowboys, wagon trail and “Red Indian” encampment. There’s been an Ancient Egyptian display as well as Alien Attack. In the 1990s there was a long-running display entitled Into Europe featuring flags from the countries in the EEC.

  • Bajra, commissioned in 2003, was a beautiful illuminated float in the shape of a peacock. It was designed by Nandita Palchoudhuri and created in Chandannagar, West Bengal, by the lighting expert Sridhar Das.

  • The Catch Phrase tableau provided an interactive element where on-lookers had to guess the popular catchphrase depicted by the illuminated scenes.

  • Canine Capers: yes, you’ve guessed it, images of pet dogs in humorous poses.

  • Famous faces from Hollywood and TV stars are often celebrated. Coronation Street regulars have appeared with their names and faces up in lights, as well as participating in two switch-on ceremonies.

  • An award for the worst pun involved in the naming of a display has to go to McDonald’s (and it had some stiff competition!) The display they sponsored celebrating footballing achievements over the years is named the GOALden Mile.

Switch-on ceremony

The official switch-on ceremony launches each year’s Illuminations with a fittingly star-spangled occasion. A topical popular celebrity is chosen to do the honours, and the range of names tells us a lot about changing trends in English culture since the first formal ceremony in 1934. If you look closely, you will notice that not all of the celebrities have been human! 1934 Lord Derby 1935 Audrey Mosson (Railway Queen) 1936 Sir Josiah Stamp 1937 Duke of Kent (following an earlier switch-on by Alderman Ashton)

1938 Councillor Mrs Quayle

1939 Cancelled due to the blackout regulations for the second world war. There were no Illuminations for ten years.

1949 Anna Neagle

1950 Wilfred Pickles

1951 Stanley Matthews

1952 Valerie Hobson

1953 George Formby

1954 Gilbert Harding

1955 Jacob Malik (Russian Ambassador)

1956 Reginald Dixon

1957 John H Witney (US Ambassador)

1958 ‘Matty’ Matthews

1959 Jayne Mansfield

1960 Janet Munro

1961 Violet Carson

1962 Shirley Ann Field

1963 Cliff Michelmore

1964 Gracie Fields

1965 David Tomlinson

1966 Ken Dodd

1967 Dr Horace King (Speaker of the House of Commons)

1968 Sir Matt Busby

1969 Canberra Bomber

1970 Tony Blackburn

1971 Cast of Dad’s Army

1972 Danny La Rue

1973 Gordon Banks

1974 Wendy Craig

1975 Tom Baker

1976 Carol Ann Grant (Miss UK)

1977 Red Rum

1978 Terry Wogan

1979 Kermit the Frog and the Muppets

1980 Cannon and Ball

1981 Earl and Countess of Spencer

1982 Rear Admiral "Sandy" Woodward

1983 Coronation Street's Doris Speed (Annie Walker)

1984 Johannes Rau (Minister-President, North Rhine Westphalia) and David Waddington, QC, MP (Minster of State, Home Office)

1985 Joanna Lumley (on behalf of BBC Children in Need)

1986 Les Dawson

1987 BBC Holiday Programme team: Frank Bough, Ann Gregg and Kathy Taylor

1988 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman

1989 Frank Bruno

1990 Coronation Street’s Julie Goodyear and Roy Barraclough (Bet and Alec Gilroy)

1991 Derek Jameson and Judith Chalmers

1992 Lisa Stansfield

1993 Status Quo and the Radio 1 Roadshow

1994 Shirley Bassey with the National Jazz Youth Orchestra and the JFM 100.4 Roadshow

1995 The Bee Gees and the Radio 1 Roadshow

1996 Eternal and the Radio 1 Roadshow

1997 Michael Ball and the Radio 2 Roadshow

1998 Chris de Burgh and the Radio 2 Roadshow

1999 Gary Barlow and the Radio 2 Roadshow

2000 Westlife with Billie Piper and the Radio 2 Roadshow

2001 Steps and the Radio 2 Roadshow

2002 Ronan Keating and the Radio 2 Roadshow

2003 Blue and the Radio 2 Roadshow

2004 Geri Halliwell and the Radio 2 Roadshow

2005 Chris Evans and the Radio 2 Roadshow


The Illuminations as public art

Now, you might not consider the Blackpool Illuminations as art, you might not consider them to be innovation, but the Illuminations have always employed cutting-edge technology, and a great deal of skill as well as artistic imagination is used to create them.

Forty-five people, including artists, electricians, joiners, mechanics, scenic painters and engineers are employed full-time to maintain the installations and create new ones to amaze us every year. The workshops at Rigby Road, where they put everything together, are like a treasure trove covering 12,100 metres square.

In 2005 a new festival was started alongside the Illuminations, called the Festival of Light. This showcased the work of a large number of designers and artists from all over the world, each of whom work with light as their medium in some way. There was a huge range of installations featuring everything from recycled household waste to live piranha fish. You can find out more about it by going to www.festivaloflight.co.uk

If you want to learn more about Public Art, click here to explore another of our icons, the Angel of the North.