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Why Blackpool’s Winter Gardens is a venue for all seasons

Although it looks wooden, no wood was used to create the Baronial Hall
Although it looks wooden, no wood was used to create the Baronial Hall

Blackpool is a town like no other. While other Lancashire towns grew after the discovery of coal or the boom of the Industrial Revolution, Blackpool was built on fun, entertainment and the promise of laughter.

This is a town that has never done thing by halves. The town’s motto, which it has always strived to live up to, is Progress – and one building in particular demonstrates that.

The first tourists came here for the healthy fresh air, but once the railway arrived in the mid-1800s, so did the pleasure-seekers and attractions sprang up to keep the visitors excited and keen to return – the piers, the tower and promenade shows all entertained the masses in the summer months.

It became the first town in the world to have electric street lighting and it made the most of the new phenomenon with a promenade light show that extended the summer season continues to attract visitors in their droves – this year the Illuminations will shine until January 1, 2024.

Great British Life: The stunning Empress Ballroom - one of more than 400 rooms in the Winter GardensThe stunning Empress Ballroom - one of more than 400 rooms in the Winter Gardens

But Blackpool wanted year-round appeal and in the 1870s the biggest building project the town had ever seen created an indoor palace of entertainment. The Winter Gardens opened in July 1878 and was home to a glass-roofed floral hall for promenading, indoor and outdoor skating rinks and the pavilion hall.

A decade later the Opera House was added and that was followed in the next few years by the Empress Ballroom, one of the largest in the world, and – on land next door – a big wheel.

In 1930 the Olympia Exhibition Hall was added and a rebuilt Opera House opened at the end of that decade, boasting a stage that is the biggest in the country and the widest in the world. It is now the fourth highest capacity theatre in the country, with 2801 seats.

The Winter Gardens has hosted political party conferences, Royal Variety Performances, festivals, dancing and celebrations of every musical genre you can think of, and plenty more you can’t. It has seen performances by everyone who has ever been anyone, including Morecambe and Wise, whose statue stands in the foyer.

Great British Life: The Spanish Hall is one of the Winter gardens more eccentric spacesThe Spanish Hall is one of the Winter gardens more eccentric spaces Great British Life: The glass-roofed floral hall was built for promenadingThe glass-roofed floral hall was built for promenading

And the spirit of Progress lives on. Today the grand building remains true to its Victorian intentions: providing year-round entertainment and continuing to develop. A £30m state-of-the-art conference and exhibition centre opened last year. The café has been given a £1.2m revamp and the Opera House now has an art deco VIP lounge which has been restored and repainted.

Anthony Williams grew up in Blackpool and can recall his early experiences of the theatre. ‘I grew up in a bakery and we’d get two free tickets for putting a poster in the window,’ he said. ‘I saw Summer Holiday here and shows at the Grand.

‘There is no building quite like this and so many people have a relationship with the building. It’s such an exciting place to live and work.’

He’s now the head of marketing and he added: ‘The council bought the building in 2010, bringing it into public ownership for the first time and they wanted to bring back the big summer seasons. Mamma Mia came in 2013 and I was approached to come in a look after that in the Opera House.

Great British Life: The Victoria Street entrance and pavilion in the 1890sThe Victoria Street entrance and pavilion in the 1890s Great British Life: The big wheel stood beside the Winter GardensThe big wheel stood beside the Winter Gardens

‘We didn’t have an established audience in the Opera House at that point and we needed to grow the audience in order to be able to convince producers to come back with big shows.’

It’s safe to say they have done that. In the last financial year, ticket sales were up 91 per cent and the Winter Gardens welcomed more than 1.3m visitors from 50 different nations who broke the venue’s box office records time and again, helped in part by blockbuster shows Six, Elf, A Christmas Spectacular and the returning Mamma Mia.

And this month the Winter Gardens will host one of the biggest shows there is – the nationwide tour of Shrek the Musical will spend Christmas in Blackpool, putting those box office records at risk of being shattered once more.

But although it stands at the heart of Blackpool’s showbiz heritage and attracts audiences from across a huge area, some who live in the town have never seen a show there.

 

Anthony said: ‘Some people don’t feel the theatre is for them and we want to change that narrative. We give away hundreds of tickets to enable people to access shows and events but we still find there are people who don’t engage.

‘For some people just getting into town is an issue and there are some children who live here who have not seen the sea. I want to help give people that same buzz I had when I first went to the theatre and to change their course.’

And some locals won’t just see shows at the Winter Gardens, they will be able to work on them as well.

Encore Productions is a platform dedicated to creating an arts space offering workshops, training, and masterclasses where people can gain the skills and experience to be on stage and backstage without having to leave Blackpool, in disciplines from music production to technical theatre, DJ’ing to special effects makeup.

Great British Life: The new conference centre opened last yearThe new conference centre opened last year

‘Blackpool was built on entertainment and a lot of people here have the theatre in their blood, like me,’ Anthony added. ‘A lot of that talent has always felt like it had to leave the town to get the experience and skills needed to build a career. We will host a series of masterclasses and stage our first co-production in the Opera House in March, fully created by people from Blackpool.’

And there are signs of progress around the town too; there is major work going on to better connect Blackpool North railway station to the tram network, the Showtown museum will open on the Prom in the spring, and new cafes, restaurants and bars have given diners different options.

‘Not all that long ago Blackpool was completely on its arse and although I still don’t think there’s a government focus on places like Blackpool, the town has done a lot for itself and there is a perception that Blackpool is changing,’ Anthony said. ‘There are more places to eat, those big shows are coming back regularly and we’ve had national newspaper food reviewers coming here – who would have thought a couple of decades ago that would happen?’

* To find out more, check listings or book tickets, go to wintergardensblackpool.co.uk



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