Name Dropper, Chapter 7
The Golden Mile
Thirty-Two Years of Candyfloss
By Peter Wills……..
The Golden Mile
Thirty-Two Years of Candyfloss
Blackpool was the last place on earth that I wanted to go! It was OK for a day visit or to see the illuminations, but to live there? No thank you! But when it meant a job or no job, there was very little choice. Anyway, it would only be for couple of years – or so I thought!
Thirty-two years later I was somewhat sad to leave but retirement and a warm Mediterranean climate, hopefully for the rest of my life, was too big an attraction.
But, my arrival in Blackpool meant that from a marketing aspect, I was now responsible for four theatres; one at the end of each of the three piers and the fabulous 3000 seater Opera House. Plus the Tower Ballroom and famous Tower Circus; the magnificent Winter Gardens and a few other attractions besides.
These were the days of the full Summer Season shows with big star names heading the bill and an “all-star” cast in support. And, as it was Blackpool, the season carried on almost till the end of the Illuminations which was usually the first weekend in November.
Opening nights were always a big affair. All the local gentry, the press and, of course, all the landladies, would be invited to see the shows for themselves and then, in the latter case, hopefully tell all their visitors during the season, just how good it was! Then afterwards, for the press and VIPs, there would be an opening night party with free-flowing food and drink and an invitation to “mingle with the stars”.
Having met most of the artistes during the shows’ rehearsal, it was my job to co-host the parties and make sure that the “right people” were introduced to the stars. By the “right people”, I mean those in high places within the community together with those that we wanted to keep sweet (for one reason or another), or those who might actually be able to do us some good from a business sense.
Over the years I met many of the big names of the day; Frank Ifield, Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, Dana, Norman Collier, Bernie Clifton, Duncan Norville, The Krankies, Keith Harris and Orville (see also next chapter), Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson,, The Nolans, The Grumbleweeds, Mike Yarwood, Susan Maughan, The Bachelors, Ruth Madoc and Paul Shane of Hi-de-Hi fame (of which more, later), Michael Barrymore, Roy Walker, Frank Carson, Russ Abbot and many, many more.
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As a marketing man, and not by any means wishing to blow my own trumpet, so to speak, I was always at the forefront in coming up with new ideas to promote our venues and Blackpool itself. Also as a former newspaper reporter and P.R. man, I’ve always believed that if you can get a picture in the press – yours or anyone else’s – it’s better than 1000 words.
And so, the following two picture stunts came to happen!
Tower to Tower phone link!
Blackpool businesses were highly competitive and extremely jealous and although the council, through its publicity department, promoted the resort as a whole, there was no co-operation between the businesses – hotels or attractions – to co-ordinate their sales drives to which all would benefit.
That was, until I came along! Never afraid of “sticking my oar in”, I managed to set up a joint council, hotels and attractions organisation which we called the Blackpool Holiday Consortium and one of the first things we did was to set up a Package Holiday Company, produced a brochure and launched it through travel agents, British Rail and National Coaches. The product was “Blackpool Budget Holidays”. It was the first time ever that a British Resort had promoted itself in this way and followed the lines of the then reasonably common overseas packaged holidays, the brochures of which lined the shelves of travel agencies throughout the country.
Apart from press and radio advertising, we needed to launch this new product in a spectacular way.
An extremely popular show on television at that time, was “Hi-de-Hi” starring Ruth Madoc and Paul Shane. The show was being converted from TV to the stage and was booked for the following summer season at the Opera House. And, of course, all the show’s stars would need accommodation when they arrived in Blackpool. What if they booked a Blackpool Budget Holiday, I thought! So, how do we make it spectacular?
Ruth, Paul and the company were rehearsing in London at the time, so I arranged to get a special telephone line rigged up (with the help of British Telecom) from the top of Tower Bridge in London, to the top of Blackpool Tower, and, accompanied by the chief of Trusthouse Forte Leisure, Sir Bernard Delfont, the reigning Miss Blackpool and myself, Ruth and Shane made the phone call to Blackpool to book their hotel!
At the Blackpool end, at the top of the tower, the Mayor and Mayoress received the call and the booking and hotfooted it (by limousine of course), to the Blackpool Budget Holidays Office and cut the ribbon to open the new business, before placing the all important hotel booking.
The ‘stunt’ must have happened at what they call the ‘funny season’ in the press, when there’s very little news around – obviously there were no football scandals and parliament must have been in recess – so photographs appeared in the national press and Blackpool Budget Holidays got off to a flying start.
If you want a bit of bully – get a real bull!
The following year, the Central Pier Theatre was presenting the stage adaptation of the hit TV show “Bullseye” starring the TV host Jim Bowen. For those who never saw the show, it was a game show with members of the public throwing darts in order to win prizes. Of course, if they hit the bull, they got the best prize or as Jim would say, “Super, Smashing, Great”, or “You can’t beat a bit of bully”. If they got two darts in the same segment of the board, Jim would say, “You get nothing for two in a bed and here’s your BFH, (Bus Fare Home).
So, what sort of stunt can you pull to promote a darts show – it wasn’t even a competition with big name darts stars.
I know, get a bit of bully. So I did, a huge monster, prize-winning Herefordshire bull! I swear I have never seen a bull so big and there I was, along with Jim, holding onto its bloody ears on central promenade, Blackpool. It snorted and slobbered and posed like a cherub while the press and television took their pictures and carried out the interviews.
All went well until one of Blackpool’s famous old trams went rumbling by. Bully did not like that one bit and decided enough was enough! Off he charged down the promenade with Jim and I in tow and a rather flustered farmer chasing behind. But the tram was faster than bully and he gave up the charging as a bad job and came to a grinding halt leaving Jim and I very breathless and rather relieved. The farmer soon took charge of his magnificent beast and led him gently back to his transporter with neither the bull, us or the public any the worse for wear. Bet the tram was frightened though!
Jim and I met several times after that when he was doing The Comedians show and when he was a presenter on Radio Lancashire. He always said that if I ever pulled a stunt like the one with the bull again, it would be the last one I ever did!
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Brotherhood of Man are a British pop group who achieved success in the 1970’s, most notably by winning the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest with “Save Your Kisses for Me”.
The song became a major hit around the world, selling over 6 million copies of the record and is still the highest selling ever Eurovision song winner.
In the early eighties, they were performing in Blackpool for the summer season when they were invited to appear as guests of the BBC2 show “6.55 Special” which was recorded at BBC Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. The Presenter was Sally James.
For the TV show’s 7-week run which was shown daily, the resident special star was American David Soul of “Starsky and Hutch” fame who had made his home in Britain, following two very successful British concert tours. He would travel the countryside doing a variety of outside broadcasts and so came to Blackpool to film some sequences with Brotherhood of Man, who had opened for him on one of his concert tours.
My job was to facilitate the filming requirements on the piers, the Tower and at the Winter Gardens and that also included collecting David each morning from the Imperial Hotel, where he was staying in the “Churchill Suite” , (named after Winston Churchill, who, along with his successors made the Imperial their headquarters for the Conservative Party Political Conferences which were traditionally held in Blackpool). But I digress!
For a ‘big star’, I have never met anyone who was so down to earth. It was a pleasure to meet him and ferry him around to the various filming locations, one of which was Blackpool’s Stanley Park where, for whatever reason, he had to row a small boat on the lake. Somehow, he managed to capsize it and had to be pulled from the water looking like a drunken rat. Whether that sequence ever got transmitted I don’t know.
Speaking to David fairly recently and recalling the incident he said that appearing on the programme was “like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, travelling all around the U.K. doing all sorts of interesting things, but falling in that lake was not one of them”!
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Blackpool is, of course, famous for its ‘kiss-me-quick’ hats, candy floss, amusement rides, fish and chips and an abundant array of fortune tellers.
The Trusthouse Forte Group were holding a big trade and corporate business exhibition at their flagship hotel, The Grosvenor in Park Lane, London and each division of the Company had a stand to promote their particular products. It was decided that the leisure division would give their stand a Blackpool theme complete with one of the Golden Mile’s fortune tellers.
Visitors to the stand would deposit their business cards in a bowl and “Gypsy Petrulengro” would tell their past and future. Generally speaking, she was very accurate as I personally discovered when she read my palm on the train journey down to London. However, when Sir Charles Forte himself, came to visit the stand – and not having met him previously or knowing who he was – she was 100% accurate. She described him as of Italian descent, very big in the catering business and a man who would change peoples eating habits when they were travelling. Little did she know how true that was, for just a few days earlier, he had signed a deal to take over and run the chain of Little Chef Restaurants.
Sir Charles was very complimentary about the impressiveness of the stand and wished me well in my career with the Company. Actually I left the company shortly after that to form my own marketing and PR business – but that’s another story.
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Blackpool has always had its fair share of resident celebrities including in former years, George Formby, Violet Carson (Ena Sharples of Coronation Street fame) and many more.
More recently there has been, Roy Walker, Les Dawson, Russell Grant, Sid Little, Keith Harris, Lenny Bennett, Frank Carson, circus ringmaster Norman Barratt, Joey Blower, Eric Delaney, the famous drummer and many, many more.
Despite the size of the place, for the residents it was quite a small community and whether in restaurants or out shopping one was always bumping into the local celebrities.
I used to meet Russell Grant shopping with his mother at my local butchers; I delivered Betterware products to Keith Harris at his home; met Roy Walker at the local recording studio run by my long-term friend and entertainer, Kelvin Futers plus Sid Little and Frank Carson in the restaurant complex where I worked for eight years. I met Eric Delaney many times in the Tower Ballroom where he did summer residencies and also at Summerland, in the Isle of Man, which was another Trusthouse Forte venue for which I was responsible.
Blackpool, then, afforded me many opportunities to mix and mingle with the famous. I was there for 34 years until I retired. It was the last place I ever wanted to go to but it turned out to be very difficult to leave, except that I now live in much sunnier climes and where the pace of life is more suited to my aging years!
Look out for the next part of my story – “Casual Encounters” coming very soon.
With thanks to all the celebrities and personalities for their pure existence, without whom this book would not have been possible.
And with special thanks to all of those who took the time and trouble to act as ordinary people, happy to meet with ‘their public’ and discuss the facts of everyday life.
Also with sincere apologies to anyone I have left out. It’s either because I have forgotten you or the memory of you wasn’t worth recalling