Risque jokes have long been a feature of stage shows in Blackpool, Britain’s cheeky home of seaside fun. Traditionally, quite a few of these are told at the expense of the town, known for its autumn illuminations, with gentler gags noting how much better it looks in the dark.
Now the London opening of Jez Butterworth’s latest play, The Hills of California,set in the Lancashire resort, has added more quotable lines to the list. It begins inside a Blackpool boarding house in the baking hot summer of 1976, with one character complaining: “Up in town it’s all ‘kiss-me-quick, mine’s a choc-ice’ – out here in the backstreets, carnage!”
In a month’s time, Blackpool’s great legacy of holiday entertainment, from donkey rides to variety shows, magic tricks and ballroom dancing, are all to be honoured on a grand scale,with the opening of Showtown, a major new museum. Costing £15m and planned for a decade, a lot now rests on its sparkly displays of sequins, music hall posters, and showbiz artefacts, including the late Tommy Cooper’s famous red fez and, of course, an example of the essential tourist’s kiss-me-quick hat.
“We want to celebrate the brilliance of Blackpool,” said Showtown’s chief executive, Elizabeth Moss. “It is about restoring pride and putting the spotlight back on us.”
The town’s association with the entertainment industry dates back to its emergence as the principal holiday destination for the working man and woman more than a century ago. It offered struggling families some affordable excitement, plus a glimpse of big-name performers.
It also fed an escapist yearning for Hollywood glamour that is key to The Hills of California, which is now winning plaudits in London’s West End. Directed by Sam Mendes, also the writer’s collaborator on the Bond film Skyfall and the 2017 theatrical hit The Ferryman, the show tells of four sisters whose thwarted, star-struck mother is scheming for them all to make it big.
Inside Blackpool’s new museum, six galleries, spread over 100 square metres, will give lots of room to the pioneering days of seaside entertainment and to its leading celebrities. They range from singers such as Rochdale’s Gracie Fields and Wigan-born George Formby to clowns and comics Charlie Cairoli and Cumbria’s Stan Laurel, through to Liverpool’s Ken Dodd and the modern northern standup hero Peter Kay.
Dodd’s widow, Anne, has donated funds for a learning space bearing her husband’s name, where local young people can study their glittering heritage.
But Showtown, right behind the town’s famous tower, will have to deliver more than just fun. Its launch is part of an optimistic regeneration project for Blackpool, backed by a hefty partnership of business and heritage funds and designed to boost the economy by attracting more than 200,000 visitors.
In 2021, Blackpool council agreed to pay £250,000 a year for a lease, and then the Blackpool Heritage and Museum Trust was set up to revitalise a resort which, behind the gaudy glitz of the seafront, had lost much of its shine.
The town, breaking 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 were living in deprived homes, compared with 17% nationally.
On board the tram that slices down the Golden Mile, passing all three Blackpool piers, the conductor was brimful of civic pride last week, promising visitors “it’s a different town from April”, and dismissing the grey sky and empty streets.
On the prom, not many February visitors knew that a major 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 really good value.” He is a carer for his partner, Siobhan, and the couple travel in on the bus. “It’s Morecambe that needs help. There’s nothing there,” he said.
Louise, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Leeds, had booked a half-price deal at a guesthouse and has also visited since childhood. “It’s nice when you look out at the 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 couple of days.”
On the North Pier, posters promote shows featuring comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown while, set back from the sea, amusement arcades alternate with fortune teller booths, like that of Gypsy Petulengro, a long-established family business to be celebrated in a Showtown exhibit.
On the stairs leading into the museum, seaside colours set the tone below suspended letters that spell out a welcoming “Ha Ha Ha”. Billed as an “all-singing, all-dancing attraction for the whole family”, it hopes to dazzle children with interactive displays, including a clown car, but also to provide Instagrammable moments for young people, including an infinity light room and opportunities to jive and twist, or to learn about disco and the northern soul boom. (Appropriate enough for a venue that once hosted the 1980s ITV music show The Hitman and Her.)
Ballroom dancing and the town’s links with the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing also play a major role, with backstage detail and narration from the late judge Len Goodman. But there is serious history too, with rare archive imagery and unique curiosities, such as keepsakes fashioned from the brass of Nelson’s retired flagship, HMS Foudroyant, beached on Blackpool’s shore in 1897; an early Punch and Judy puppet; and a genuine lion tamer’s stick, complete with teethmarks, one of 27 objects donated by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Curator Jill Carruthers is also pleased that Showtown will not shy away from difficult content. The circus exhibits address the question of animal cruelty and visitors are invited to ponder the unkindness of the freak shows, so popular a century ago.
Whether this museum, coupled with refurbishments to the Winter Gardens, surrounding hotels and plans for other museums, can pull in enough crowds, will become clear in time. Investors, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Coastal Communities Fund, the Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund and the Lancashire Growth Deal, are all banking on it.
“This is a different kind of museum,” said a hopeful Moss. “One that will give people a glimpse behind the scenes of lots of worlds, including magic, which has its biggest international convention at the Winter Gardens later this week. Blackpool is central to so many sides of entertainment.”