COMING UP BLACKPOOL
Published: September 2005
Four years ago I was given the choice of filming in either Blackpool or Italy. Much to the shock and, in some cases, outright disgust of friends and colleagues I opted for Blackpool. It's not that I'd lost my sense of taste or proportion. Quite simply, I'd always wanted to visit Blackpool and the bucolic joys of Northern Italy's lakes and mountains seemed better saved for a time when getting safely from the hotel lobby to the coach unaided will constitute an activity holiday.
I've since spent many weekends in Blackpool. It's one of my favourite destinations. If you're the type of person who thinks the whiff of a deep fat fryer will ruin your Armani top or you're as uptight as your brand new Gucci loafers, nothing I say from here on in will make any sense or difference. On the other hand, for those willing to let their hair down and engage with Blackpool on its own terms, the jewel of the Fylde Riviera is a great getaway that dishes up a few surprises.
Blackpool is designed to be enjoyed in the company of good mates. So this summer, on the back of a three week stint in Jordan, I put the glories of the desert and the Dead Sea behind me, and headed north in the company of Dr Tim, an old friend who has himself competed many times at the Tower Ballroom in his days as a teenage Come Dancing wannabe.
The famous illuminations weren't on; they are now, through to the end of October. In fact, it was the illuminations that put Blackpool on the map.
Back in the 1930s, the town's good burghers, with almost prophetic foresight, anticipated a time when the British seaside resort would lose its charms. The fact they also wanted to keep the holidaymakers' cash flowing in through the autumn months is by the by. In 1934 the illuminations made their debut. And they worked. Today, the tourists start tramming in from July but October half-term remains Blackpool's busiest week. In 1934, Blackpool had already acquired its other signature landmark. The Tower was built in 1894 as an homage to that one in Paris, and as a practical entertainment centre where visitors could escape the uncertain northwest climate. The Winter Gardens - the clue's in the name - served the same purpose though nowadays they're more famous as the scene of political jousting at the great Labour Party Conferences of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
In the near-century that's gone by, Blackpool was the annual two-week stalwart of the Northern and Scottish working classes and is now the stag and hen weekend destination of choice where would-be brides and grooms seem intent on drinking themselves into a state of matrimony. British tastes have shifted overseas and attractions like the Sealife Centre seem shoddy by comparison with the aquariums of Monterey and Barcelona whilst a bout of bingo is as du jour as a game of Buckaroo.
Still, Blackpool battles on, with plans to reinvent itself as the Las Vegas of Northwestern Europe, replete with lakes, parkland, and mind-boggling casino resorts. This is subject to the government arriving at a decision on the exisiting gaming laws that prohibit entertainment and accommodation in casinos. The decision is currently earmarked for 2005. In the meantime the town is as you'd expect; a squall of fish and chip shops, drunken lads, cackling girlies, and humongous sticks of rock that seem unfit for any human orifice. The beach may have given up the fags, condoms and other detritus which not so long ago resulted in a health warning but there ain't no one going to swear that sea is clean.
And in the midst of it all, like a drop of rain in a desert, a culture that often seems more Dry Martini than deeply meaningful has carved a niche for itself. We've snuck in, and the gay scene that's emerged seems as integral to the place as a Wobbly Willie lollipop. There are clubs, bars and entertainments to service the higher and more fundamental needs.
Dr Tim being a man of taste and discrimination, this time round we decided to empty our cosmetic bags at the grande dame of Blackpool hotels, the Imperial. Benignly she sits on the North Promenade, a proud Victorian lady. There is a health club but even so, the old love's looking a bit frayed around the edges. She needs some TLC and the Paramount Group that own her deserve a kick up the proverbial. The bar is of interest. It's aptly called the No.10, its walls a tabloid of past Premiers, Labour and Conservative, who've spent time there. The Imperial of course is not a gay establishment though bearing in mind the goings on which have no doubt echoed along its Axminstered corridors at party conferences past, I'm sure nary an eyebrow would be raised at a couple of the boys checking in.
Blackpool has 13 gay-friendly hotels recommended by the Tourist Board but THE gay layover is the Trades Hotel on Lord Street. A couple of terraced 30s houses have been knocked up into a pleasure palace to rival the court of Nero. Opulence however is not the keynote feature; worn and tired would be more accurate, which is exactly how you'd feel if you'd had your door handle rattled through the night by aprÃ¨s-clubbers in search of anyone they can get their hands on. On past visits, my hairnet has obviously been enough to frighten even the most desperate as I usually get the response "Oops! Sorry love, thought this was the loo." Trades big USP is the residents' bar and disco which often swings on 'til 7am and it's where residents and "guests" decant once the clubs have closed. And in Blackpool, that's 2am.
By day, Dr Tim and I head for the Pleasure Beach. I love amusement parks and having been fortunate enough to have been declared dead on some of the world's great rides, a few of Blackpool's bring me as close to the grave as I care to be at my age. Even the "woody", as aficionados call vintage wooden roller coasters, is enough to get the bones rattling and adrenalin pumping. My faves are the Big One, Europe's tallest and fastest roller coaster which by the way offers fantastic views across the town, and Valhalla, a six minute journey through the Viking afterlife with plenty of fire and ice effects. Dr Tim unfortunately doesn't have the constitution for thrill rides so we made do with the Log Flume, which was fun but succeeded in upsetting me. I got my hair wet. Time at the Pleasure Beach however is time well spent in my book if only to assure me that my nervous system is fully functioning. A ticket that provides access to all rides as many times as you want comes in at Â£26.
By night, the ignorant would suppose that diners have little option but to head for the nearest chippy. Well, I'm far from being a fan of the fatty little buggers and I'm not happy about Dr Tim indulging his vices so early in the evening but luckily, to the consternation of the uninitiated, Blackpool has some restaurants serving top nosh. There's September's Brasserie on Queen Street. Perched above a hairdressers, a small dining room serves up the likes of foie gras, scallops, and Gressingham duck at Â£19.50 for two courses, Â£22.50 for the full monty. Portions are generous though the service can be a bit amateur. And that white building which rarely registers with the tourists at the entrance to the Pleasure Beach is home to the White Tower Restaurant. A lift to the 2nd floor takes you to a space which gazes out up the prom through a swathe of curved windows like some chic dining room in the prow of a cruise liner. The food veers from cous-cous to monkfish, the service is impeccable and two courses come in at around Â£20. And yes, they do serve chips though at the White Tower the fatty tatties are presented in a nifty mini frying basket.
And then, Funny Girls. The presence of a world-class drag extravaganza that beats even those on the real Riviera may seem incongruous but when you bear in mind all those seasonal end-of-prom goings on and Lancashire's great tradition of camp best exemplified by vintage Coronation Street, Funny Girls seems the logical conclusion. And its mainstream pedigree is exemplified by the fact it's mainly popular with straight audiences made up of people like my mother - which is how I came to hear about it. Funny Girls' curtains go up around 8.30pm and come down around 11.30pm. That's not to say the show bangs on interminably for three hours. There's plenty of time for drinking as it consists of a series of set pieces performed every half an hour or so. The show changes four times a year. The one I caught had a hysterical rendition of High On A Hill Lived A Lonely Goatherd involving some very shady goings-on with a toy goat, and a foretaste of the Broadway hit Thoroughly Modern Millie in which prima diva and choreographer Miss Betty Legs Diamond seized the leading role and gently massaged it to life between her well-exercised thighs. Admission to Funny Girls starts from Â£4.50 for standing room on a Friday.
In April 2002 Funny Girls relocated to what was until recently a derelict cinema on Dickson Road. It's now a camp complex, beautifully restored, with a gay club called Bar B's accessed via an entrance on the side of the building, and eventually, it will be home to Blackpool's most famous gay nightspot, Flamingo's.
The old Flamingo's and its partner in crime, the Flying Handbag Pub, are being knocked down in the next two years to make way for a shopping precinct. In the meantime, the bird battles on. It's a huge multi-level space which in its time has hosted the Mr Gay UK final. We visited on a Friday night when it was obvious that most punters had opted to be elsewhere, and a Saturday night when I could barely squeeze through the hot bodies and dry ice. I thought I was back on the Valhalla. With our dancing days behind us, and no one willing to partner Dr Tim in a paso doble, we actually preferred Bar B's where the space is less overwhelming, the music less driven, and the clientele less preoccupied. Not counting the two dykes on stage who could've engulfed Holland. It's what you would call an entertainment club. Men's men, or as near as you'll get, head for Pepe's on Talbot Road. It's a basement bar where the stairwell doubles as a stripper's gallery. Yes, that what Pepe's does best. The nearest Blackpool's gay scene gets to the tens of straight drinking holes littering the prom is Mardi Gras just up from Pepe's. This is a working men's club with a gay clientele where the crowd is gently and deftly worked by the gaargeous Miss Stella Artois. We loved it.
Blackpool is an acquired taste, the acquisition of which remains sadly for many a dubious pursuit. Personally, what sets Blackpool apart for me from the likes of Torquay, Bournemouth, and that other trendy Regency resort down south, is the people. When a straight-faced waiter whispers in my ear "I wouldn't touch the soup, love, it's shite," not only do I laugh, but I also know I'm in safe, warm hands. And there comes a stage when that's all any of us can hope for.
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COMING UP BLACKPOOL
Gareth has been with TRAVEL CHANNEL since its launch in 1994. He has produced and presented on TRAVEL LIVE and THE TRAVEL BUG, produced ESSENTIAL... and reports on TRAVEL TODAY. He is a regular contributor to the website. In 2010 he produced the hit series THE HOLIDAY SHOW which he also co-presented with Ginny Buckley. Gareth’s passions are history, culture, food & drink.