Can Blackpool shake off its tacky image and win back the crowds?

<span>Blackpool’s famous tower.  The new Showtime Museum will showcase the resort’s entertainment heritage.</span><span>Photo: Pawel Libera/Getty Images</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 9c6b19249a7″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 19249a7″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Blackpool’s famous tower. The new Showtime Museum will showcase the resort’s entertainment heritage.Photo: Pawel Libera/Getty Images

Daring jokes have long been a hallmark of shows in Blackpool, Britain’s cheeky home of seaside fun. Traditionally, quite a few of these are told at the expense of the city, known for its autumnal lights, with softer jokes pointing out how much better it looks after dark.

Now is 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 opens in a Blackpool boarding house in the sweltering summer of 1976, with one character lamenting: ‘In the town it’s all ‘kiss me quick, mine’s a chocolate ice cream’. – here in the back streets, carnage!”

In a month’s time, Blackpool’s great heritage in holiday entertainment, from donkey rides to variety shows, magic tricks and ballroom dancing, will be honored on a grand scale with the opening of Showtown, a major new museum. It will cost £15 million and is planned to last a decade. Much now depends on the glittering 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 tourist’s essential kiss-me. -fast hat.

“We want to celebrate the brilliance of Blackpool,” said Showtown CEO Elizabeth Moss. “It’s about restoring pride and putting us back in the spotlight.”

The city’s association with the entertainment industry dates back to its emergence as the premier 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 names.

It also fueled an escapist desire for Hollywood glamour, which is key The hills of California, which is now receiving rave reviews 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 ferrymantells the show about four sisters whose thwarted, star-struck mother schemes to make them all great.

At Blackpool’s new museum, six galleries spread over 100 square meters will give a lot of space to the pioneering days of seaside entertainment and to the most important celebrities. They range from singers such as Rochdale’s Gracie Fields and Wigan-born George Formby, to clowns and comedians Charlie Cairoli and Stan Laurel from Cumbria, to Liverpool’s Ken Dodd and modern northern stand-up hero Peter Kay.

Dodd’s widow, Anne, has donated money for a learning space bearing her husband’s name, where local young people can study their wonderful heritage.

But Showtown, just behind the city’s famous tower, will have to offer more than just fun. The launch is part of an optimistic regeneration project for Blackpool, supported by a strong partnership of businesses 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 the Blackpool Heritage and Museum Trust was subsequently established to revive a resort that, behind the garish glitter of the seafront, had lost much of its luster.

The city, weighed down by cost of living pressures, is one of the poorest in England. Research from 2019 found that almost a third of children lived in disadvantaged families, compared to 17% nationally.

Aboard the tram that cuts the Golden Mile and passes all three Blackpool piers, the conductor was brimming with civic pride last week, promising visitors that it will be a different city from April, and dismissing the gray skies and empty streets.

At the ball, not many February visitors knew that a major museum was coming. A 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 cares for his partner, Siobhan, and the couple travels by bus. ‘It’s Morecambe who needs help. There is nothing there,” he said.

Louise, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Leeds, booked a half-price deal at a guest house and has been there since she was a child. “It’s nice when you look at the sea, but behind it, behind the ball, it looks like Beirut,” she said. “I usually go to Spain now, but I wanted to get out of the city for a few days.”

On the North Pier, posters promote shows featuring comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, while, away from the sea, amusement arcades alternate with fortune-telling booths, such as those of Gypsy Petulengro, a long-standing family business celebrated in a Showtown exhibition.

On the stairs leading to the museum, coastal colors set the tone beneath hanging letters that spell out a welcoming “Ha Ha Ha.” Billed as a “singing, dancing attraction for all the family”, it hopes to dazzle children with interactive displays including a clown car, as well as providing Instagrammable moments for youngsters including an infinite light room and opportunities to jive and twist, or to learn more about disco and the northern soul boom. (Appropriate enough for a venue that once hosted the 80s ITV music show The assassin and her.)

Ballroom dancing and the city’s links with the BBC Come strictly dance also play an important role, with backstage details and stories from the late judge Len Goodman. But there’s serious history too, with rare archive footage and unique curiosities, such as souvenirs made from the copper of Nelson’s retired flagship, HMS Foudroyant, which foundered on Blackpool’s coast in 1897; an early Punch and Judy doll; and a real lion taming stick, complete with teeth marks, one of 27 objects donated by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Curator Jill Carruthers is also happy that Showtown does not shy away from difficult content. The circus exhibits address the issue of animal cruelty and visitors are invited to reflect on the unkindness of the freak shows that were so popular a century ago.

Whether this museum, coupled with the renovation of the Winter Gardens, surrounding hotels and plans for other museums, can attract sufficient audiences will become clear in due course. 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 behind-the-scenes look at many worlds, including magic, which has its largest international convention in the Winter Gardens later this week. Blackpool is at the heart of so many sides of entertainment.”

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