Professor Vanessa and her extraordinary buildings

I saw details of the Blackpool Showzam! Festival a while back and one of the events intrigued me.

Explore the beauty and wealth of the Frank Matcham architectural that remains in Blackpool.

Guided by Professor Vanessa Toulin (Curator of Admission all Classes, National fairground Archive, University of Sheffield), the tour will include many famous Blackpool landmarks such as the Grand Theatre, Blackpool Tower Circus and Ballroom before ending at The Winter Gardens.

This is a special opportunity to learn about Blackpool’s heritage in entertainment and the part the venues played in establishing Blackpool as Britain’s leading seaside resort.

The tour will start outside the staff entrance of Blackpool Tower at 12.00pm on Sunday 14th and 22nd February. Tickets are available from the Grand Theatre box office (01253 290190).

Now I know much of Matcham and have seen a lot of these venues before but being guided by a specialist was too good to miss, even if I was uncertain of the tie in with fairground archive, other than the overlap of popular entertainment. We went to Blackpool deciding to play it by ear, if nothing else we would be able to see the Circus of Wonders and hopefully ride the Carnesky ghost train.

Whilst Karen and David went to Greggs to organise some lunch on the hoof, I nipped round to the Grand Box Office to see if tickets were available for the Matcham tour. There were, so I bought them and as they were being processed, Vanessa turned up to check how many had been sold. It turned out there were only two left, there was about fifty in the party.

The tour started outside the staff entrance of the Tower building and as it was very cold, we were whisked inside and congregated in the aquarium. Here Vanessa introduced herself and our host from the Tower site. Vanessa explained that there were four areas in the building which had been decorated by Matcham, of which only two remained, although there were fragments of the third.

Our first port of call was the Circus arena. It looked extremely stark under cold mercury working lights and there was a gasp of amazement when the decorative house lights were turned on. A circus performer was attempting to warm up on a mat in the ring and Laci Andrez Senior (the Leaseholder of the Circus and Mooky’s Dad) briefly dropped in.

Vanessa told us about the complex and what Matcham had done within. It being a bit of a grockle tour though, she skimmed on detail, not pointing out that he didn’t design the circus, just transformed it from a plain iron girder circus nestling in the legs of the tower itself to an Arabian Palace. 

We moved on through the foyers and into the Tower Ballroom. It was difficult for her to talk here as the music was loud (indeed the music was quite loud nerarly everywhere we went in the place, even the aquarium). 

Again, this wasn’t the original ballroom, but it was a major reconstruction, bigger than the original and stealing some real-estate from the circus north balcony in the process. The plasterwork was totally destroyed in a huge fire back in 1956, including the cafe beneath (that had been the third Matcham room, now the Tower Lounge Pub). Fortunately, however, the room was restored back to its original design, despite the art of fibrous plasterwork having been nearly lost in Britain by then (apparently artisans from Europe were imported).

Our third port of call was the Chinese Gallery, now mostly painted out and in use as the Charlie Cairoli exhibition at the very top of the building. We were able to notice some residual detail though, including pagoda tops on door surrounds and face masks on pilasters.

Leaving the building, our next port of call was the nearby Grand Theatre. Here we were left in the capable hands of the building historian, alas his name now escapes me. We were rationed to half an hour, although he assured us that more than four hours was common…

The Grand is a delight with four levels and a wedding cake auditorium. It was tricky to photograph though, as even though the house lights were on it wasn’t overly bright and a yellow sodium working light gave a strange colour cast to many of my photos. We started in the street cafe/bar (called Matchams, appropriately enough) and after having the Punch caricature of him pointed out we proceeded to the front stalls. We moved on through to the upper circle via the Box staircase and went into the upper circle bar. Here he pointed out an odd detail- a pair of stained glass windows which were out of keeping with the rest- they  from the first class bar of a now demolished Blackpool station. (It seems that one of the originals broke at some point).

After returning to the upper circle seating for some ghost stories, we exited down to street level and met up with Professor Vanessa and continued on to the Winter Gardens. I wasn’t expecting a tour there as there is nothing Matcham there (the 2nd Opera House was his but it was entirely replaced in the 30s as it was too small) but we were shown most places that were not in use, an unexpected treat.

Photomontage to follow.