Sparks of inspiration

`Fireworks have movement, colour, spectacle. All elements of a kind of total art,' says Christophe Berthonneau.
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The Independent Culture
A short, thick-set man, French newspaper thrust into his back pocket, is pacing up and down in front of the window of the Dock Cafe, babbling and gesticulating in French, the mobile phone glued to his ear.

He sits down, still bubbly-babbling. His legs jig frenetically beneath the table to some tune of their own. He stands up again, slides the mobile into his side-pocket like some slick gun-toter from the West, does a quick shimmy to amuse his assistants at the next table, then whips the mobile out again. The routine restarts.

This is Christophe Berthonneau, the 35-year-old master pyrotechnician from the Camargue who will be illuminating the Eiffel Tour on the stroke of midnight to mark the advent of the new millennium. This man with a mission of fire, Vulcan's man from singed top to toe, will also be lighting up the Thames on Sunday night as a spectacular conclusion to the Thames Festival.

He has arrived with his assistants from the South of France. At his request, one ton of fireworks, manufactured in Spain, Portugal and Italy to his precise specifications, has been delivered to the General Marine Wharf in Docklands, pounds 20,000 worth of pure noise and light which will go up in smoke, flame and sparkle in six minutes. Vulcan is a greedy god. En route to the General Marine Wharf to inspect the barge from which the main display will be launched, we talk about fireworks and the fine arts. Berthonneau, his hair cropped, hunches into his leather jacket and grins boyishly at me through his gappy, nicotine-stained teeth as he explains his consuming passion.

Are we entitled to call this a branch of the fine arts rather than a mere adjunct to civic celebrations as it has generally been regarded, I ask him. He shrugs, gesticulates. "High art, low art? I don't know," he says. His words pour forth in a frenetic Franglais.

"For me, the most important matter is the vision, and to express something inside the vision. Most people don't have this vision. I am undoubtedly trying to build something exceptional using the material of fire, to create, if you like, a kind of sculpture of fire, to choreograph fire.

"There are elements here, I suppose, of a kind of total art - you have movement, colour, visual spectacle. Let me put it like this: when children light a match, they are staring at an element of wonder. It should be exactly the same for adults when they experience one of my spectacles. They are discovering something exceptional. They are witnessing the unleashing of visceral energies. It is an experience comparable to the theatre."

So how does he create a show such as this one? How does it all begin?

"It begins in total darkness. At 2am in my office in the Camargue. I think about it. For three years I have used only two colours, gold and white, and I think in the terms of these colours. I create a preliminary design in my head. Sometimes I will use storyboards, as a kind of aide- memoire. The designs become more and more complex. I transfer them to the computer screen. Maybe I add a musical beat inside a time-line to give me some idea of the rhythm of the show. Most of all, I think about the experience."

Are the designs modified? "Only the weather can change your designs - wind, rain, the treachery of the elements."

There are few things more treacherous than the Thames, with its hidden, swirling currents. On the night, Berthonneau will sit in a sealed cabin on the barge from which the fireworks will be detonated, staring at a computer screens, inches from the spectacle he will be controlling, and the attendant potential dangers. His assistants will be on the riverbank, looking for problems, photographing the event, and videoing it so he can watch itlater and reflect on its success - or otherwise.

That danger is ever-present. Has he had accidents? "Touche du bois," he says. There is a scar on the back on his hand. Where did that come from? "Chez moi," he mutters. But the danger of the pyrotechnician's work has changed the history of shows such as this. The base ingredient, gunpowder, has remained the same down the centuries, though Berthonneau's fireworks also contain iron, titanium and chemicals.

The great era of firework spectacles was the 19th century. Britain had hundreds of small manufacturers, as did France. The famous Mr Brock's factories in Norwood, south London, covered 35 acres. But the mishaps were terrible. In 1858, an accident in Mr Bennett's firework factory in the Westminster Road, Lambeth, killed five and seriously injured 300. Much property was destroyed.

Now there is just one factory in England and one in France. Some of the best fireworks come from Japan, where smaller factories flourish. The world's worst - and the cheapest - are Chinese.

Berthonneau speaks of them with contempt. "They are cheap all right, but you cannot choose your colours." After all, only an insensitive fool, unaccustomed to the rigorous standards of Vulcan's smithy, would think gold was gold was gold. Would he describe what is in store for us on Sunday evening? He thinks for a moment. His jutty front teeth hang over his lower lip. "Noisy, spectacular," he says. "And pure."

The Thames Festival Fireworks will take place at 9.15pm this Sunday at the Victoria Embankment and South Bank, London. For details call 0171-928 0011