Blackpool goes in search of an ice-cool image

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The Independent Online
RICHARD BRANSON'S Virgin Trains and Blackpool Pleasure Beach have put together a united front for an attack on enemy territory, the south of England. The Blackpool Tower, the "Big One" roller coaster and even the beach have been re-created in London's Euston Station in an effort to draw southerners to the delights of Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Variety entertainment, born and nurtured in northern clubs and pier shows is dying because of southern prejudice, according to Amanda Thompson, who runs the Pleasure Beach through Stageworks Productions. And, against all hopes, the BBC TV documentary about the Pleasure Beach in which she starred might have accelerated the decline. "That wretched TV documentary shoved us back into the Dark Ages again as unsophisticated, brash, northern entertainment, and we left that behind long ago. That programme won't do my productions any good, it will damage live entertainment and it won't encourage promoters to come here."

This weekend marks the launch of the Pleasure Beach's summer season with a new ice spectacular, and a new magic show starring Richard de Vere opening tonight. In two months a pounds 2m theatre opens with Vladimir, the former trapeze star of Cirque du Soleil, in another new production. "We'd like to be able to offer these shows in other parts of the country, but it's impossible to get producers to come here and see how good they are," said Miss Thompson, the fourth generation of the family which bought the 44 acres of the Pleasure Beach 101 years ago. "That programme might have been good TV, but it was edited so much that it bore no relationship to what actually happens here. We were not portrayed as I was led to believe we would be.

"It made us look tacky, but if people look a little deeper they will see that that's not us at all, and what we are doing is important. Just ask the eight and a half million people who come through here every year," she said as she took the 26 ice dancers, 22 of whom have skated for their countries, through their final paces before the opening of the 1998 Hot Ice Show. "This show is technically the most demanding because it's based on the technique and talent of the performers rather than themes like Holiday on Ice, which rely on sound and light."

In conjunction with Virgin, which is starting its first direct London- Blackpool line this week, the Pleasure Beach is bringing its campaign to London with the Euston display.

But Miss Thompson, whose 95-year-old grandmother still chairs the company, is competing with opinion shared by the Prime Minister, which believes facilities in Blackpool are no longer good enough. The Labour Party is forsaking the Golden Mile, kiss-me-quick hats and the biggest white- knuckle ride in the world for its conference venue in favour of southern seaside resorts.

"Suddenly they're all too posh to come to Blackpool when they get power," said Miss Thompson.

"I don't understand what they want - we have good hotels, amazing entertainment and fine restaurants. We've been very poorly portrayed in the south, and it's threatening to kill the live variety entertainment we provide. But Richard Branson has faith enough to extend his line here and by 2000 we will have a new dark ride, using top-of-the-line technology, and, we hope, our own hotel at the Pleasure Beach. We are committed to invest more in our shows, and we're fighting back."