Jewel of the North

It's got a strip, flashing lights and banks of fruit machines, but it will never be Las Vegas. And Peter Bowker, whose acclaimed BBC1 drama, Blackpool, begins tonight, wouldn't have it any other way
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The Independent Online

Blackpool is a cowboy town. So there have to be cowboys. I'm five years old, with my brother, and we're both wearing Stetsons and sheriff's badges. We're standing with our backs against the sea wall, with my sister, my mum and my Uncle Ron and Auntie Joan. Dad must have been taking the picture. And as we all say "cheese" in defiance of the stiff breeze coming off the Atlantic, I remember thinking: "This is the best place in the world."

Blackpool is a cowboy town. So there have to be cowboys. I'm five years old, with my brother, and we're both wearing Stetsons and sheriff's badges. We're standing with our backs against the sea wall, with my sister, my mum and my Uncle Ron and Auntie Joan. Dad must have been taking the picture. And as we all say "cheese" in defiance of the stiff breeze coming off the Atlantic, I remember thinking: "This is the best place in the world."

I'm 25 years old. I've taken a special-needs party to Blackpool for a week. A drunken Geordie in a pink foam cowboy hat is following me round and threatening me because the Down syndrome teenager with me has been "staring at him". And I remember thinking: "This is the worst place in the world."

I'm 45 years old, and I'm sitting in the Odeon, Blackpool. On the screen is the opening hour of my six-part serial, Blackpool - a dark musical-comedy thriller about an arcade owner, Ripley Holden, who is about to open a casino hotel as the gambling laws change and Blackpool attempts to reinvent itself as Lancs Vegas. As Ripley himself puts it: "It's gold-rush time in Blackpool and guess who's shitting gold nuggets!" Although it's been described as Twin Peaks meets Coronation Street, I like to think I've written a cowboy series.

Two hundred Blackpool residents are sitting behind me. This is their sneak preview of the first episode. After the screening, instead of refreshments, the BBC is going to serve me up for a Q&A session, and there'll be a lynching unless the sheriff is in the audience.

My mental state isn't helped by an encounter I've had with a sea-front fortune-teller. She was more Claire Rayner than Gypsy Rose Lee, reinforcing my contention that fortune-tellers are working-class therapists. She looked at both my outstretched palms, looked me in the eye and said: "When did you have your nervous breakdown?"

"I didn't."

"Well, you've come close a few times and you will again."

No matter that she also told me I wore a uniform to work (not true unless you count trying to dress like Albert Camus), that I was thinking of moving to Blackpool, and that I had three children, not two.

The nervous breakdown comment was becoming more prescient as Blackpool the TV show played on the screen above me. It is filmed so brilliantly that it makes Blackpool look like it's Vegas already, even though currently the town lacks the scale, the weather, the casino hotels, the million-pound jackpots and the stage extravaganzas. Come to think of it, I'm not sure Blackpool wasn't always a knowing Lancashire parody of Vegas. But my show also acknowledges - relishes, even - the fact that Blackpool does have a seedy underbelly. And, understandably, if you live in the town you might not want outsiders like me to keep harping on about it...

But there was no lynching. Instead, people - the head of tourism, an arcade owner, a Samaritan, an aspiring writer - said the programme showed the seamy side of Blackpool, but also its positive aspects. And they all said it captured the resort. I realised that my mixed feelings about the place were probably their mixed feelings, too.

Blackpool is a working-class holiday resort that was at its peak before cheap package holidays lured the working classes to sunnier climes. It has survived by reinventing itself over the years as a coach-trip destination for pensioners, a theme park for teenagers, a gay resort and, latterly, a stag and hen destination where you can wear false breasts and fight other men similarly attired. It is a resort that has always been redeemed by its ability to laugh at itself.

It might come as a surprise that Blackpool was originally intended as a refined watering hole for the rising middle-classes. When its proximity to the industrial North-west made it the destination of choice for working-class elements to let their hair down, the rich did what they have always done - they stole the best bit and charged the rest of us to use it. They persuaded the local authorities to put up a huge gate and cut off the North Promenade from the Central and South. A small but significant payment would have to be made to go through the gates. The North Promenade became an exclusive preserve of those who my mum might describe as "a bit bay window".

All that remains of the gates are the two stone support columns at Ginn Square, but the sense of the North Promenade being the more refined end and the South being rough and ready remains to this day. The North has the Hilton and the Imperial, although the Big Blue (the new boutique hotel) is under the Pleasure Beach, and work on the South Promenade has made it look more upmarket than the pockmarked rocks and sea wall of the North. Tentative evidence of the emergence of a classless society? Or a canny council focusing on the most rundown areas to tap the European Union for funding?

Mrs Parkinson provided full board for the week - bed, breakfast, dinner and tea. (Dinner in the northern sense is what southerners call lunch, and tea is your evening meal... do try to keep up.) We never strayed far from the B&B, anchored by the need to return for all those meals and, more importantly, to "get our money's worth".

Once, my brother announced in the TV lounge that the bedtime milk tasted watered-down. It undoubtedly was, but my dad didn't thank him for saying so in public. "But why is it embarrassing if it's true?" Dave had stated a truth about Blackpool - that nothing is what it seems - but Dad had acknowledged a bigger truth; that it didn't do to mention it.

This social embarrassment said more about Dad's shyness than his ability to enjoy himself. He was different on holiday. Like most men then who worked long hours and many weekends we rarely saw him relaxed, but when we did, it was a generous, funny man we saw. Slipping us "extra spends" before we went to the toy shop in Fleetwood to buy Dinky Toys, making dry jokes about the other residents of the boarding house, building cars out of sand on the beach, and, maddeningly for us, letting other kids join in and have a share of his holiday self.

Dad was, for us, one of the reasons that Blackpool was glamorous. A poster-writer and screenprinter by trade, he worked for the company that did the displays for all the Blackpool shows. Tommy Cooper, The Bachelors, Bruce Forsyth, Mike and Bernie Winters; all had their heads nailed to plyboard by my dad, so to speak. So when we ended the week by watching "Mike and Bernie Winters" on the North Pier, it gave us an extra glow that our dad had painted the posters. And if ever an act needed an extra glow, it was Mike and Bernie...

One year, Mike was ill, so Lionel Blair stood in and played the straight man for the night (fill in your own punchline here). Tragically, it didn't much matter. Mike wasn't really missed. I like to think that it was on this night that Bernie realised that a large St Bernard could do Mike's job just as well.

My mum still goes to Blackpool. You can get a direct train from Hazel Grove in Stockport, and she swears by the ozone as an asthma remedy. She stays at a guest house on the Promenade, where they always look after her. She told me she wasn't going to tell the owners I'd written Blackpool until she'd seen it because: "You always seem to write about the seamy side of things."

And, let's face it, the seamy side of things is one of Blackpool's big selling points. The stag and hen trade, it seems generally agreed, brought short-term economic benefits to the town, especially during the off-season. But it brought with it a degree of drunkenness and violence that even Blackpool seems shocked by. One of the problems is that Blackpool is actually a smallish town, not a city, so dispersing gangs of drunks at 2am when the clubs empty out is a near-impossible task. And, as I found out 20 years ago, there's nothing more dangerous than a drunk in fancy dress.

Plenty of B&Bs are now turning away stag trade. Hand-written "No All Male or All Female Groups" signs are appearing next to the "Vacancies" signs. Blackpool was always associated with giddy hedonism - that became the very point of its existence - but it doesn't take much encouragement or alcohol to turn the carnival into something more dark and dangerous.

And once a place becomes economically dependent on the stag trade, it's difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Family trade stays away and you become even more dependent on the head-bangers. Dublin has learnt this, Blackpool has learnt this, and Prague is probably learning this right now.

Maybe this is what is worrying about the town's "super casino" plan. If Blackpool becomes solely defined by gambling, what will become of the family trade? And families do still come. Often it's grandparents with grandchildren on two- or three-day breaks, but they do still come - and they appear to me to remain the lifeblood of the place. I'm not sure how much money they actually spend, especially when you can get a meal for four for £5. Maybe all Blackpool needs to do to revive its economy is to move its prices on from the 1970s.

When we were filming Blackpool, I took my family to stay there. We rented a "Swiss-style chalet" on the edge of town which turned out, on closer inspection, to be a mobile home. I took my two young children, Connie and Eric, to the beach early each morning. And I stood there, messing around in this empty landscape, and saw this beautiful expanse of sand stretching for miles either way. And I thought: maybe this is Blackpool's unique selling point. But then the tide came in, and for all the talk of the sea being cleaner these days it still remains, appropriately, the colour of Boddingtons. "Full of Liverpool sewage," my dad used to say, as any good Mancunian would.

I then took Connie and Eric to one of the big Promenade arcades. It's safe to say they were the only children in there dressed out of the Boden catalogue. Here they discovered the joys of Bash A Crab, and Connie worked out rapidly that the odds were stacked against her on the grabber. So rapidly, in fact, that she left me on my own, using the rest of the 10 plays for a £1, watching the arthritic claws of the grabber descend repeatedly and uselessly on to Nemo's nose.

People who make their money from Blackpool don't tend to live there. They live down the coast in St Anne's, or "Stans" as it's pronounced in Blackpool. Or they live inland at Poulton-le-Fylde. People there seem to regard Blackpool as an embarrassing neighbour who's loud and flash but has to be tolerated because he brings a lot of cash into the area. An increase in gambling will surely increase this impression.

The relationship between Blackpool and the rest of the North-west used to be fairly straightforward. Factories - mainly manufacturing - would close and people would head for the northern resorts for their annual holidays. Factories staggered their holiday weeks so that Blackpool wasn't overloaded - Manchester week, Liverpool week and the still much-feared Glasgow week.

The autumn illuminations extended the season, but that would mainly be day trips. I remember some trips where we didn't get out of the car; just up the motorway, drive under the lights and home again.

Now we don't have a manufacturing industry to speak of, and the great hopes for the British economy are financial services and leisure. So it is maybe appropriate that Blackpool is going to open casino hotels because a casino is, in the end, an intersection of the leisure and financial services industries. When my character Ripley Holden says: "An amusement arcade is the people's stock-exchange," he might be pushing it a bit. But the reverse seems to be true; that our savings are no safer in a pension plan than if we pumped them into a Lucky 7. We're trusting to luck. Only the trappings are different.

There's a dilemma at the heart of Blackpool, and it's the dilemma at the heart of Britain as we embrace the so-called leisure economy. The best way to make a lot of money is by encouraging people to spend their money on things that aren't very good for them - alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, fried foods, sunshine. All of these apart from the last are widely available in Blackpool.

Because you can't be seen to be condoning bad habits and lifestyles, you do one of two things: you lie and pretend that these activities aren't bad for you at all; or you talk of the greater good that comes out of letting some people go to the bad. Blackpool, for all its faults, is at least honest enough to admit that this is the deal we make.

'Blackpool' starts tonight at 9pm on BBC1

TALK OF THE TOWN

* Blackpool is the most searched-for British town on the internet.

* More lottery winners choose Blackpool as their favourite British holiday destination than any other.

* Blackpool Tower, opened in 1894, is 158 metres high. It has five million bricks, 985 tons of steel and 250 tons of cast iron. In a year, the lifts make 54,792 return trips.

* Each year, 10.5 million sticks of rock are sold.

* Blackpool Pleasure Beach attracts six million visitors a year, making it Britain's top free attraction. The beach boasts Europe's highest and fastest roller-coaster, the Pepsi Max Big One, which reaches speeds of 85mph.

* At the Pleasure Beach each season, 47.5 miles of hot dogs, a million ice-cream cones, 550,000 burgers, 2.5 million portions of chips and 500,000 sticks of candy floss are sold.

* Two million postcards are sent from the town every year.

* The world's largest mirrorball is here; 47,000 mirrors on a six-ton, 20ft sphere.

* Friday is the donkeys' day off.

Ed Caesar

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