How fireworks night lost its sparkle
Jonathan Brown investigates whether our fixation with health and safety has killed the British bonfire party.
Thursday 05 November 2009
Remember, remember the fifth of November? There is a good chance you may have forgotten. This chilly autumn night, once synonymous with the excitement and drama of fire – whether shooting into the sky with a fizz and a bang or crackling at the bottom of the garden as flames consume a homemade effigy, was for many generations an eagerly anticipated date in the calendar.
But now some devotees of this home-grown festival of fire, marking the day that Protestant Britain rejoiced in its defeat of the Catholic gunpowder plot to bring down James I, fear that our long-held love affair with the death of Guy Fawkes might be in danger of fizzling out.
The blame is being laid at two scourges of the modern world. The first is the health-and-safety culture which, while successfully halving the grim annual toll of fireworks injuries, has extinguished some of the dangerous allure the night once held. The second is the seemingly unstoppable American juggernaut that is taking over Hallowe'en in the UK.
According to one estimate last week, sales of fireworks are down 40 per cent compared to this time last year while spending on plastic ghouls' outfits and rubber spiders made Hallowe'en the fourth biggest consumer binge after Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day.
The growth in popularity of trick-or-treating has been truly terrifying to those who regard it as an upstart Hollywood import. Though long practised in Scotland – a throwback to Samhain which marked the onset of winter for the Celts – the first that many English audiences heard of it was via television and film in the 1970s and 1980s, most memorably in Steven Spielberg's ET.
This year, spending on Hallowe'en in the UK is expected to exceed £270m. Some retailers have reported a 20-fold increase in sales over the last decade, turning pumpkins into a £25m-a-year industry. Yet this is still only a fraction of the amount spent in the US: nearly $5bn (£3bn) or $60 (£36) a head.
For retailers, the attraction of Hallowe'en over Guy Fawkes is simple, explained Bryan Roberts of analysts Planet Retail. "Apart from the fireworks themselves there are no specific products or merchandise available for bonfire night," he said.
"But Hallowe'en is going through the roof. A lot of retailers are reporting 40 to 50 per cent growth and it is the fastest-growing event in Britain. Part of that is down to changing consumer tastes but part of that is because retailers are pushing it so hard. If you cast your mind back six or seven years, there was very little in store but now most big supermarkets will have a whole aisle devoted to it," he added.
But in spite of the creeping nostalgia for the homemade bonfire nights of old, fireworks are still big business. It is estimated that more than £100m is spent each year on increasingly spectacular bangers. In pockets of Britain there remains a deeply entrenched Guy Fawkes culture. In Lewes in east Sussex, the burning of a papal effigy caps an orgy of fire-raising.
John Woodhead, the recently retired chairman of the British Firework Association, admitted that sales have been falling partly as a result of tighter legislation and more recently the recession. Since 2004 it has been an offence for anyone under the age of 18 to be in possession of a firework and the threat of ever-cheaper and noisier products saw the industry threatened by draconian curbs in 2001 unless it cleaned up its act.
The mounting cost of public liability insurance has also deterred some organisers of medium-size events from holding a display and some councils are growing concerned about the environmental impact of fireworks.
Mr Woodhead said: "I suppose it has taken some of the fun out of the thing but it has definitely been worth it to have a safer industry. Kids did used to throw bangers at each other but times change. In the heyday there were a lot more fireworks set off but now the ones we do see are more expensive and definitely safer. The anti-fireworks lobby has disappeared."
The saviour of the industry in the light of declining November 5 sales has been the greater use of fireworks throughout the rest of the year. Fireworks manufacturers, only one of which now exists in the UK after Standard fireworks was sold off to a Hong Kong company in 1998, now concentrate their efforts on other occasions, including New Year's Eve, which since the Millennium has become a night to rival Guy Fawkes, and the Hindu festival of Diwali. There has been massive growth in the number of large organised displays, as well as festivals and music events using fireworks.
While fireworks are more expensive than they used to be, they tend to be much better. The quality of home displays has been revolutionised by the development since the 1990s of multi-shot fireworks, which can give 20 to 30 explosions from a single ignition point.
But for some people there is still nothing to replace bonfire night itself. As Mr Woodhead, a veteran of 50 Guy Fawkes events, puts it: "It is the one night of the year when you don't need to look in the Radio Times to see what's on the television."
Going out with a bang: Where to find real danger
With six different bonfire societies, each area of this small town is ablaze on bonfire night with elaborate torch processions, effigy burning and pyromaniacal displays.
Ottery St Mary, Devon
Intrepid residents carry barrels of burning tar from outside the town's pubs and through the streets (pictured). The barrels get bigger as the evening goes on, until a whopping 30kg burning barrel is carried round the square at midnight. Expect injuries.
Forget burning the Guy – Edenbridge puts enormous effigies of celebrity figures on its bonfire. This year it will be the glamour model Katie Price, aka Jordan. Previous celebrity Guys have included Jonathan Ross, Saddam Hussein and Tony Blair.
Thousands of visitors join locals to carry flaming torches through the village, delivering the Guy to an enormous bonfire.
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