Blue skies over Blackpool

As the Tory conference opens, Simon Calder looks at England's first resort; One face of Blackpool's seaside entertainment - as archaic as Labour's 1983 manifesto, but the town also offers plenty of hi-tech pleasures Photograph: Edward Webb
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The Independent Travel
Cross-dressing, intrigue at number 10 and an acceleration in the rate of descent: these are some of the things that Conservative delegates can look forward to as they assemble in Blackpool this weekend. The first thing you see, as you approach the Lancashire resort across the flat Fylde peninsula, is the tip of the Tower.

But much more impressive than Blackpool's midget Eiffel is the spectacular tangle of metalwork next door. The Pepsi Max Big One is claimed to be the world's largest and fastest roller-coaster, and its absurd angles and scarlet swirls of steel dominate the skyline. Politicians wishing to experience that sinking feeling should trudge through the amusements at the Pleasure Beach, past fine old timber roller-coasters that look as archaic as Labour's 1983 election manifesto. Like that document, traditional entertainment has fallen victim to Nineties' techno-glamour. Candidates for the Big One stump up a deposit of pounds 3.50 and are funnelled through futuristic tubes and loaded into rocket-like cars (sit on the back benches for the best view, as well as advance warning of each twist and turn that awaits you).

The next three minutes are tougher than a John Humphries interview on the Today programme. First you are winched tortuously slowly to the 235- foot-high summit, before a succession of unlikely g-forces grab you and drag you downwards at 85mph. After the initial plunge, you rebound upwards faster than you can say "opinion poll", and go on a hair-raising tour that seems to take you around half the town before depositing you again in a quivering heap.

A more sedate ride can be procured for as little as 70p on one of the town's trams. Last weekend, the world's first electric street tramway celebrated its 110th birthday. These creakily charming vehicles have stayed on the rails through every U-turn in transport policy. While the rest of Britain was ripping up tram tracks, Blackpool was exploring every design possibility in electric traction. So today you can ride on an open- air tram, a double-decker, and even an illuminated tram - which this year is sponsored by the North West Lancashire Health Authority.

The trams rattle along a seafront that is Thatcherism run wild. The Golden Mile came into being at the end of the 19th century, when the traders were turfed off the beach and moved into the gardens of houses on the Promenade. Unrestrained market forces led to the creation of a sticky strip of vendors, selling candy floss, rock and the ultimate Blackpool cliche: the kiss-me-quick hat.

A move towards sophistication has seen part of the Promenade subtitled Ocean Boulevard (watch out California), but since July this year most attention has been focussed on the huge hangar of a building just across the road.

Number 10 is looking a little shaky. It is the last stop on the 90-minute orbit around the World of Coronation Street, Blackpool's newest attraction. Hilda Ogden's trio of flying ducks draw you into a orgy of nostalgia about Britain's best-loved soap opera. Even those who shun the serial in favour of Westminster Live and Panorama will enjoy the tale of how a terrace in Salford became a national addiction. Sound-and-vision bites are augmented by apparitions: life-size holograms of Jack and Vera and Elsie Tanner ("The Street's Scarlet Woman" - and they don't mean socialist) materialise before you. The running commentary by Ken Barlow and Rita Sullivan is as patronising as any party political broadcast. But inside the wobbly exterior of number 10 Coronation Street, the Kabin newsagency, your dream of appearing in the programme can come true. Stand against a true blue background, and the wonders of colour separation overlay let you take part in a scene from the serial. Your speaking part is edited in, your name added to the credits and pounds 10 prised easily from your party funds for the souvenir video.

Blackpool will put on its own show at 6.25 tonight, and every evening until Guy Fawkes' Night. Tory luminaries will find the Promenade blocked by thousands of lightseers on a six-mile stretch of seafront. The profits of Norweb, the privatised regional electricity company, will be boosted by pounds 60,000. The cost of what is officially Britain's biggest tourist attraction is offset by sponsorship: this year, Carlisle's very own trucking legend Eddie Stobart has paid for fibre-glass models of his trucks to be up in lights.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage may wish to celebrate Blackpool's tourism ascendancy, but Virginia Bottomley may be less impressed by the pinnacle of the resort's nightlife. Not Little and Large, nor the blue banter of Roy "Chubby" Brown, but Funny Girls on Queen Street. Even when the Tories aren't in town, it is hard to pick the men from the girls in this riotous club. The theory and practice of transvestism is the theme at Funny Girls, and all the staff from the cabaret artistes to the glass collector are men in drag. The show outrages until 11pm every night, and this week its regular clientele of thrill-seekers will be boosted by a marginal constituency of journalists and politicians, seeking to make the most of their stay and getting thoroughly exhausted in the process. To paraphrase the late Harold Wilson, a week can be a long time in Blackpool.

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