2007 Spring Festival - Postcard from Blackpool

23-May-2007

In a town that seems to be drowning under the waves of its own tackiness, the Spring Festival continues to flourish due to great organisation, music and the Stereophonics...


Winter gardensIt is hard not to like Blackpool and all that it has to offer, but as one member of the winning band at the Grand Shield bellowed into her mobile phone after the announcement of the results; "…and guess what? We don't have to come back to this dump next year either!"

You did wonder whether she was more pleased with the victory for PolySteel Band or the fact she didn't have to endure the delights of the Golden Mile for at least another two years. The Spring Festival Contest on the other hand is a different matter all together.

Blackpool on a weekend night is not a pleasant place to be: The Golden Mile and the surrounding streets are full of drunken hen and stag parties, the Police and emergency services seem to be on perpetual alert and the feeling of chap sleaziness filters through the air. Apart from Soho, can there be a place in the UK that has more downmarket lap dancing clubs per square mile? Blackpool was once the town that gave Britain the Beveridge Report, the model of the Welfare State – from cradle to the grave. Today it appears to only want to look after those who want beer, fags and topless girls from Poland.

Amid all this social detritus stands the Winter Gardens – a haven for family orientated entertainment. Last year the bill was topped by Bradley Walsh of Coronation Street fame and this year it was the Welsh rock band The Stereophonics' who drew the crowds in on the Saturday evening meaning that the bands were pushed out into the smaller halls of the Opera House, Pavilion and Spanish theatre. As the last few bands battled it out at the Grand Shield contest a few hundred feet away, the Welsh rockers were practicing hard for their concert in the main ballroom later that night. They were pretty good as well by all accounts.

It all gives the Spring Festival a rather surreal feel at times – from the sublime to the ridiculous all under one big leaky roof. That it still manages to retain its self respect and a fair old share of old fashioned glory too says a great deal about how well the event is now run.

The organisation here for the contests is first class. The help given by the likes of Frank Hodges, Derek Atkinson and the rest of the North West Counties Brass Band Association ensures that the contest day runs like clockwork and the bands (and the media) are dealt with in a highly professional manner. They are a very well run team. Meanwhile the staff of the Winter Gardens are helpful if a little over officious at times (even Martin Mortimer had a bit of a problem getting in and out on one occasion) but are genuinely friendly.

The halls themselves are of course what they are – not built with brass bands in mind, but still offering a comfortable if slightly ‘dead' acoustic for the bands to play in. The judges had no problem they told us to listen to what was going on, so no blaming the surroundings for a lack of success then – even though quite a few try!

Talking of judges, there were some grumbles about the problem that arose over the non-appearance of James Gourlay, but in truth all concerned handled it very well. The conspiracy theorists had their gripe of course (and would have been better off going to the rather tasteless 9/11 side show just off the Golden Mile if they wanted inhabit that bonkers world – that it was right next to the fantasy world Doctor Who exhibition tells you a great deal) but it was something of nothing. Mr Gourlay will of course be embarrassed, but no band could complain when Alan Morrison was asked to go into the Grand Shield and James Scott took his place at the Senior Trophy. It all worked out well.

So too the decision to stagger the start times of each of the contest which meant that there was only three bands left to play in the Grand Shield before the announcement of all the results – a chance even for bandsmen and women to pop in and listen for a change - although that would be unfair on what were three well supported contest by the paying public.  It made for a great atmosphere for the prize giving with plenty of vocal support and the odd slightly wobbly band rep making their way to stage to pick up their prize.

There were a few gripes of course but in general the Spring Festival, which was literally rescued from the dumping ground a few years ago is now building on its success each year. Martin and Karyn Mortimer keep a benevolent eye on its running, and have a genuine affection for the whole event. They have allowed it to grow and prosper with realistic ambition whilst also ensuing that it meets the demands required to feed the British Open with bands ambitious as well as capable enough to survive there too. There is also excellent sponsorship from Leisure Parcs Ltd who realise that by putting money in they certainly get plenty of money out of the place –  and all without any hint of trouble from the type of people who make it their business to come here. It's a combination that seems to work well.

The promotions and relegations are now accepted as an integral part of the whole structure of the Spring Festival and work well too. Some bands may feel that they are perhaps a touch unfairly penalised for a performance that may not be as bad s they initially thought, but they all know the ropes before they play a note. Perhaps a segmented pre draw may help though as it would allow bands to organise their days better – the Grand Shield contest took over 7 hours to complete.

The music too is very well chosen. Picking set works for the bands at the Grand Shield that have formerly been used in recent years at the Open shows them clearly where they stand if they feel they are going to be good enough to make it to Birmingham and Symphony Hall.  So too with the Cup and Trophy – and this year there were two set works that although stiff hurdles to overcome in their different ways, certainly made for enjoyable listening and playing. 

The good news is that the Spring Festival continues to grow and flourish here at the Winter Gardens despite the fact that it takes place in a seaside town that is gradually drowning itself beneath the tacky waves of its own making. From the organisers down it is a mammoth event handled in a very professional manner.

If only the town councillors and urban planners could come along and see what Blackpool could be like when filled with people out to have a great time without the need of cheap beer, 20 fags and a ticket to stuff a fiver in the bra of a Polish immigrant stripper.  Then even the mobile phone calls will have messages of ‘Wish you were here."

Iwan Fox

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