What’s an Oldham-born trained chef and former Lib Dem Blackpool councillor doing juggling more than 200 musical acts into a variety of venues over four days each October while raising money for charity?
Jon Bamborough doesn’t seem too sure himself but having spun a mental coin he opted for hospitality rather than journalism and arrived in Blackpool as a teenager.
“The catering college had a reputation of being amongst the best in the country and I decided I wanted to be a chef,” he says. “Perhaps journalism would have been better but people always have to eat.”
His grandparents lived here and his uncle was a manager at the Imperial Hotel.
“It all sounded romantic – a big posh hotel on the front and tales of meeting prime ministers, so I ended up at college here doing a hotel management course.”
He moved here straight after school at 16 - he’s 52 now – and while at college got a job at the Imperial (“with a little help”) as an apprentice chef.
The Winter Gardens was falling down, now it’s something you can show people round and be proud of
A summer at the Dunblane Hydro was followed by a spell in Manchester before he “felt drawn back to Blackpool” and returned to the Imperial.
The wanderlust struck again a few years later when he and his future wife decided “give it a go down in Bournemouth.”
Legendary Imperial general manager John Herdman said he’d be back within six months. He lasted seven and Mr Herdman gave him a job back.
“It was warmer down south but the people weren’t as friendly. They weren’t particularly rude but it wasn’t as nice going about your daily life.”
But he was restless.
“I aspired to be a proper chef but there weren’t that many places in Blackpool doing haute cuisine and I was already working at one of the best places.”
He tried the Pembroke – “the only place that had a proper brigade of chefs” - but to move up he’d have had to move away. He stayed and ended up working at the newly opened West Coast Rock Café for the late Edmund Wynne.
“I got bit of stick from chef friends but it was good and I really enjoyed it. I was there for quite a long time and it was good to be part of the business and help build it up.
“I soon picked up that it’s not all about the showbusiness of cooking, it’s about giving value for money and giving the customer what they want. It was plain honest cooking. That’s what has made West Coast so popular over the years.”
Perhaps surprisingly he defends Blackpool’s catering qualities.
“I’d put Blackpool on a par with anywhere in Europe for value for money. Decent meals at very reasonable prices.”
Again restless he took on The Dickens in Cleveleys for a few years (“It was a bit of a challenge to say the least”) and briefly The Cedar Tavern in Blackpool.
But it was bad timing, his daughter was going to run it for him and live in, but just as he signed everything over she was found to have cancer. Thankfully after a series of operations she was cleared but it put his wife off the licensed trade.
“But the lure is still there,” he says. “My ambition is to get a little place in France, just two or three tables, food at the weekend, easily manageable. In 15 years time I hope that’s what I’ll be doing.”
In the meantime he’s a civil servant because, he jokes, “it beats working for a living.”
He also fitted in seven years an Anchorsholme councillor.
“It was where I lived and a place I loved. My kids were at school there so it was a pleasure and an honour to represent where we lived.” But politics are fickle. He lost his seat, left the Lib Dems after 30 years and is now a member of the Labour Party.
“You can’t change things by whingeing or writing to The Gazette or putting it on Facebook or Twitter, you need to go out and do stuff and hopefully at some stage I’ll be able to return. The electorate decided I needed a ‘holiday’ but I feel refreshed now and ready to come back.”
Still there’s always the Blackpool Music Festival (BMF) to keep him busy.
“Music has always been part of my life but I was never fortunate enough to play anything – despite trying,” he says. The BMF came about because fans of local band Skaface wanted to organise a ska festival and “no one else was doing it.”
So together with friends he found a venue, booked 10 bands charged £15 and had a very successful day. A second one over two days was a similar success. “We didn’t make any money but didn’t lose too much either so wondered what else we could do.”
Inspired by the Salford Music Festival, where bands played for nothing and all gigs were free admission, he felt “it seemed a much better idea with a much nicer feel to it than many other festivals.”
By 2013 the BMF ball was rolling – “four days, 120 acts, everything free, everyone enjoyed it.”
They even “raised a few quid for local charities” by “shaking buckets and selling programmes.”
This year’s event will see more than 200 bands involved – from all over the country and even abroad.
“It gives them a platform, it gives them coverage and everyone gives their time for nothing so there’s no competitiveness.”
But aren’t venues getting scarcer? Even the Blue Room has gone.
“I’ve heard it will be back soon. But you need more than just an interest in music to make somewhere a success. Just putting on bands is no guarantee of financial success.
“But I think Blackpool still does alright for live entertainment compared to a lot of places. You can find some kind of live music somewhere in Blackpool any night. Friday and Saturday you’ll find dozens of places.”
And good bands?
“Bands like The Atmospherics, The People, Jeckyll are all fantastic young kids who have done Blackpool proud the way they’ve come on and the way they promote the town, I’ve never been prouder than hearing them big up Blackpool when playing elsewhere.”
Official support has been slow but, he says, the BMF has “got a really good relationship” with the Winter Gardens.
“It’s a difficult thing to advertise and promote because with everyone playing for nothing, if they get other gigs offered they’re going to take them and that’s what we want, so we leave publicising who is on as late as possible.
But the Winter Gardens will have its main event line-up announced well in advance.
“We know who our Saturday night headliners are - All The Kings Men who are tipped to be massive.
“The Winter Gardens is world renowned, it’s iconic, I think people do need to go and be reminded of just what’s there.
“The Tower is the same, we’ve got some phenomenal places in Blackpool but locals tend to take them for granted.”
“The management at the Winter Gardens has to be given credit for turning things around there. They have been prepared to look differently at things.
“Rebellion – the punk festival goes from strength to strength, last year’s Jazz and Blues Festival - which was there by accident, was a fantastic success, it couldn’t have been better, there’s nowhere like it.”
As for the loss of major political conference trade he asserts “the main reason is that the people don’t like having to go from a conference centre to their hotels.
“Everywhere else fringe meetings and suchlike are a couple of minutes away but in Blackpool the nearest places are the Imperial and the Hilton.”
So a major hotel on The Syndicate site?
“I think it might be too late because elsewhere have upped their game and built conference centres where the hotels are. We should have knocked down the area between the Hilton and the Imperial and built a conference centre there, that would have secured them for another 20/30 years.”
So what’s to be done?
“The Winter Gardens was falling down, now it’s something you can show people round and be proud of. But then there’s areas like Central Drive where the small hotels and guest houses that Blackpool thrived on over the years haven’t been able to compete.
“People have changed the way they go out and go on holiday. Pubs have suffered, small hotels have suffered so we need new ideas as to what we can with those areas.”
Even using the Central Station site for a conference centre would be doomed he feels.
“Unless it came with its own big hotels – and then existing hotels would complain, so forget that, we’ve lost that business.
“I’d carry on doing what we’re doing already with the Winter Gardens as a convention centre not a conference one. Look at the Pigeon Weekend, it’s one of the best events Blackpool has.
“The people that come are spending their own money all over the town not just where they are staying, and that money remains in Blackpool. We need events like the shoe fairs and the gift fair to come back.
“We should make more of what we do, more of what we’ve got and concentrate on that. Concentrate on the people who would benefit from it being flat and accessible – the elderly, the disabled, people who don’t want to travel abroad and who have got a disposable income.”
As for some of the recent headlines he says: “There’s something to be said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity but it’s a bit annoying getting knocked for the same things all the time when it’s not deserved. We are not as bad as some places.
“The Tower Lounge (now closed) didn’t deserve its bad reputation. It was a meeting place and everybody knew it. It was an iconic place but things do move on and you can’t cry too much over what has gone. Let’s concentrate on what we’ve still got.”
So if it was his Blackpool what would he do?
“I’d call a truce with all the bickering and get everyone involved in making Blackpool a better place instead of just criticising it. I’d get everyone in a room and ask them what can we do to make it better? We all know what’s wrong so let’s all get together to improve the place. We all need to pull together rather than score points off each other. Let’s work for a common aim and get behind Blackpool.”
So would he come here on holiday?
“I did. And I stayed.”
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