‘We could be the St Ives, Berlin or Paris of the North’

Robin Ross
Robin Ross
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Robin Ross – the creator, curator and inspiration behind Blackpool’s international arts festival on his love of Blackpool

If Steptoe and Son had been printmakers or Andy Warhol had wanted a time share in Blackpool, they would have probably have felt quite at home in The Old Rock Factory.

It’s a great time to be in Blackpool because it’s starting to be more creative

Housed in, yes, an old rock factory, just off the bright lights of Abingdon Street, it’s a three-floor rumble tumble of an artistic Aladdin’s Cave operated under the eagle eye of Robin Ross – the creator, curator and inspiration behind Sand, Sea and Spray, the just-about annual showcase which has put Blackpool at the world forefront of street and urban art.

Originally from Hampshire, the 65-year old has lived in Blackpool for the best part (“with breaks”) of 57 of those years. His father was chief safety equipment officer at British Aerospace, so the family moved here because of his job.

Something of a professional chameleon Robin’s first job was “making contact lenses in St Annes” before surprising even himself by landing a job with the Land Registry.

“My exam results were art, engineering, woodwork, a bit of English, maths and geography so they weren’t great,” he admits. “Academically I wasn’t a genius so drawing plans at the Land Registry was just the perfect job for me.”

His first taste for rock music came after seeing Pink Floyd perform in the Winter Gardens for a Blackpool Technical College Arts Ball.

It was the start of something bigger (ignoring promoting a Barclay James Harvest concert at Lowther Gardens). Promoted to London for a while he started putting on gigs headlined by the likes of the early Fleetwood Mac and Curved Air.

He also became a DJ – literally by accident.

“I crashed my car so went to work in a bar which was part of the pub rock scene,” he recalls. “The guy who was running it asked if I’d done any rock nights, I said yes I could get some bands.”

He embraced DJing when he realised he could work cheaper than the person he was paying to do it.

“He cost £5 a night and beer – which unfortunately didn’t do very well because boy could he drink and he lived just up the road. So I bought the equipment and took over.”

But despite fronting prestigious nights at London’s Rock Garden – including the first UK gig by Talking Heads – he was missing the north and when his mother became very poorly he headed home.

He was at the Land Registry in Liverpool when legendary DJ Johnnie Walker – who, at the time was setting up the new Radio Caroline, heard some syndicated tapes he’d made for the USA.

“The phone rang and I heard a phrase that changed my life – Johnnie Walker saying ‘I’d really like you out there’” he says. “I handed in my notice on the Monday – I’d been there 14 years.”

It was the start of a station-hopping career but what had evolved eventually dissolved.

“There came a time when it wasn’t fun anymore,” he says. “I’d done the biggies like Jazz FM, big name interviews, I’d got the gold, silver and platinum discs to show for it but I was just sort of toddling along.”

Being criticised because one of his links was one second too long was, he says: “The day I fell out of love with radio.”

He’s still got happy memories though and, more importantly recordings of any of the interviews – several of which are about to be released on CD in America.

They include Jack Bruce, Joe Cocker and the Bee Gees. And even some stars who are still alive. The plus side to that is, he says, “you can’t hear new interviews with the dead ones.”

So how did the quantum leap from interviewing Stevie Nicks in her US home and later being the voice of Marks & Spencer store broadcasts (“I know more about socks and underwear than people realise!”) to producing prints of Marilyn Monroe and Blackpool landmarks come about?

“The recession hit, I had two big jobs lined up and I got e-mails cancelling them on same day so I thought OK – start again.”

After “messing around for a bit” because he couldn’t find anywhere to learn screen printing “how I wanted to do it” a chance meeting led him to the Hot Bed Press in Salford.

After a two-day course he started teaching himself, “commuted up and down for a while” then “thought maybe just maybe I could do it in Blackpool because at the time it was very limiting in the arts.”

So having looked around for an outlet he “just started doing this and it appears to be becoming successful after a few years.”

He admits it’s a combination of changing attitudes in Blackpool and being in the right place at the right time.

“ It’s starting to look at itself and reject the image created by horrible TV programmes,” he says. “That’s not Blackpool. It’s easier to sensationalise the bad things than look for the good. Blackpool has some great things. Take the Grand – it’s one of the most stunning theatres anywhere in the world.”

He’s rightfully proud of the profile Sand Sea and Spray has given the local art scene.

“It doesn’t go away. Those creations are on a wall for at least two years.”

So why Blackpool? Have we got more walls than other places?

“It was just down to the fact that I love taking something from nothing, I’ve done it with radio stations and other projects. I’d been following street art for some time in various cities across the world so decided to ask some of the artists how they’d feel about coming to Blackpool to paint.”

Most of them asked where it was – and then said yes. So the green light was easy?

“You’re joking. Can you imagine going to the council, which at the time was Tory-led,” he says. “Everyone in charge initially said ‘you’re not bringing those scallywags to my town.’ They deny it now but they definitely said it.”

Eventually he got an in with Arts Council England (ACE) but funding still wasn’t a given.

“To get ACE money these days you don’t have to be an artist you have to know how to fill a form in,” he says. “It’s really tough, there’s the buzz words to learn, there’s the relationships to work out.”

But eventually an ACE representative came to Blackpool.

“It was November, we stood him in a bus shelter and said we’re going to paint in here, he was absolutely freezing but said ‘yes I get it,’ so we showed him some examples.”

Sand Sea and Spray was born.

Although it attracts talent from across the world, this year’s line-up also featured seven local artists.

“I’d challenge anyone to tell which are the local works and which are the international ones,” he says proudly. “They are doing a great job.

“They’re mostly self-taught, they follow their heroes, but there was nowhere for them to paint.

“One of the great things about street art is that it comes out of very talented people who can’t get into galleries so they paint on the streets.”

After that initial hesitation Robin admits that the current council has been “incredible – they get it now.”

So it’s here to stay/spray?

“That depends on funding, it always depends on funding,” he says. “I don’t know one year from the next, which makes it difficult to secure the big names because we do get the best artists in the world.”

But they are well looked after when they’re here - and it’s a mutual admiration society.

“They love it here and it’s a massive advert for Blackpool,” he says. “And even now if you put something on a wall I guarantee there will be people photograph it every week, put it on line, and it always says Blackpool.”

It’s not all been good news though. Being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes meant shelving last year’s display and recruiting extra help for this year’s (it takes about 100 in all, many of who are volunteers).

“It was all so sudden,” he says. “I was at the GP’s in the morning and by midday I was in Blackpool Vic being pumped with insulin. Another couple of days I’d have been in a coma. It took me about three months to get my head round how close I’d been.”

He admits to still getting very tired and watching what he eats but says it has changed his perspective on everything.

“I’m really happy to be able to walk up the road on a morning,” he says. “When you realise you’ve been that close to popping your clogs it’s a real Road to Damascus moment.”

He worries about “having to battle every day in the Blackpool arts world” but is proud of what has been achieved in The Old Rock Factory.

“Everything here is from skips, old doors, closed studios, e-bay and bought cheap,” he says. “It’s been a hell of a journey and I want it to keep going. I want Blackpool art to be shown in galleries around the world. I want everyone to know what we are producing here.

“We could be the St Ives, Berlin or Paris of the North. But everyone has got to pull together. I’m worried that too much is being spent on consultants rather than generating local talent.”

As for The Old Rock Factory when he took it on he admits: “I had no idea where I was going to get the money from to pay the rent.”

Now all three floors are bustling with artists.

So is he the Andy Warhol of Blackpool?

“More like the Andy Capp. But I’d love to be thought of as a print maker, that’s what I’d love to do with my life.”

Away from the art, Robin is also an unpaid Ambassador of the Illuminations – of which he is more a fan than of switch-on night.

“It needs rethinking, the arena wasn’t buzzing like it should be and the presenter kept calling Blackpool a city,” he comments. “Do some research. If you are presenting in front of thousands of people you have to get it right and by the time you get to the actual switch on the crowd should have been going ballistic. You need someone who can work that crowd and make it happen.”

He misses the Talbot Square and Radio 2 days.

“You’d get a month of national exposure. Wherever you go in the world the English have a fondness for Blackpool.

“It will always be a good time resort but the task is to get kids and families back. I’m trying to give it another strand, so hopefully in the distant future people will still come to Blackpool – 
but perhaps for different things than they do at the moment.”

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