"There’s a stereotypical image of Blackpool down south,” John Robb tells the audience at the launch of CultureBlackpool.
“They get quite snobby ab out the place, that it’s all people eating chips and the Lights.
“They are great things, they have their own cultural power.
“But there’s another side to Blackpool and that’s what this project is about.”
CultureBlackpool was yesterday revealed to an invited audience at Blackpool Tower Circus - itself one of the resort’s cultural gems.
As reported in yesterday’s Gazette, the partnership between VisitBlackpool, the Grand Theatre, Winter Gardens, Grundy Art Gallery and Blackpool Arts Service, aims to highlight the town’s cultural reputation and to ‘flip expected perceptions of Blackpool and persuade people to tune in, look up and around and to appreciate the cultural side of the resort.’
At this stage, it’s a website, bringing together the town’s thriving arts and cultural scene, it’s B-side.
But there’s hopes it will become a force to drive forward and promote what there is to see and do here, over and above the A-side of the attractions.
Also sitting on the panel at A Conversation About Culture was Michael Trainor, a founding director of arts organisation LeftCoast, Grand Theatre chief executive Ruth Eastwood and professional poet Tony Walsh - who came to national attention with his work in the wake of the Manchester terror attack last year.
Michael came to Blackpool in 2014 as part of LeftCoast, although as an artist he’d worked here previously including on the giant mirrorball They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? on the Promenade at South Shore.
At that time, in the late Nineties and 2000, the town’s creative sector was ‘two breakdancers and someone who made glass animals’.
So what’s changed?
“Now it’s thriving,” Michael said. “There’s independent dance companies, unusual artists, great photographers and my job has been to encourage that and magnify it.”
He hailed the Lightpool Festival as a great example of Blackpool’s B-side shining alongside its A-side.
During Lightpool, visitors to the Illuminations are drawn away from the Golden Mile and its strings of lights and tableaux for performances which during the past three years have included drummers in lit-up suits or tango dancers surrounded by flames in St John’s Square.
“It gives a more in-depth experience than simply driving through the Prom,” he added. “That’s what CultureBlackpool, as I see it, will be about - adding to what already exists, bringing depth rather than breadth.
“Blackpool is and always has been aimed as mass numbers, but the B-side isn’t about volume - it’s about quality.”
He also said the existing infrastructure meant Blackpool is starting from a much higher point than other towns and cities where their cultural scene has had to be almost artificially created.
“Other places have achieved it [a cultural status] with far less to work with than Blackpool; places have had to invent culture and build shiny new art galleries,” he said. “Blackpool has the culture and just needs to polish it so it shines a bit more.”
Within the hallowed Frank Matcham designed walls of the Tower Circus, its seemed easy to talk about culture.
Tony Walsh, whose emotive and emotional Up ‘Ere poem - filmed at the top of Blackpool Tower, and hailing the landmark as a protecting beacon for the whole North West region - gathered one million online views overnight when it aired on BBC’s North West Tonight before Christmas, recalled his own cultural experiences of Blackpool as someone who grew up and lives in Manchester.
“The building blocks of what made Blackpool great and loved are still here; theatres, sun sets, the coast, the accommodation, and however many millions of people with an hour and a half’s drive here,” he said.
“There’s still a great cultural resonance to the place among people outside of Blackpool. I came a couple of years ago for the Prodigy at the Empress Ballroom, and I’ve been at Rebellion Festival - which makes a great juxtaposition of the weekend visitor, the holidaymakers and then these hardcore punks who come from across Europe.”
As a former regeneration officer in Greater Manchester, he’s well placed to see how cities can change.
“Look at Media City and the billions of pounds of investment there,” he said. “Someone had the vision - and would have been called crazy for it - of building The Lowry art gallery in those acres of desolation.”
And while Blackpool is recognised internationally yet scorned nationally, perhaps the biggest challenge is changing the perceptions of local residents, something the CultureBlackpool leaders were challenged to focus on by Cheryl Tchobanian, who helps Blackpool Parks attractions at Stanley Park as well as the Beach House Bistro on the Promenade.
“We had a guest from LA who wanted to see the heritage and culture and they couldn’t get over what they saw in the Tower building,” she said. “I felt so proud to do that tour and to show them what we have.
“But at the same time, you find yourself defending the town over and over again.
“The image of Blackpool needs to be sorted locally, with our own residents.”
“We need to show off about Blackpool a lot more,” replied John Robb, who has toured the world as a music journalist and musician. “It’s an extrovert place, entertainment led but we don’t shout about ourselves in the same way.
“People in the town need to be ambassadors for themselves.”