Richard Ryan: I think the Illuminations has a really strong future
He may be stepping out of the spotlight, but Illuminations boss Richard Ryan will never completely switch off from Blackpool as he heads for pastures new.
After nearly three decades helping to brighten up the Promenade each autumn, next month sees his departure from the resort to take up a fresh challenge.
But Richard, 56, says he is leaving the Illuminations in good hands - and they will continue to shine for generations to come.
He said: “There is no-one saying we don’t want the Lights - it would be political suicide not to have them and it doesn’t make sense economically.
“It is tough for the council at the moment because it’s always having to cut budgets.
“However we are just the custodians for something much bigger than us.
“The Illuminations blends nostalgia with new experience and has a really strong future.
“I hope I am leaving them in a good state of health and I think we have had a lot of innovation in my time here.
“There are 20 different projects on the go now and I am leaving a brilliant team behind who have a huge amount of talent and skill.”
Richard is leaving after being head-hunted by Yorkshire-based company Blachere, which is one of Europe’s largest specialist light companies, providing displays for shopping centres and theme parks.
It worked on the Wallace and Gromit ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
Richard said: “I am looking forward to the new challenge, but you don’t stay as long as I’ve have with the Illuminations unless you loved it.
“I will miss the people and the buzz of a Saturday night on the Promenade when it’s bouncing.”
Working for Blackpool Illuminations was a job Richard had set his sights on as a seven-year-old.
Such was his single-mindedness even at that young age, that his mum wrote to the then director of the Illuminations Arthur Elliott for advice.
His message was to go and study electrical engineering, and Richard headed off from his home town of Sheffield to Portsmouth Polytechnic.
On graduating, his first job was somewhat more prosaic - working as a computer fixer - before he saw a job advertised at the Illuminations.
He said: “I’d done some work at Matlock Baths, and we used to put Christmas lights up outside our house in Sheffield which was really unusual in those days.
“I’d also worked on a fairground at Southsea, near Portsmouth, and rewired the big wheel and put lights on.
“So I had some experience, but I didn’t get that job.
“I eventually joined in June 1989 when Arnold Bennison was taken on to shake it up and he brought some new faces in.”
After just a few months Richard was put in charge of new features, and in 1999 he was made head of Illuminations.
But it was a baptism of fire as December storms swept in.
Richard recalls: “My first night in charge there was a water main burst which flooded the depot.
“Then we had horrendous weather and there were all kinds of features falling down on the Promenade. But we got through it.”
Switch-on night was always a mixture of hard work and nerves.
He says: “My favourite switch-ons were probably in Talbot Square with the likes of the Bee Gees and Shirley Bassey.
“But it outgrew the space - it was a bit like putting Manchester United on to play at Accrington’s ground.
“There is always that moment just before the switch-on when you hope it’s going to be ok.”
This September, for the first time in 29 years that’s one thing he won’t have to worry about.
What has changed during Richard’s time in charge?
Technology has been the driving force behind keeping the Illuminations fresh - and cheaper to run.
The display now uses nearly all LED bulbs which has cut electricity consumption massively.
When Richard started in the job, each bulb was 110 volts with 25 watts power.
Today they are 24 volts, with 0.3 of a watt, but able to be just as bright.
LEDs can also be programmed to change colour and pattern.
Electricity consumption has dropped by two thirds in the last 10 years as a result.
Seven substations make up the Illuminations which can be controlled manually, but also nowadays through a phone app.
The depot has relocated from Rigby Road to the modern Lightworks building on Blackpool Business Park.
The switch-on ceremony has moved from Talbot Square to Central Station car park, and finally to its current home on the Tower Festival Headland.
Richard says: “The aim is to give visitors the best experience possible with the resources we have.
“That’s against a backdrop where people’s perceptions and expectations have changed massively.
“The show now is far more interactive and artistically driven and it does move with the times.
“I think the Illuminations has a really strong future.
“Even if you look back to the 1950s and ‘60s there was the same debate about funding the Illuminations, and even back in the ‘60s there was advertising in them.
“We’ve always had sponsors and I’m very grateful for those companies.
“But we do have to make artistic compromises with sponsors because you don’t want 50 coke cans strung along the Prom.
“What I would like to see is a single brand sponsor in the future for the Illuminations.”
Planning permission has just been granted for 16 LED screens on Central Prom which could carry advertising in the future.
The council puts in £1.7m annually for the display which is worth £231m a year to the business community, attracting 3.5 million visitors.
Over the years Richard has supervised work for other towns, and also the export of Illuminations to places as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.