Blackpool’s world famous Illuminations have been lighting up the seaside town’s promenade during wintertime since 1879. And while Richard Williams doesn’t go back quite that far, he has been working on the display for 35 years – and has risen up through the ranks from putting up cables and bulbs across the Lancashire resort to running the entire show.
Today, as Illuminations manager, he is responsible for ensuring that the spectacle – which now involves more than one million bulbs along a six-mile route – is at its splendid best, continuing to attract millions of visitors during what would be the low season anywhere else on the coast.
“The role is so diverse,” he says. “One minute, I can be talking about what type of LED lamp to use in an installation, and the next minute, I’ve got a meeting with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, our curator. The other day I looked out the window, and saw a giant mirror ball go out the depot and a load of LED drag queens come in.”
Mr Williams’s great passion is lighting: “My favourite light medium is lasers because of the impact and the speed that they react. I’ve always loved lasers. We do projections onto the front of buildings. If you asked me what my favourite tableau was just this year, I would say it’s the Venus Reborn tableau. And we’ve introduced some large LED screens that are absolutely brilliant.”
Few people realise that not only are all the lights designed and hung up by the Illuminations’ own artists, electricians, joiners, mechanics, painters, engineers and technicians, but they are also manufactured in Blackpool. Old displays have been sold to cities around the world, including Barcelona and Jeddah. “We develop and manufacture them ourselves, so we can design anything we can imagine,” says Mr Williams.
He was born in Blackpool and began putting up decorative lights on shopfront signs after leaving school. He then started working for Blackpool Council on street lighting, before transferring to the operations side of the illuminations when the streetlights contract was tendered out to another company.
“I remember thinking one day, ‘I want more than this. I want to do more than just put things up for the rest of my life.’”
He signed up for an electronics course at Blackpool College, and spent the next four years “badgering his boss, asking to do some training”. He also did an extra night a week at college “to qualify as your bog standard electrician. I thought, ‘Well, you know you might not always get a job as an engineer, but you’ll certainly get a job as an electrician.’”
He needn’t have worried and was able to put his skills to good use on the Illuminations. “I introduced a lot of new technology to the display to enhance what we had,” he says.
With that expertise, Mr Williams became production manager, bringing in the manufacturers and new features. For the past seven years, he has been Illuminations manager, overseeing the 24 people who work on the lights year-round.
Although there are now more lights than ever in the display – not just the more than one million bulbs, but also more than 100 miles of festoon strung between the promenade poles and across the carriageway – the electricity bill is shrinking, due to improvements in technology.
Last year’s display used 960,000 units, at an approximate cost of £50,000 – a third of what it was 10 years ago. “When I started working, the sheds were quite cold, so you’d turn the light features on to get warm – but nowadays that wouldn’t work,” says Mr Williams.
“We’ve got a lot more LED technology and have even got lighting that looks like neon even though it’s LED. For years we always wanted to have neon in the display, but because of the high voltage, it wasn’t reliable enough.”
Voltages have decreased too, which has increased reliability. “Years ago, big sections of the lights on the promenade would go out in bad weather, with the wind and the spray from the sea. It was known as ‘Illuminations weather’.”
The day of the Illuminations’ big switch-on is always the high point of Williams’ year and the culmination of months of planning. “All the work goes into that one day,” he says. “Our deadline doesn’t change. It’s like the opening night of the theatre – we have to be ready.”
But once the lights are on, the work doesn’t stop. And in 2021 they’ll stay on for an extra two months for the second year in a row, as Blackpool tries to recover some of the business it lost to Covid-19. And while Mr Williams might be in charge of the whole operation, that doesn’t mean he won’t be called out into the cold on a winter night if anything goes wrong.
“I’ve been out Christmas Eve on a cherry picker, fixing a snapped wire,” he says. “We lost power to all of South Shore a couple of years ago, a really large area. And after some investigation, it turned out that someone had tried to illegally tap-off his hotel, but he’d gone for a 6,000-volt cable. I didn’t quite believe it, so I had to drive down and have a look – and they had.”
For Mr Williams, the everyday maintenance is as much a part of the job as the conceptualising and design. “I feel like a custodian. We’ve got a big factory close to Blackpool Airport. I drive in and think, ‘I can’t believe I’m looking after all this.’”Internet Explorer Channel Network