19 April 2017

NEW SERIES Golden Mile Years- The Blackpool Doctor Who Exhibition # 1

The Doctor himself never quite got to Blackpool yet hundreds of thousands of his fans certainly did. Sitting incongruously on the resort’s famous Golden Mile, a large blue police box signalled the entrance to the Doctor Who Exhibition which ran from 1974 to 1985. Sounds from the show- we’d call them samples now- drifted along the road as you approached, images lined the adjacent wall. As a build- up it was brilliant. Then there was that big blue box itself; actually larger in dimensions than the `real` thing and because we were kids it looked even larger. Step inside and for a moment the real world intervenes as you have to pay and you get a rather insignificant ticket with no actual mention of what you were attending on it. Then you descend steep steps and now the outside world is truly gone. Instead it is semi dark with music, dialogue extracts and odd noises playing and lying ahead a series of displays, each beautifully staged and lit, stretching ahead along a winding corridor. The centrepiece is a TARDIS console replica around which sit screens through which we see even more detailed displays containing monsters and props. There’s even a shop at the end containing more merchandise than any fan in those days had ever seen. Even when you climbed the steps and found yourself in a large cafĂ©, the Doctor Who experience lingered courtesy of the echoes from the exhibition which must have driven the staff crazy after several months! 

Good childhood memories are awesome but you feel they may be tricksters too. How can things have been so good we wonder as cynical seen it all adults? It’s all about context of course. These days we have easy access to Doctor Who in all kinds of ways with only those missing episodes remaining elusively out of reach. In the 1970s, as I’m sure you’ve read many times before or else you actually remember, it wasn’t like that and the show remained something distant and untouchable. Except of course if you happened to go to Blackpool or Longleat to see the Exhibitions. If you did something remarkable happened, something that even no end of modern digital alternate reality could probably match. You could travel to alien worlds. Walking into the entrance of these exhibitions you entered the TARDIS and it really seemed as if you were transported elsewhere.  

Blackpool is still the North West UK’s premier holiday town but in the 1970s was thrumming with activity. If more recent visits have suggested it has gone slightly to seed, all it will take is a few good ideas to revive it and it still remains popular. Sitting on the very long seafront between two Piers the Golden Mile is an area jam packed with amusement arcades, exhibitions, cafes and shops, the holiday hub of this busy windy town. Candy floss, ice creams, flashing slot machines, plastic buckets and spades; everything you’d expect to see in a seaside front was here in the 70s but there was something else too. 

For any Doctor Who fan 1974 and 1985, this was a vital destination which had to be visited at least once a year usually during the school holidays. Course there were a lucky few fans who actually lived in Blackpool and probably some parents who wished they didn’t! The Exhibition was the target of persistent nagging which precluded the inevitable surrender to demands that they simply had to go. I’m not sure I’ve ever spent as long in any public attraction as I did back then with the Exhibition.  When the day in question turned up. I'd always insist on visiting the place twice; once to totally lose
myself in the world of the programme and again in the early evening when it was quieter for the altogether more practical purpose of taking photos and seeing things properly. These visits would be lengthy; walking back and forth, revisiting each display and absorbing them for this was, along with the Target books, my only contact with the series outside of watching it. Don't forget these were the pre-video days and you couldn't just re watch a story; you saw it once and maybe there'd be a Xmas or summer repeat, but the Exhibition was the only tangible reminder of those monsters and costumes.

Both the Blackpool and Longleat exhibitions were the brainchild of BBC Enterprises' Terry Sampson who said: “Doctor Who is more than just a programme. It is an experience.” The idea emerged from a BBC Special Effects display at London's Science Museum in 1973 which included a lot of material related to the series. The display was a huge success and was then taken North up to Middlesbrough. Though this event featured items from the US Moon landings, including the Lunar Model and Rover, it seemed that the TARDIS console replica and original monster costumes were the most popular items so the decision was taken to locate an expanded exhibition to a site underneath a corner cafe on Blackpool's Golden Mile. The town was selected because, as well as its popularity, it has an extended holiday season due to its famous Illuminations which last until October. An optimum location in the midst of the most profitable area of the Mile was selected at the end of Chapel Street facing the Central Pier.

The exhibition was designed by Tom Carter who drew on the series' feel and look as well as utilising a modest sized site to its best advantage. The overall atmosphere was theatrical in the grandest tradition with lighting, set dressing and music combining to create the total “experience” which Terry Sampson had intended. There were stories at the time that some younger fans were nervous about entering but really parents were best left at ground level as the barrage of noise and lights was probably too much for them! 

The Blackpool Exhibition was opened by Jon Pertwee in the Spring of 1974 in one of his final public appearances as the Doctor. Lis Sladen and huge crowds were also in attendance. The opening was given plenty of publicity and for the next eleven years the attraction would prove to be an enormous success regularly drawing over 250,000 customers per season.
More photos in the Blackpool Doctor Who Exhibition Gallery- link above

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