Perhaps it’s the Tower. Whatever the reason, Blackpool is arguably the most recognisable of English coastal resorts, as archetypal as seafront fortune tellers whose booths are festooned with photographs of half-forgotten light entertainers.

Maybe it’s the Lights. Because there’s something, too, that gets under the ribcage and ensnares the heart. There’s a great deal of good will towards Blackpool, which, while not blind to her decline, wishes her the saving grace of a second act. The signs are there, from Abingdon Street Market’s new lease of life as a food hall, its building also housing artists’ studios, to the fresh wave of shop fronts breaking along Topping Street.

Showtown ©Hufton+Crow

And now there is Showtown, billed as Blackpool’s first museum, but in many ways an attraction in the tradition of its most fêted forebears, like the Tower Ballroom and Blackpool Grand Theatre, when the resort aspired to the heights of quality rather than the lowest common denominator.

A stone’s throw from the Tower, Showtown promises to tell the many stories which have made Blackpool what it was and is, following their dramatic arc as the town’s fortunes rise and fall like the tides that caress its sands and buffet its piers, blasting its character and blessing its promenade.

In keeping with a town that once hosted a Doctor Who exhibition, the museum is bigger on the inside than its facade might suggest. Its six gallery spaces spill over with fascination, their inviting interiors, courtesy of designers Casson Mann, brightly contemporary yet not so modish as to be date-stamped ‘2024’, taking in everything from the light of the illuminations to magic of Paul Daniels.

It does so in a way that, like a circus performer spinning plates of different sizes, manages to ensnare the attentions of all, from the youngest visitor, giddy with the interactivity, to the oldest, rapt with reminiscence. The goodwill the town elicits is exhibited in the permanent loans, in the form of a number of objects from the theatre and performance collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, not the least of which is one of Tommy Cooper‘s fezzes.

Beside the Seaside gallery, Showtown ©Hufton+Crow

Above all, though, it’s the imagination with which the objects have been displayed, and the consideration given to how they complement one another, that shines through. Each gallery has its three dimensional footnotes, its interactive appendices; whether these be Wakes Week photographs in the viewfinders of the Seaside space, or its evocation of half-forgotten carnival figures, such as Colonel Barker, who, though raised as a woman, lived as a man from the age of 28. Drawn from what were the margins of society, living attractions like Barker and Jolly Alice were able to find a safe space on the shoreline of Lancashire.

If you were inclined to churlishness, you might argue that, on occasion, one or two galleries might benefit from a difference of emphasis. It’s a little disappointing, for instance, that more is not made of adopted Lythamite, Les Dawson, in the Shows gallery. At the same time, it’s arguably an indication of the wealth of material Showtown has at its disposal that the jostle for attention can lead to some being denied the spotlight. Indeed, each of its galleries could be a museum in itself.

Moreover, heedful that regeneration is a balancing act, one that can risk pricing local people out, especially in a borough with one of the highest levels of social deprivation in the country, it’s heartening to note that entrance to Showtown is free for local council taxpayers.

Showtown ©Hufton+Crow

On the whole, however, for once the fairground slogans don’t over-promise. While it could have been the scaled-up equivalent of the faded snapshots in a fortune teller’s booth, its triumph is that it is so much more. Showtown really does boast something for everyone, delivering fun for all the family.

Step right up.

By Desmond Bullen

All images courtesy of Casson Mann and Showtown Blackpool ©Hufton+Crow

 

Showtown, Blackpool’s museum of fun and entertainment, is open now. For more information, click here