Blackpool Swings

This week Blackpool is the unlikely star of a BBC documentary about big bands. Antonia Charlesworth finds out about a proud musical heritage

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Newcastle-born Malcolm Gerrie has played a defining role in music television programming for the past 30 years. His credits include Channel 4’s The Tube, which reinvigorated live music TV in the eighties, and in the following decade The White Room. He famously gave Madonna her first live appearance and helped launch the careers of Paula Yates and Jools Holland.

His latest project, Blackpool Swings: Dancing Through The War, airing on BBC2 this week, is a documentary he hopeswill reignite interest in big band music as well as the seaside resort. “I’m a big regionalist,” he explains. “I worked outside London for many years doing Razzmatazz and lots of music shows. You don’t have to do everything in the loop of the M25.”

The documentary was born of Gerrie’s passion for big band music. He wanted to present a post-war history and, with his friend Holland on board, began to scout for locations to recreate some of the music. Blackpool, he decided, it had to be. Not only was the town instrumental in the movement but Gerrie felt the same way about it as he did about
the music – its heyday had long passed but, with the current appetite for nostalgia, both had much to offer.

“The Winter Gardens blew our socks off and when we saw the Empress Ballroom we knew it was the place,” he says. “Then, once we got [historian] Lucy Worsley on board [as co-presenter with Holland and Len Goodman] and started to dig under the skin of the Winter Gardens we were gobsmacked.” Blackpool had been vital in the war effort – troops trained there, bombers built there – but he found it also became vital as a place for people to escape the horrors of war.

“Forget Ibiza or Miami – this was the place you went during the war and after to let your hair down. They relaxed the rules there on rationing and it became the playground of the rest of the UK as well as American GIs who went there to get their rocks off,” he laughs. “It became obvious that as well as the bands, Blackpool really was the other star of the show.” Gerrie decided the town should feature more prominently in the narrative and the BBC extended the hour-long documentary by a further 30 minutes, with the Holland concert as a separate programme.

“I really hope the documentary restores interest in big band music but, more so, I hope it leads the BBC to doing more in Blackpool and generally outside of London,” says Gerrie, pointing out the success of the Jools Holland show at the Winter Gardens. “We had nearly 15,000 applicants for the 800 capacity show – we could have put it on for a whole week and sold out.”

Blackpool Swings: Dancing Through the War is on BBC2 on 25 July. A Big Band Special: Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra live in Blackpool is on BBC4 on 26 July

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