Since childhood, filmmaker Conor Rollins has harboured an unwavering loyalty to the town of Blackpool. The site of many fondly remembered family holidays, it’s little wonder Rollins feels protective over this anachronistic seaside retreat, a place he sees as continually misrepresented by media reports of crime, neglect and poverty.
With his latest film, Artificial Sunshine, Rollins gets under the skin of Blackpool’s neon-soaked nightlife and creaking promenade, examining the interplay between the lives of real people and a prosperous history of halcyon days that now hangs heavy on the town. Like a lucid dream of kaleidoscopic colours, the film drifts across beaches, down narrow alleys and games arcades to illustrate the seduction of a town that blurs the line between reality and artifice. On one side, a seaside idyll that remains frozen in time, a place of sensory overload, hypnotic lights and saccharine colours and on the other: a forgotten town, haunted by its former grandeur and struggling for a contemporary identity.
Finn Blythe: What are your earliest memories of Blackpool? What do you most strongly associate with it?
Conor Rollins: My uncle sneaking me on the Pepsi Max Big One rollercoaster at the Pleasure Beach. I was too small and began to slip under the safety bar and he had to grab on to me so I didn’t fall to my demise. I strongly associate that memory with fear and my on going trepidation of rollercoasters. Donkeys, Fish ‘n’ Chips, Camel Racing at Coral Island and my granddad’s garage also feature largely in those early memories.
FB: What do you feel the perception of Blackpool is today and how were you aiming to change that?
CR: For people that have visited and know it, I’m sure they at least have a soft spot for it or thoroughly enjoy the place. For locals and people that have never been, there is probably some negative or frustrating feelings. I find it ironic as some of the popular nights in London where I live, seem to be emulating the bars and entertainments of Blackpool. From the karaoke to the pool houses, the local pubs and working men’s clubs of carpeted floors and dodgy curtains, I feel everyone enjoys the experience of Blackpool-style but just don’t want to live it or experience the real thing.
In terms of changing the perception, the documentary wasn’t really looking to change people’s opinions but lure them into a beautiful dream – a reverse of how I feel it is often perceived by people, press or media. Not to say we didn’t see the depression, anger and hard times of Blackpool but we simply curtailed the use of it within this documentary as even getting permission to film places was a nightmare – most people assumed we were going to show the town in a negative light. The main aim was to seduce the viewer into this dreamlike state that possibly reminded them of a place in their lives that does what Blackpool does for me.
“…some of the popular nights in London where I live, seem to be emulating the bars and entertainments of Blackpool.”
FB: What impression did you get from people you talked to about their feelings toward the town?
CR: It was a very mixed impression of the place. Each conversation would contradict the next. Many wanted change and this is probably why Blackpool had the highest leave vote count of North-West England, with nearly 70 percent voting to leave Europe. Some were convinced the smoking ban was the single greatest loss in Blackpool’s decline, reasoning no one left their homes anymore to visit the pubs, casinos or karaoke houses, as why would you leave if you had to go outside to smoke. Some seemed most irate with recent high levels of migration of outside cultures, but again varying with each person. Others were tired of the overwhelming presence of stag and hen parties, scaring off wholesome family holidays. Many loved it and considered it the best place in the world.
“Many wanted change and this is probably why Blackpool had the highest leave vote count of North-West England with nearly 70% voting to leave Europe.”
FB: There’s an interplay between reality and artifice in Blackpool, of bright facades that obscure darker realities – I think you evoked this beautifully. Did you notice that your exploration of this changed your childhood perception of Blackpool?
CR: Thanks, Louis Hollis (cinematographer), Meenu Sureshlal (editor), Ella Rowberry (sound recordist/designer) and Isaac Magner (soundtrack) made it all happen. I think even as a child it is noticeable, and via the documentary, I was looking at those childhood memories and trying to recreate what a place looks and feels like through a child’s eye. From waking up in the car to the bright lights on the way there, to all the locations we used that I’d visited as a child and couldn’t understand why in these places of great colour, light and excitement, people were not always enjoying themselves. As you grow up you start to understand about the “why” so it felt important to include these moments.
FB: Blackpool is often thought of as anachronistic, a nostalgic pleasure dome as you say, but what do you see as its future?
CR: I think it is a huge part of its identity and obviously how I relate to Blackpool. For me, it’s very selfish and easy as I’m only a visitor and admirer, but I would want it to stay like that. The look, feel and aesthetic is what I love and remember about the place, but I’m really unsure what the future holds for it. The improvements to the seafront have been impressive but you look one road back and not much has changed, hopefully, the recent plans for £100m on regeneration work will make a difference. But since 2011 they have seen £450m in budget cuts and with the pound continuing to fall and Brexit looming, austerity will no doubt continue to be damaging and seaside deprivation remain. I hope I’m wrong and wish it the best of luck as Blackpool was built for fun and there will always be a demand for that.