This autumn more than three million people will travel to Blackpool to see a work of art that is hardly ever mentioned in the metropolitan press. The Blackpool Illuminations attract many more visitors than the Edinburgh Festival. They have been up and running for far longer, too. So why do the broadsheets ignore this trash- aesthetic extravaganza? They don't know what they're missing. The Illuminations aren't just an excuse for a good piss-up: they also shine a light on Britain's light-entertainment past.
The Blackpool Illuminations date back to 1879, when eight newfangled electric arc lamps lit up a small section of the promenade with "artificial sunshine". This year's display features a million lamps and, unlike the Victorian prototypes, they don't go out when the tide comes in. Twenty thousand people are expected to show up, just to watch the launch ceremony.
The list of celebs who have switched on the lights reads like a potted history of light entertainment, from Gracie Fields to Shirley Bassey. But it's not the actual switch-on that is so special; what is far more enjoyable is the boozy jamboree that surrounds it, in the only place in Britain where seaside variety shows still thrive.
Fifty years ago, there were dozens of resorts on the variety circuit. Blackpool was always the biggest, but it was merely one of many. Now it is the only one. Brighton has a thriving arts scene, but it tends to be the same stuff as you see in Edinburgh. Some other resorts still stage the odd summer season, but only Blackpool mounts the sort of mass entertainment whose roots stretch back to music hall: singers, dancers and comedians, all on the same bill.
From Lillie Langtry to Les Dawson, every traditional entertainer used to play Blackpool on the way up (and on the way back down again). And while London's theatre history is strewn across the capital, Blackpool's variety history is squeezed into a few streets. Morecambe and Wise played the Winter Gardens, supporting George Formby. Ken Dodd played the Central Pier, supporting Morecambe and Wise. Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Askey, Tony Hancock and Harry Secombe all played the Opera House - four stars who straddle a century, from silent films to the modern sitcom. Snooty critics tend to sneer at this sort of unpretentious entertainment, but I saw a super variety show when I visited the town in 2004: a couple of comedians, a couple of singers and a troupe of chorus girls.
Unlike fashion-conscious audiences in Edinburgh, these punters aren't afraid to be patriotic. When the band plays "Rule Britannia", "Land of Hope and Glory" and "There'll Always Be an England", everyone joins in. You don't even need to buy a ticket to enjoy a bit of live variety in Blackpool. "We're going to take you back to Tom Jones," announced a pub singer in the theatre bar. "Ladies, please refrain from throwing your knickers at me." Sadly, I couldn't stick around, as I was heading off to see Geri Halliwell switch on the lights.
Much to my surprise, the switch-on was really rather charming. In recent years Blackpool has been overrun by stag and hen nights in garish fancy dress, yet tonight these randy lads and ladettes were conspicuous by their absence. Instead, the streets were crammed with mums and dads and hordes of wide-eyed children, and when the lights went on an almighty ooh and aah went up that seemed to stretch the full six miles along the waterfront. The Blackpool Tower lit up like a Christmas tree. The roller coaster was festooned with fairy lights.
When Christo wrapped up the Reichstag, he got acres of highbrow publicity. Who's to say the Illuminations aren't an equally important work of art? For a few minutes, Blackpool seemed like an innocent place, full of happy families instead of pissed-up party-goers.
On Sunday morning I went to the showbiz mass at the Sacred Heart Catholic church - a thanksgiving service that's been held here every year for 50 years. I thought I'd be filling out the front pews with a few resting theatricals, but in fact the place was packed. Afterwards, I got chatting to the chaplain, a cheerful chap called Geoffrey Bottoms (the perfect name for a showbiz cleric). "Blackpool has had to change," he said, "and it's a very painful process."
Father Geoffrey was born and raised in Blackpool. His parents used to take him to the theatre every week. The variety shows he grew up on have been struggling since the 1970s, clobbered by foreign package holidays. But he believes that British holidaymakers, after 30 years of sunburn and sangria on the Costa del Sol, are rediscovering the British seaside, and British seaside entertainers, too. "They want speciality acts; they want comedy; they want singers and dancers," the priest told me. "What they can't get abroad is the type of entertainment that Blackpool offers." You can see his point of view. Like its illuminations, Blackpool is brash and tacky - but more than any other town in Britain, it is still umbilically linked to its music-hall past.
So is Father Geoffrey right? Does variety have a future? Or does Blackpool's survival depend on yet more stag and hen? Well, one glimmer of hope on the horizon is the government's plan for a new supercasino. Blackpool is one of the prospective sites, and I for one hope that the city gets it. I doubt it will turn the place into a Lancashire Las Vegas, but it might help subsidise an indigenous art form that never receives its fair share of public cash. If people are going to gamble, they may as well do it here and see a few shows while they're at it. It surely can't be any worse than betting on the internet.
On my last night in Blackpool I went to the Grand Theatre to see Cannon and Ball. Built by Frank Matcham, the doyen of music-hall architects, this lovely theatre was rescued and restored by local enthusiasts, and tonight Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball graced it with a timeless slice of knockabout that wouldn't have looked out of place on the Grand's opening night in 1894. Eric Morecambe once called Cannon and Ball the next Morecambe and Wise, and that night you could see what Eric saw in them. It was a cracking show, full of slapstick and silly wordplay. You could tell they'd been together for 40 years. They finished off with a few songs, showing their surprisingly good singing voices. That's the great thing about variety - it really is fun for all the family.
"Tonight in Blackpool there will be at least 80 to 100 acts working, in hotels, in pubs, in theatres - and it's all variety," said Bobby in the dressing room after the show. "How many of our people go to the Edinburgh Festival? Not that many. They go to this type of thing."
The numbers in Blackpool make Edinburgh look like child's play. "In 1979, we came to Blackpool in our first major summer season and sold the place out," Tommy told me. "Nearly 2,000 people a night, twice nightly for 18 weeks." In 1980 they swapped the North Pier for the Opera House and packed that out as well. "It has 3,200 seats. We did 18 weeks there, sold out, two shows a day. That was 6,400 people every single day for 18 weeks. Never an empty seat."
The bar was shut. The staff were locking up. It was time to go. Back outside, a fierce wind was blowing in off the Irish Sea and the seafront was deserted, but the promenade shone like a silver river, illuminated by the glow of a million fairy lights. As I made my way along the windswept prom and back to my cheap guest house, I realised why the Illuminations are so important. Not only are they a great way of showing that Blackpool matters just as much as Edinburgh, they're a great way of guiding drunken punters safely back home to bed.
The Blackpool Illuminations run from 1 September to 5 November. William Cook is the editor of "Eric Morecambe Unseen: the lost diaries, jokes and photographs" published by HarperCollins (£14.99)
Research by Vanessa Nicholson
1735: Blackpool gets first guest house. By 1780 the town has four hotels and four alehouses
1879: It is proudly said, of the first electrics to light up the promenade, that they emit the electrical equivalent of 48,000 candles. Blackpool is the first place in the world to introduce electric street lighting
1894: Blackpool Tower (below) opens, inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Three thousand punters pay 12d to take lifts to the top
1896: Alderman William George Bean founds the Pleasure Beach as an "American-Style Amusement Park, to make adults feel like children again and to inspire gaiety of a primarily innocent character"
1904: A teenaged Charlie Chaplin plays the part of Billie in Sherlock Holmes at the Opera House
1912: The first ever royal visit to Blackpool, by Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Louise, is marked by a lights display that the public pressures the local council to repeat annually. The Illuminations begin
1939: The morning after the preview night, Germany invades Poland. The Illuminations are suspended for ten years
1942: Noë Coward premières and appears in two of his own plays
1982: The escapologist Karl Bartoni (below) gets married while suspended in a cage from the tower
1992: "Tower World" is opened by Diana, Princess of Wales
2005: A new, 100ft screen is installed for text messages during the Illuminations
2006: Surprising bid by Blackpool to become a World Heritage Site. "It's not about being pretty, it's about being important," says a council spokeswoman.