After four decades at Blackpool Opera House, its technical manager tells Catherine Jones why working at the Winter Gardens is a family affair and how technological innovation has transformed his job beyond recognition
Duncan Jump arrived at the Blackpool Opera House as a 16-year-old apprentice. He has just celebrated 40 years at the seaside landmark – almost 30 of them in charge of its sweeping stage. But if that milestone makes him one of the country’s longest-serving one-venue technical managers, he has a way to go to reach the opera house’s previous incumbent of 52 years: Jump’s late father Derek.
In fact, Jump is one of eight family members, spanning four generations, to work at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens complex, of which the opera house is part. His grandfather Albert was the first Jump at the venue, working as a fitter in its Olympia exhibition hall, once anchor to the famous big wheel and later the site of fairground rides and stalls.
Bury-born Albert had been gassed in the trenches while serving in the Royal Fusiliers during the First World War and moved to Blackpool in the 1930s for the fresh sea air. His wife Annie also worked at the Olympia, handing out change for the rides.
Three sons joined their parents at the Winter Gardens. The eldest two, Alan and Harvey, fitted and repaired rides, while the youngest, Jump’s father, became a lighting technician.
‘My brother worked for a racing stables, so all the stars would call my father up for tips when he worked on the stage door’
Their employment is chronicled in a union ledger dating from the 1950s and still in Jump’s possession. “My father worked at the Palace, the Grand Theatre, South Pier and the Winter Gardens. In those days it was all one company, and you were transferred to different theatres when they were busy,” he says. “When he retired, he came back to the opera house to do the stage door part-time. We found that was his favourite job.”
As well as being a key member of the theatre’s football team in his time, Derek also proved a particular hit on the stage door, not just for his calming presence in the face of some demanding performers but also for his horse-racing knowledge.
Jump says: “My brother worked for a racing stables and stars would call my father up for tips. He even went to the races with people like [comedians] Norman Collier and Duncan Norvelle.”
He started working at the opera house soon after leaving school. Disaffected with his training as a mechanic at a local haulage company, when he was asked to help behind the scenes at a show, he was happy to get involved. And never left.
“It was October 1978, the London Festival of Ballet, which was a massive show,” he recalls. “I was doing electrics, working with the big lights at the side of the stage, where you’d get a cue sheet and physically change the colours.”
Unbeknown to the teenager, he had arrived on the cusp of a revolution, and, during the 11 years he worked alongside his father as a lighting technician, traditional practices were swept aside by technology. When Jump started, three men were needed to work each lighting board, while four huge original carbon arc spotlights were still in use in the opera house. The carbon rods lasted an hour and became red-hot – too hot to handle.
Through the 1980s, the lighting desk became ever smaller and more sophisticated, and the number of crew required for special effects was reduced to what is now mostly one technician and a memory stick.
‘In the old days, I had to send the microphone up through the floor. If you got that wrong, you could knock someone out. Luckily I never did’
Jump admits it felt more special doing it the traditional way. “In the early days, it was more interesting,” he says. “You had a lot more staff and that’s how I grew up, with these lights. That’s what attracted me to the stage. Today it’s completely different; one person controls everything. Then, you’d have to physically change the lamps, and you’d be repairing them.”
He adds: “It still keeps changing now. It’s all LED lights and radio mics. Before, one of the stage electric jobs was sending the microphone up through the floor. If you got that wrong, you could knock someone out. Luckily I never did.”
Things changed for Jump in 1989 when he was made an assistant stage manager, within a year becoming stage manager at what is one of the biggest theatres in the country.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Mechanic for a haulage company.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Stage electrics for London Festival of Ballet at the Opera House Blackpool.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That I had to work all nights and weekends. You kind of lost your friends as well when you were 16 because you were working when all your friends were off work. I lost my social life.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
If you hadn’t been a stage manager, what would you have been?
A heavy goods vehicle mechanic.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
There was never a dressing room 13 here at the opera house, it was called 12A. I reinstated the 13. I was superstitious about ladders, but then in this job I’ve walked under so many now that it’s pointless being superstitious.
The art deco Grade II*-listed opera house is the third iteration of the theatre on the same spot, replacing a huge Edwardian amphitheatre which itself had been built on the site of the original Frank Matcham opera house. It opened in 1939 with George Formby’s revue Turned Out Nice Again.
The 2,920-seater venue boasts one of the widest proscenium arches in the world. Backstage there are 96 mechanical fly bars, along with two – now disused – cable cars that would track beneath the fly forward spotlights, and 17 dressing rooms for the star turns. It adds up to a lot of responsibility. And the change of role turned out to be something of a baptism of fire for the 27-year-old Jump.
“It was a big summer show. Freddie Starr was the headliner,” he says. “When the stage manager left, I was offered the job. The head flyman and the person we had on lights left, so I had to recruit an assistant stage manager, a lighting man and a flyman.”
Along with dealing with the often exacting requirements of visiting talent – Jump recalls the late John Denver stipulating the services of a real Swedish masseur – recruitment has remained a large part of his role, first as stage manager and, since 2009, as technical manager of the whole Winter Gardens complex.
One employee who didn’t work out as hoped was a teenager called Alfie Boe, who Jump reveals he had to dismiss for failing to turn up to work as a stagehand. “I’m in his book as the nasty boss,” he laughs. “But we always have a drink together when he performs here.”
Along with changes in technology, Jump’s promotion coincided with a sea change in audience tastes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the famous Blackpool summer seasons – a staple of the resort during the 20th century – were still big business, with stars such as Danny La Rue, Cannon and Ball and Russ Abbot playing to packed houses.
But by the turn of the millennium the market for traditional seaside holiday entertainment had all but collapsed. The last summer show took place in 2000, and since then the venue has been primarily a receiving house for huge
In 2009, it hosted the Royal Variety Performance for the second time in its history. Peter Kay was compere and the bill included Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Lady Gaga and Andre Rieu, along with three orchestras.
In addition to his day job, for the last 27 years Jump has also produced huge showcases for dozens of dance schools in Lancashire and Yorkshire, giving young performers the chance to perform on the Opera House’s substantial stage.
With 40 years under his belt, Jump, whose daughter Samantha also works at the venue, admits he’s looking forward to his golden anniversary.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work in one of the biggest theatres in the world,” he says. “And I have the best office window in the world. I can see Elton John, Barry Manilow, Shirley Bassey and Michael Buble from there. No one else has a view like that.”
Born: 1962, Blackpool
• Summer Holiday (1996)
• Royal Variety Performance (2009)
• Encore stage manager
of the year (2002)
• Silver disc for Summer Holiday (1996)