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Natasha Webb

August 2004

Hello again…it’s only me, so I guess it must be my 8th annual excursion to the West Country for the Plymouth firework competition.

This competition gets better and better every year and, if you’ve never made the effort to go, then you really are missing out on something special. Even the organizers made a greater effort than usual and the official programme was well worth keeping. Apart from it giving you the contact details and brief description of all the competitors, information about the way the competition would be judged, and an informative report about the history of fireworks in Britain, it also gave you a very useful list of safety suggestions for home firework displays.

Right, let’s get on with it… Rules and Regulations were the same as last year so please see issue 46 of Fireworks for full details. The only difference is that the judges were Stephen Lance (Lance Publications), Tim Faulkner (Powderham Castle), Sarah Shortly (BBC Radio Devon), Alan Qualtrough (Plymouth Herald) and Cllr Peter Smith (Plymouth City Council) who stood in for Ron Rapley who had to withdraw for health reasons. Tom Smith was also there in his usual role as adjudicator. The running order was due to be: Jubilee Fireworks (winners in 2003), Skyburst The Firework Co, Sandling Fireworks, Alan Hilary Pyrotechnics, Westcoast Firework Company and SelStar Fireworks.

When I arrived on the Mount Batten Wharf just before 1.30p.m. on Tuesday it was hot and windy but generally great rigging conditions (although it was a bit warmer than I’d realised, as I later discovered when I noticed the sun burn). I thought I’d try to be a bit more organised this year and to interview the teams in the order they were due to fire, so I wandered over to the guys from Jubilee and asked what they had in store for us.

Chris Pearce was heavily involved with the Firework Conference, so Andy Wiggins had designed and was running the show. They had organized themselves into two teams of six who would work alternating 3hr shifts, with Andy, Rodney Clarke and Julie Cooper remaining on site all day. This arrangement seemed to be working because everyone was alert and enthusiastic and getting on with the job in hand. The forecast was for rain later in the afternoon so everyone was cracking on trying to get as much done as possible before the weather changed.

I was told that it was going to be different from their usual style of show, but that I would have to wait and see in what way. I was intrigued, but also a little nervous, because I for one happen to like the ‘usual’ style of their shows and therefore wondered if they should be fixing something that wasn’t broken, but then that’s only my opinion and I was yet to see the show so decided not to pass judgement just yet.

They said that they were having very defined sequences including single shot comet chases, a shell chasing sequence, a pastel sequence, with a coloured mine crossette start and a crazy 1.5 minute finale. PIC was being replaced by ‘Pyroclock’, which is made in Italy and is supposedly very precise. They were also taking the risk of using their FireOne firing system for the very first time on a live show, to fire around 286 channels. I will admit that I had my reservations about what they were doing, but everyone was so excited that it couldn’t help but rub off and I was definitely intrigued and looking forward to the display, especially when Rodney summed it up by saying ‘It’s Uber Pyro!’

Next came Skyburst The Firework Co. Skyburst had never competed at Plymouth before, although The Firework Co were veterans, so I was interested to see how the merged companies would perform. Skyburst had bought TFC but had kept a lot of the staff and freelance firers so it was just like old times when I got on site. There were a few new faces but everyone seemed happy to see me even though I was in annoying reported mode.

I have a lot of history with this company as a whole and have a great respect for them. I did manage to find out that it was due to be a rapid fire show, with a lot of shells, not many cakes or candles, candles angled over the water, lattices of 30mm candles, ring shell cakes, curtain raisers, aqua and orange Vulcan shells, maroons just before the end, crystal cascade with red glitter category 3 low level cakes, ‘fabulous waterfall shells’ and ‘alcohol based stars in the eruption candles, which are the same as in the 3" & 4" mines to complement the rainbow sequence.’ Richard Little described it as ‘more of a busman’s holiday than a job!’ and when I got a glimpse of the firing order finale page my reaction was unprintable!

Alan describes himself as an amateur astrologer (although not so amateur going by the observatory in his back garden) and said that he had written a sequence to coincide with the meteor shower that was due to happen that night. He also said that he had never watched a Skyburst show before and that he was really looking forward to seeing what the material looked like from in front rather than underneath. I was also really looking forward to seeing what they had to offer.

Furthest down the wharf were Sandling, all of whose firers were wearing cowboy hats. I had an idea why, but had to ask anyway. Steve Almond, better known as Nutty, confirmed that it was because there was an industry joke that they were ‘professional cowboys’. Paul Harris said they had ‘wicked red and silver mine chases’ and, according to Nutty, the Parente Firemaster 3 firing system they were using was ‘the dogs’; sequence 15 was ‘a tower of shells in an upside down pyramid with a 12" with tail to go up through the middle’; the ‘superb silver splitting comets’ then Octopus shells were ‘tasty’ - in fact the whole show was ‘tasty tasty very very tasty!’

All 3 teams said they had arrived at the wharf around 7a.m. but that no one came to unlock the gates until 8a.m. Luckily these companies have known each other for years so the camaraderie on site was great and very relaxed throughout the day.

To watch the shows on Day 1, I had been convinced by Richard Kempton, the firework photographer, to try a different vantage point, but I won’t tell you where exactly because it turned out to be a very good spot and I don’t want to jeopardise my chances for next year! We pitched our tripods at about 8.30p.m. and settled down for the night. The wind had picked up and it felt like rain, but we still had high hopes for a good night.

Jubilee fired at 9.30p.m. in perfect conditions. They had a very wide spread, with a great use of noise, the red glitter tails were unusual, shell chases and whistles were very good and the finale was stunning. My friend Claire said it ‘wasn’t as good as last year’; John Pitcher from Airburst said it was a bit ‘gappy.’ However Richard said it was a ‘bit slow in places but a lovely classic Jubilee use of width’ and when he was reviewing the shots he’d taken on his new all singing all dancing digital camera he kept going ‘Oooh’ so I can only assume that it was a good show to photograph.

Skyburst TFC started at 9.50p.m. with a very pretty rainbow start. It was a bit slow in places but had very nice magenta & lime shells, a pretty crackle sequence, good ring/shape sequence. My brother Alex said he ‘liked the golden confetti’ but overall it was a bit ‘slow paced’ and that they generally needed to give the smoke a chance to clear. He also said ‘I know what the public like… loud bangs!’ I realise the finale was probably stunning if you could have seen it through the smoke, but unfortunately I wasn’t as impressed as I’d expected to be.

The crowd cheered at 10.10p.m. when Sandling fired a nice start followed by a bouquet of flowers effect of green at low level with magenta above, then nice mine chases, a good use of the sky. All but 2 of the flying saucers went up, the crossover weeping gold mines were nice, the tower effect was excellent and they really saved it for the finale. Claire said she ‘liked that one best’ and that it ‘seemed more complicated’ and Alex agreed that it was ‘better paced’.

Consensus for Day 1 was that it was ‘a bit flat compared to last year’ and that we didn’t think we’d seen the winner yet. Most of us put the wining order as Sandling, Jubilee, Skyburst, although John and Jill of Airbust disagreed and put it as Skyburst, Sandling, Jubilee, but as it was only day 1 and, as we weren’t on the judges’ boat, our opinions didn’t count for much so we retired to the pub to debate it further.

Wednesday 11 August was a complete contrast to the previous day and was the kind of day you dread in the firework industry because it was …Cold… Wet… Windy… Miserable! I got the water taxi over to the wharf at 1.45p.m. and headed straight for Alan Hilary Pyrotechnics. Their crew of six males had arrived on site at 8.30a.m. prepared for rain. There was a sudden squall so Adam Hilary and I took refuge in the van while the others frantically covered everything in plastic.

Adam said they’d had a traumatic time getting there, with the van breaking down in Gloucester yesterday, and their having to be towed to Bristol to unload their van into another one.They’d finally got to Plymouth in time to see Jubilee fire, while they were sitting in traffic on the A38 bridge.

He also said that they were going all out to win and he felt they had a very strong show. They were using an American Smartfire firing system via a laptop to fire mainly shells with a few cakes. Sequences were broken down into, among other things: crossettes, whistles, dragon eggs, bees, colour, comet chases, patterns and a wall of mines and shells.

I wished them luck and moved on to the next site, which was that of Westcoast. Chris Allen took time out to chat to me and said that their 13 crew were made up of full time staff as well as helpers from Pendragon (Cwmbran), Celebration Fireworks South West Ltd (Bodmin) and Fireworx (Scotland). The crew was divided into teams with some rigging and others fusing.

They had arrived on site at 8a.m. and had luckily managed to get all the shells rigged and loaded before it rained; the largest shell was an 8", but there were a lot of 6" so I knew it should be good. All the racks looked brand new and were being held together with ratchet straps, which looked to be a very fast and efficient way of doing things. They were also being sensible by fusing and plasticing in the van before placing them on site. The site plan had been stuck to the side of the van, but was now looking rather the worse for wear due to the rain.

Chris said they were trying out a lot of new products from Celtic Fireworks and I was told to look out for a few ‘unusual’ cakes. He also said they were using a Pyromate firing system and, when I asked how he was feeling, he replied that he was ‘excited/nervous’ and that it had ‘been a very interesting experience’ so far.

Last but by no means least I got to SelStar. The owner Peter Cooper showed me round the site. He said there were 9 crew members, 2 of whom were female and that they were using a lot of 2" shells and that 8" was their largest, also that they had more candles and cakes than any of the other companies. He was also keen to point out that their Class 3 vehicle was correctly plated as 1.1G. Stephen Harriot and Tony Neal had designed the show and Tony said, ‘Our shows are a bit different with not so many shells’. He also told me that they were using their own in-house 120 channel firing system.

Now I hadn’t heard of this company before, but their resumé is very impressive due to the fact that they often crew for Pyrovision as well as having shows subcontracted to them. Hence they have ended up working on the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Ozfest (Ozzy Osbourne), a Bob Geldof event in Southsea, a Fat Boy Slim concert in Brighton to over a quarter of a million spectators and are in fact the only company allowed to fire from the end of Worthing pier.

Following my site interviews I took refuge from the rain in the Mount Batten pub, where I spent a very enjoyable afternoon with Rodney and Jeremy (Jem) from Jubilee and Anna, Nutty and Paul from Sandling. We talked about a lot of things off the record and all I wrote down was that Rodney admitted it had felt very strange pressing just one button on the firing system and letting the machine do the rest.

Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve and in fact got a lot worse. I felt so sorry for the crews out on the wharf and for everyone who would have to clear up later, because I haven’t known rain like it since Plymouth 1997.

People were prepared for rain, but not for the drenching they received and many of those who stayed for the first show migrated away before the next one started. I had my pitch on the Hoe with waterproofs that weren’t that waterproof after all and my video camera inside a shower cap with the lens poking out during the shows.

Wet doesn’t come anywhere near as a description for how we were by the end of the first show, in fact I was soaked through before Alan Hilary even fired. But even in such vile conditions I thought their display was brilliant; it definitely had the wow factor and was a winner in my book. Although someone told me later that it only ran for 8.5 minutes I haven’t had a chance to re-view my dismal video footage so I cannot comment on this.

Due to the rain the gap between the shows was shortened so I was taken a bit by surprise when Westcoast fired, but they were also very good. They had an incredible magenta and lime sequence and an unbelievable finale. Unfortunately two or three cakes overran and the show ended up being nearly 2 minutes too long.

By now it was like a monsoon and SelStar must have been doing impressions of drowned rats, but they gave us a great show which I felt was almost good enough to win, although I thought their pre finale was better that their actual finale but that’s just personal taste.

Richard Kempton dashed off to take shots of the winners’ presentation ceremony while I carefully made my way through burst drains and flash floods to meet my friends in the pub. Unfortunately they all proved to be lightweights and only Jem had managed to make it, saying that the call of beer was stronger than his need to get dry. We sat there making damp patches on the upholstery and I was amazed at the amount of water I wrung out of my socks. John Pitcher and his partner Jill had gone back to their hotel to wring out their jeans and have a shower; then John texted me with ‘and God was the winner’ to which I replied ‘and Mother Nature was his crew’.

I thought that the winning order should be Alan Hilary, SelStar, Sandling/Jubilee, while Jem thought Alan Hilary, Jubilee, Sandling and John said Skyburst, Sandling, Selstar, but as we’d all watched from different angles I’m not surprised we had 3 different views of the displays. We sat anxiously for someone to call with the results, which finally came in as Alan Hilary in 1st place, Sandling as 1st runner up and Jubilee as 2nd runner up with only 0.3 of a point between 1st and 3rd place. I was a little surprised as I thought SelStar deserved to be placed and I wasn’t alone because later that evening I got a text from Richard saying, ‘where was SelStar?’

As Jem and I were leaving the pub we saw a family, and the man strip down to his underpants before getting into his car to drive them all home. I myself walked back to the hotel barefoot where we joined John and Jill for a late night session of Plymouth gin and homemade scrumpy. The warmth of the alcohol coupled with the warm hearted banter from my fellow pyronuts was a great way to end a miserable wet night and was almost good enough to take your mind off your soggy socks! I’m not quite sure what time we called it quits, but I do remember hanging out the window chatting to SelStar as they got back from clearing up at 12.45am.

Right, well, that’s me done for another year, I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading this report and let’s keep our fingers crossed for a dry one in 2005.

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