In a day where it seems that everyone has a theme park blog or YouTube channel these days, content can become a bit repetitive. It’s not easy to find original intelligent content that covers unique material, but also helps preserves the past. Recently, I discovered a virtual gold mine with British Theme Park Archive.
I can personally tell you that trying to find footage or photos of extinct attractions before digital cameras is not an easy task. Not only does British Theme Park archive have photos, they have a ton of original video content that has been remastered and restored. Most impressive? They do mini-documentaries on certain attractions that are collaborated with the designers. Truly amazing stuff. I got a chance to do an interview with the creators of British Theme Park Archive to find out how they have cultivated some of this great footage. Throughout the interview I will embed some of their fantastic YouTube videos. I strongly encourage you to take a few moments to watch. You’ll definitely learn a few things.
How did British Theme Park Archive Start?
I was a theme park fan when I was younger, but grew up at a time when many parks in the UK (and all entertainment industries really) were really changing. I saw a lot of great rides being replaced or updated with short-lived trends and attractions declining. But rather than feel sad or nostalgic about their closure, I realized how fantastic it was that they’d been around in the first place. These were rides such as the original Prof. Burp’s BubbleWorks and the old Vampire at Chessington, big on surprise and personality. Then coasters like Oblivion or Nemesis at Alton Towers, which were designed to sprawl so dramatically close to their surroundings as you stood underneath them, or Hex which took you through a genuine historic gothic ruin. All these rides had earned a reputation for themselves amongst people in their regions. I saw how they entertained and left riders with a great impression, so I became very interested in that kind of design, and imagined where it could go next.
In the UK, parks were rarely able to build sky-scraping or hugely expensive attractions, so instead were built on a spontaneous British sense of humor, or gothic horror, and theatricality (or sometimes pure daftness) to create really fun themed entertainment. In the 1970s to ’90s, there used to be a real attraction industry in England, with hugely talented architects, illustrators, sculptors, scenic artists, illusionists, animation engineers, you name it, working for each other on projects. Almost like a cottage industry, developing their own style and knowing their craft.
A bit like how it’s often said The Beatles wrote the rulebook of great pop songwriting for many others afterwards, rides like Disney’s Haunted Mansion had a huge effect on designers in the UK, and people were excited to see how that kind of experience could be taken in strange new directions, often with an eccentric twist! One of the most influential people in British parks was Keith Sparks, who set up one of the first ride design studios in the UK, working closely with many parks around the continent, particularly with the Mack family at Europa Park. So those early years were a real stomping ground for trying out new ideas. I loved learning about that.
However, my project really started when I bumped into another theme park developer John Wardley once at a Q&A event some years ago, he had finished speaking and was eating a jacket potato, I thought why not have a quick chat? I let him know that many of the attractions he’d produced had been great fun for us “back in the day” (without trying to sound too geeky!) and he clearly loved remembering them. I realized there was a great story to tell of the industry at the time, and the time was right to explore the whole thing.
How did you go about contacting some of the creators of these attractions and how willing were they to help?
I got involved with theme parks as hands on as I could and met a number of interesting people, and it grew from there. Often designers are very accommodating because they all have such fond or crazy memories of their time in the attraction industry and are glad others share the passion. I’m very lucky to have their support, they know I respect their items and aren’t going to simply spread it everywhere out of context or for self-gain. I always do this project to inspire others and give an engaging insight into the industry’s past.
Also I had never really set out just to find people’s rare pictures or footage, as fantastic as those items of theme park history are, my main ambition was to meet the people and learn from them. It was daunting at first being invited to interview people whose work I’d admired, but I love how down to earth they always were in person. All very interesting characters with great stories to tell, so I started putting it altogether as a book, which I’m working on at the moment.
What is the process of restoring some of this footage so it translates to a streamable format?
I send the reels and film negatives to be professionally transferred to digital formats, including tape restoration if needs be because of their age. I then take the raw footage, or the photographs, and restore faded color, clean up the picture and edit it down to sequence. Sometimes its difficult because of the deterioration of the tapes, other times the results are amazing like the picture was taken yesterday.
My first project was to create a series of 30-minute documentaries on some classic dark rides in the UK, so I was determined to find archive footage that really did the rides justice. Most of what I found had never been seen since the rides were produced, which was exciting. I also wanted to present it all in a way true to the original experience, for people who may have been too young to remember them, so I tracked down the original audio reels and mixed in my studio the old multitrack music and SFX as if you were touring through the ride.
Some fans may be surprised to learn that attractions were rarely filmed back then (in the UK at least), even after all that amazing talent and years of planning. All the work would go into creating the best experience “in the moment” for the riders, so actually recording their work for posterity was rarely thought about. Designers were often quite humble and wouldn’t have guessed people still loved the rides years later! There is much more a culture of promotion now. Luckily after a lot of effort we’ve found enough quality material that shows the old rides in their best years, and I eep footage digitized to high quality before the tapes disappear forever.
How do you go about having your readers contribute?
Everything is stored on strange old formats, ranging from 20 to 40 years old, and are never all in one place. All the independent design studios closed around 15 years ago in the UK, and their archives split up or lost, so has taken a lot of detective work to track down again! Readers do contribute, though I always try to find professional photographs and original drawings mainly.
One big studio lost most their archives to fire which was a real shame, including the scale models, photographs and everything, which made me realize what I am doing is a worthwhile task – nothing lasts forever! One time I spent a day in a huge abandoned factory that was once home to a big attraction design firm, the building was luckily still owned by somebody I knew from the studio. It had been left mostly intact, weirdly like traveling back in time, all with bizarre artifacts from various ride projects. Another time, I spent several days in the basement of a creepy old mill sorting through old boxes, it was mad but a fascinating experience, looking over some 30 years of theme park history that had been stored there.
I am putting everything together for a (very) illustrated “British Theme Park Archive” book, to be published next year. Most of the best things I’ve found are still under wraps for now, but will be revealed in this book and I think people will enjoy it. I was very happy to find there was a lot of demand for the subject in the UK, perhaps even some theme park fans in the US or wider Europe would enjoy it, probably looking on bemused at the mad things British designers used to come up with back then! (And if someone ever did a similar project on European parks I’d love it, luckily the classic US parks are well documented and remain a great inspiration to many.)
Many thanks to British Theme Park Archive! I am personally looking forward to their book and will definitely feature it here on the site when it becomes available.
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