FESTIVAL FACES - Neil’s weird and wonderful world of Morecambe variety

Neil Kendall with the Vintage Photographer of the Year award.
Neil Kendall with the Vintage Photographer of the Year award.

With headline acts including a mermaid, an insect circus and a 1940s rapper who sings Prodigy songs in the style of Terry-Thomas, Neil Kendall clearly isn’t your average festival promoter.

But Neil has made his name through the weird and the wonderful, and he believes Morecambe can do the same.

Lili the mermaid will appear at the Morecambe Variety Festival.

Lili the mermaid will appear at the Morecambe Variety Festival.

The charismatic entrepreneur thinks our town can reinvent itself as the home of small niche festivals.

“There are so many other festivals happening in Morecambe right now,” he said.

“The Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival, the vintage weekend...I think the way forward for Morecambe is to be a centre for alternative festivals.”

Neil made his name as a vintage and burlesque photographer, and says his “feet haven’t touched the ground” since he was crowned the UK’s National Vintage Photographer of the Year in 2015.

In a 20-year career he has snapped the great and the glamorous for national newspapers and magazines like Vogue, with subjects including world famous burlesque star Dita Von Teese.

But Neil also loves being an event producer, where he can combine his love of the past and the often bizarre old-time stage entertainers of 100 years ago.

His events are always flamboyant and larger-than-life, with jaw-dropping characters straight out of fantasy worlds.

Neil’s previous events at the Winter Gardens included a Hallowe’en Carnival of burlesque beauties, fire breathers and giant puppets, His first Morecambe Variety Festival in 2012 saw a contortionist who stepped through the head of a tennis racket, a man who juggled gin bottles and ping-pong balls in his mouth, and a game of Russian Roulette live on stage.

Now the Morecambe Variety Festival is set to make a welcome return on April 30 and May 1.

It will be Neil’s third variety festival in the town in the perfect setting of the Winter Gardens.

The old theatre means a lot to the former Morecambe High School pupil.

“My grandparents honeymooned in Morecambe in 1938 and went to see Hutch the pianist, a big American headliner, at the Winter Gardens,” he said.

“There is such a grandeur to that building. It’s a draw. It’s cavernous and there’s an atmosphere that you don’t get at places like Blackpool Opera House. It makes the whole event worthwhile.”

As an event organiser, he is also really impressed with how the Winter Gardens team has improved the venue facilities over the years. “Now there’s a proper bar, a box office, people working there in the day time. It’s brilliant.”

The main part of the two-day variety festival is geared towards families and children, and will take them into imaginary worlds with a nod to the theatre’s Vaudeville past.

The fantastical line-up includes The Temple of Wonders, award winning New Zealand mime act The Boy with Tape on his Face, strongman Sir Leopold Aleksander, hula hoopist Abigail Collins, Vaudevillian juggler Ian Marchant and the ‘world famous chap-hop superstar’ Mr B Gentleman Rhymer, who is on a mission to introduce hip-hop to the Queen’s English.

There is also the Grand Theatre of Lemmings, the world’s tiniest theatre, and a unique project called ‘Lost Morecambe’ by artist Helen Newall will allow small groups of people to see vintage digital images of Morecambe and the Winter Gardens in a 3D viewing experience. Most daytime events (running on the Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 4pm) are free, although some will need to be pre-booked at morecamevarietyfestival.com to avoid disappointment.

As is traditional at the variety festival, there will be a glittering costumed ball on the Saturday night for adults too.

The Ugly Bug Ball will include many acts you won’t see in the day time and the dress code is ‘bugs, butterflies and creepy crawlies, or don your very best black tie and vintage’. Tickets from skiddle.com or 13 The Warehouse on Queen Street.

On the Sunday, the Morecambe Carnival parade will pass the theatre and many of the Variety Festival acts are expected to join the festivities.

The variety festival is certainly set to be a glorious spectacle and a unique event in Morecambe.

Neil hopes his event can top the 5,000 people it drew in 2014, so they can keep attracting outside funding.

“The arts is always the first thing to get cut and we have managed to get a grant when things are getting cut all over the country,” he said. “So I really want people to come and support it, because that’s how we survive.”