On the 20th anniversary of the opening of the ill-fated Mr Blobby theme park in Morecambe, GREG LAMBERT looks back at the saga in the first of a three-part series.
Blobby Gate. Two words that bring back painful memories for anyone connected to Lancaster City Council.
And for Councillor Shirley Burns, memories of Morecambe’s ill-fated Mr Blobby theme park bring back particular feelings of anger and frustration.
The doomed attraction opened in Happy Mount Park on July 30 1994 amidst unprecedented ballyhoo.
It was seen as a massive coup for Morecambe, a game-changer that could bring 240,000 extra visitors to the resort each year.
The build-up to the opening was front page news in The Visitor for months beforehand as excitement built.
“Morecambe is bracing itself for a pink and yellow spotted tidal wave of Blobbymania” was our headline, which described the park as “the resort’s most ambitious tourism venture in decades”.
Meanwhile TV personality Noel Edmonds, creator of the concept, was hailed by many as ‘the saviour of Morecambe’ and greeted like a conquering hero at the grand opening.
But then Blobby Land closed after four months, leading to bitter recriminations and a costly legal battle with Mr Edmonds, followed by a damning investigation into the council by the District Auditor.
Fifty nine city councillors had voted in favour of the project. Shirley was the only one who voted against.
“It was completely beyond me how anybody could think it would work,” said Shirley, who is still on the council today.
“I said there was no way people were going to queue to see a few small houses and a man in a Mr Blobby suit, they would only go if Noel Edmonds himself was going to be there every day.
“I really believe that people got carried away with the whole thing.”
At the time, Noel’s House Party, hosted by former Radio 1 DJ and TV personality Noel Edmonds, was a smash hit on BBC1, drawing 15m viewers at its peak.
The success of the show was partly due to the popularity of Noel’s sidekick Mr Blobby.
The Mr Blobby character was fat, clumsy, and pink with yellow spots. His weekly Saturday night scrapes drew an army of fans, mainly children.
In December 1993, Blobby even had the Christmas number one song, keeping Take That off the top spot.
The previous summer, Edmonds and Blobby had switched on Morecambe Illuminations, drawing a record 32,000 people to the town.
So a majority of city councillors, and a team of council officers, believed Noel could bring more of the Midas touch by opening a £300,000 theme park based around Blobby’s fictitious home town of Crinkley Bottom.
But Shirley wasn’t so sure.
“I just didn’t see how it was going to make money, the figures didn’t add up.
“But nobody listened.
“I called a public meeting. I put posters up in Morecambe Town Hall. As fast as I was putting them up, somebody was pulling them down. People were besotted with Noel Edmonds.
“But 200 people turned up to the meeting and they all agreed with me.”
Still, a three-year deal was signed between Lancaster City Council and Mr Edmonds’ Unique Group.
Blobby Land was opened by Noel and his pink sidekick on a Saturday afternoon.
Five thousand people visited in the first two days, and 50,000 by the end of August. The target was 250,000 by the end of October 1994.
Noel and Blobby switched on the Illuminations again on August 5, hosting a one-hour live edition of House Party from a stage opposite Frontierland theme park.
There were so many people there, the Promenade was completely closed off as Blobby fans crammed like sardines onto the seafront, the pavements, even the road itself.
It seemed that Morecambe was onto a winner, a turning point in the town’s regeneration.
But soon the Blobby bubble burst.
A new cheaper pricing structure fuelled speculation about whether the council would ever hit its break-even attendance figures.
Residents of Bare complained the granting of a liquor licence would attract a hooligan element.
Letters flooded into The Visitor from customers who claimed the park wasn’t value for money and there wasn’t enough for kids to do.
A Happy Mount Action Group opposed Blobby Land, gaining 6,000 signatures on a petition to have it scrapped.
By October the Labour party, who had the majority on the city council at the time, withdrew its support for the project.
Then on November 28, the council voted 36-12 to scrap Crinkley Bottom.
They pinned the blame firmly at Noel Edmonds’ door, saying Unique Group had breached its contract resulting in crowd and cash targets being missed, and terminated the agreement, kickstarting a bitter legal battle against Mr Edmonds.
“This is another in a long line of fiascos...perhaps the biggest of them all...one we could pay a severe price for in the future,” said The Visitor, prophetically.
This price turned out to be £950,000 paid in damages to Mr Edmonds after claims of misrepresentation and negligence against his company were thrown out.
The District Auditor, Clive Portman, found that the council was “imprudent, irrational and unlawful” in its dealings with Mr Edmonds.
There was also an estimated £2.6m cost to the taxpayers of this district.
And there was also wider damage, to the reputation of Morecambe.
NEXT WEEK: More memories of the Blobby Gate saga from the people who were there.