One man's fear is another's fortune. Cash rich and confident, the Thompsons are proud to be the terrors of Blackpool. Charles Darwent reports on a dynasty.
"It's a very, very difficult question to answer, that," muses Geoffrey Thompson, managing director of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, benignly. "Why do people go on our white-knuckle rides? Well, my own feeling is simply that we live in safe times. People don't have that much to do that actually genuinely scares them. When I was a kid you could race around in an open-topped MG; but now there are speed limits, rules and regulations everywhere. That's the society of today. I think people quite like a scare."
Behind him, through the windows of his 1930s cruise-liner-ish office, a dozen hysterical punters are proving Thompson's thesis. Strapped into the carriages of an especially vicious ride called The Revolution, they are eyeing the track in front of them with the morbid fascination of cows en route to the abattoir. The train moves off, the mouths fall as one into rictuses of terror, and a faint screaming floats into Thompson's walnut-veneered rooms: AAAAAARGH, then, as The Revolution turns upside down on a 360 degree loop, AAAAAARGH, then back again. The air is redolent with nervous perspiration and incipient coronary problems. At his desk the mastermind of all of this blinks mild blue eyes and adds: "The other thing is, it's a great opportunity for putting your arm around the girl you're sitting next to."
It seems a curious form of aphrodisiac, but that is endocrinology for you. The answer, it seems, lies in monoamine oxidase (MAO), an enzyme present in nerve tissue which causes a reaction with pleasurable after-effects. Blackpool Pleasure Beach is the MAO junkie's valhalla. Survivors of The Revolution may, for example, prompt further secretions on The Avalanche, a bobsleigh simulacrum which catapults passengers at 45 miles per hour along a 1,500-ft course. To add to the general schadenfreude, The Avalanche has no apparent guard rails or track, so that takers live with the apparently delicious illusion that they may, at any moment, erupt from the run and be dashed to death against the adjacent Space Invader.
The Avalanche cost Thompson £2.5 million in 1988, and has been responsible for untold gallons of MAO ever since. As if to underline the point, the Space Invader (a cross between a roller-coaster and a planetarium) has a Dalek-voiced recording that shouts, over the hooting of the calliope and screaming of the visitors, a message warning off the "faint hearted" and a notice board disclaiming responsibility for those with heart conditions. The Black Hole adds expectant mothers and passengers suffering from high blood pressure and motion sickness.
MAO has much to answer for. If the Pleasure Beach's title seems something of a misnomer in the main, there is at least one person for whom all of this is an unalloyed pleasure: Geoffrey Thompson. For one thing, and in spite of his faintly wistful mien, Thompson is clearly a showman of the old school: what look like polite, gold, oval cufflinks reveal themselves to be etched with the smiling-sun face that has been the symbol of the Pleasure Beach since the 1930s. On the other hand, Thompson's straight business pedigree takes in economics at Cambridge and stints working in Brussels and the United States, which must make the running of his 100% privately owned family firm something of a joy.
Thompson's glee at the problems of quoted companies is hearty and undisguised. "Private companies don't have to declare dividends," he beams. "In a year when one of the kids is marrying, we do. In a year when we want to buy a new ride, we don't." Managerial maxims include the trenchant statement that "the City ruins companies". No such worry intrudes in BPB's 42-acre, cash-rich kingdom.
And cash rich it is. Last year some 6.5 million of Blackpool's 8.5 million visitors meandered the length of the Golden Mile for their fixes of MAO on Thompson's pleasure machines. Between them they spent sums so vast that BPB's MD confesses that he "can't remember just how many millions we took". A buzz on the intercom brings figures of roughly £22 million on turnover, "but that's only what we took in cash", ponders the master of The Avalanche and The Revolution. "The overall figure's much higher - let's say £28 million or so."
The economist in him is clearly expansionist in mood, and expansion is by no means easy. Though Thompson suggests a round figure of 10 million visitors per annum for full saturation, a figure which he hopes to achieve by the end of the century, the problem will, eventually, be one of space. Rides may be made ever more emetic, but the number of MAOists who can be crammed into a finite site is similarly finite, and since the £6 million development of a catering and retail complex entitled Ocean Boulevard, there is nowhere for BPB to go.