After suffering for more than 30 years with a sore neck from watching spectacular firework displays and indeed recently forming my own display company, Neon Pyrotechnics, you can imagine that I didn’t have to spend too much time in consideration when asked recently by a Redcliffe colleague if I fancied being a judge at the British Firework Championships in Plymouth. The competition has always been a red letter day in my own diary and I have always made a special effort to attend either as a spectator or as a competitor. In fact I was involved with the very first Championship back in 1997. It was a novel idea back then, an attempt to reproduce the kind of displays which are commonplace in many European cities and yet missing from our own U.K. pyrotechnic calendar.
Plymouth is an ideal spot; the fireworks are set up on Mountbatten Breakwater, a pier which sits parallel with and about 250m out from the Plymouth Barbican. The green expanses of Plymouth Hoe curls around the seafront forming a natural amphitheatre, small islands dot the bay, a headland juts out into the sea behind the pier, all providing ample viewing areas for the many thousands of people that are attracted to the event. Add to that hundreds of small boats that take to the waters and bob around in Plymouth Sound and you can imagine the magical stage that is set for the displays to perform in.
The weather was perfect, clear and dry with a slight wind to take the smoke away, this was to be a Champion of Champion event whereby companies that had won over the previous six years were asked back to compete against each other, quality was guaranteed. The format was that three companies would fire a ten minute display on one night and three would fire the night after, the points would be totalled up and prizes awarded. All competitors were given a budget and asked that the fireworks remain below a certain explosive weight, previous involvement had already told me that the companies were going to smash the given budgets. The competition is prestigious and the sheer scale of the displays reflects the desire of the competitors to win it.
Three loud maroons signal the start of the display and the first spectacular display starts. All the teams were determined to make an immediate impact and barrages of high aerial bursts filled the sky from start to finish. There were some amazing passages with fireworks grouped into particular colours and effects, horsetail shells which form massive plumes of gold, crossettes which break into coloured stars and then break again, tourbillons which break into rings of spinning serpents, go getters which jet across the sky, falling leaves which fill the sky with tiny spots of vivid colour which drop slowly to the sea and pattern shells which drew pictures of smiley faces, hearts, rings even company logos high in the sky.
The power of the displays was notable with audible collective gasps coming from the huge audience whenever another huge chrysanthemum shell erupted with a thunderous thud which seemed to hit you in the chest. Noise was used effectively by many companies, loud maroons fired in massive clusters, shrieks and whistles wailing like banshees and my own particular favourite, hummers which whizz with a distinctive monkey like whooping noise. The action was constant and operated from ground to about 800 feet, the sky was an ever changing tableau of coloured fire all orchestrated by pre programmed digital computerised firing systems. The advances made in this aspect really have taken pyrotechnics to a new level allowing operators to ignite hundreds of separate fireworks a minute and allowing show designers to execute chases of individually rigged fireworks up and down the quay forming intricate lattices of silver comets and percussive eruptions of colourful mines beating out a distinctive rhythm.
As each display came to a close we were treated to the old favourite as the display built to a stunning crescendo, dozens of persistent gold willow shells fired in a wide arc across the night sky, on top of this more gold was layered and then more gold, increasing in rapidity and scale until the whole sky was a mass of rich dripping gold brocade. Three more maroons signalled the end of each show which, in itself, prompted wild cheering from the crowd and hooting from the assembled armada of small boats.
So then the difficult bit, which was the best? As I have indicated all the displays were brilliant and all followed a similar lavish recipe, the difference mainly being in the scale of the sequences. Some companies tried to break the mould and sometimes it came off, one company lit a huge fire drawing of a union flag which probably secured second place for them. One company tried using pauses when nothing was actually in the sky, that didn’t work and they were unplaced. When the points were tallied the winning team had the best rhythm of firing, their display seemed to flow better than the others and whilst demonstrating that they had all the whistles and bells to compete with the best, they also had the imagination and control to give a more artistic vision to the competition.
The winner was Star Fireworks, who went one better than I have ever achieved…… So far!