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Summer Fireworks Championships

Posted: 12th Aug 2016

The National Fireworks Championships are coming up next week in Plymouth, and so to get in the spirit of fireworks, I thought I would repost a blog I wrote last Autumn after I had a chance to interview the 2015 National Fireworks Champions, Fantastic Fireworks. It was a great opportunity to learn what goes on ‘backstage’ to create such amazing displays.

Last summer, I was lucky enough to be riding the boat between Mt. Batten and the Barbican on the second night of the 2015 Plymouth Fireworks Championships displays, and got to talk with some of the six fireworks competitors. We asked them a bunch of questions that night, and because I am a bit nosy, I asked Jon Culverhouse, Founder and Managing Director of Fantastic Fireworks, the 2015 Plymouth Fireworks Champions, if he would answer a few more of my questions. I am curious how these amazing light shows are created and produced each year, and thought maybe you would want to know a little more too.

If you want to learn a LOT about how fireworks are made and how the the shows are created, particularly when they are timed to music, take a look at their website www.fantasticfireworks.co.uk. There are many cool bits of information on the website – my favorite is that some of the staff describe their favourite fireworks memories. Here is Jon’s: “Launching a mouse in a rocket in 1962 and bringing it safely back to earth!” And did you know Jon has an early Plymouth connection? Read on for more…

Plymouth Wayfarer: How did you decide you wanted to work with fireworks? Is it a typical story for people in your industry?

Jon Culverhouse: Not really. I started out as a journalist on the Western Morning News in Plymouth back in 1968! I left to join the Daily Mail in London (after a spell in Exeter) and it wasn’t until 1981 that I had an idea to go into fireworks. It was just a gut feeling that this was a business that could go places. But I did have a love of fireworks from childhood so it wasn’t quite a leap into the unknown.

PW: For the Plymouth Fireworks Championship, what are the elements you are judged on?

JC: Compliance with rules: e.g., each display must be 10 minutes, no longer, each display has a weight limit of fireworks so no one can outgun anyone else; using only fireworks that are legal in the UK; everything is checked by an adjudicator. For the display, its artistic content, variety of colours, its co-ordination eg no black sky, its rhythm, its finale and finally its overall impact.

PW: Can you practice your shows? If so, how do you do it?

JC: Most contestants have simulator software so they create their exact display on a computer screen and chop and change it until it’s good to go.

PW: How do you ignite the fireworks? (see the website for a more detailed and fascinating description – http://www.fantasticfireworks.co.uk/company/how-do-we-do-that/)

JC: Each firework has an electric igniter embedded. When it receives an electric impulse sent down a wire from our computer control it ignites on cue.

Note: also from the website I learned that rain isn’t a problem for setting off fireworks, but the wind can be. Here in Plymouth, we often have one or the other, or both. Here is how they deal with wind:

PW: How much can you compensate for wind direction and speed once you are set up the program for the night?

JC: The show is set up according to the conditions prevailing at the time as you can’t depend on weather forecasts. However fireworks are grouped according to levels of risk and as they are all computer controlled we can remove any group mid display as soon as we see there may be a problem.

PW: How long does it take you to plan an event like Plymouth Championships?

JC: About 3 months.

PW: How long does it take to physically set-up the show? And how many people do you have on-site actively involved in producing the show?
JC: It was 2 weeks of prep back at HQ followed by 12 solid hours for 20 people working on the day.

PW: What did you like about the Plymouth event?
JC: Fantastic setting, great atmosphere, enthusiastic, knowledgeable audience, and of course we get to see 6 amazing displays.

PW: What was the hardest part?
JC: On the day it was watching my poor crew getting soaked to the skin setting it all up!

PW: Are you planning to come back to future events in/around Plymouth?

JC: I believe we will be invited back for the Champion of Champions Event in a few years time.

PW: Do you work year-round? How many events do you participate in during any year?

JC: Yes it’s all-year and we deliver nearly 200 displays, most around Bonfire Night.

Thanks so much to Jon for answering all my questions, and for sending along a very cool T-shirt :). If you want to know any more about fireworks or to re-live last years championship performance, do check out their website (http://www.fantasticfireworks.co.uk/). And if you are thinking about having fireworks at your wedding, they do those too (www.fantasticweddingfireworks.co.uk)! Last but not least, if you want to create your own mini spectacular fireworks display, they provide home fireworks as well (www.buyfantasticfireworks.co.uk). All fireworks photos courtesy of Fantastic Fireworks.

We wish this year’s competitors all the best of luck, and to all, dry and calm weather evenings!

Meantime, Happy Wayfaring!

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