We spoke to the superbly talented Frank Earle-Whiffen, the pyrotechnic ‘choreographer’ behind the Blackheath Fireworks – the annual November extravaganza which draws in over 80,000 people from far and wide right into the Lewisham borough.
How do you think Lewisham has shaped you as an artist?
‘I live in Forest Hill and I feel Lewisham has a strong artist culture. It always has done. My mum was a sculptor and my dad was a musician and they first met at The Albany in Deptford. I grew up in Brockley in an artists’ commune, in one of the big old Victorian houses full of playwrights, artists, singers, dancers…you name it. Blackheath was the big fireworks display that my mum would take me to…it’s always been a special and favourite time of the year. I’m a Lewisham boy through and through!.’
‘Lewisham has kept its realness without being overly trendy’
How did you get involved with the Blackheath Firework display?
‘I got involved with Emergency Exit Arts (EEA) back in 1998. I started by helping build structures for their carnival processions. I got trained up and worked with a few other companies around the country. Eventually I came back to EEA and started doing their designs, particularly fireworks designs, and one day I was asked, one November, to come and help out in Blackheath, so I did!’
Can you explain what you do when you design a fireworks display?
‘I buy the separate fireworks (not the same as you buy in the shop), these are category 4 so they’re professional. It’s a bit like a giant fireball being fired out of a big cannon and these fireballs explode in the sky. We buy lots of different effects, colours etc and they all do different things.’
‘My job is to put them in ordered sequences with timings between each one. I also design them to create angles in the sky and match different effects with others that I think would look good together. It’s kind of choreography in a way. Lots of people call it choreography instead of design!’
‘Most fireworks these days are made in China. There are lots of manufacturers around the world but unfortunately Britain’s last fireworks-maker went bankrupt this year and England no longer manufactures them, which is a shame.’
Why do you think events like the Blackheath Fireworks are important?
‘Big, free outdoor events are slowly dying out. From a designer’s point of view..it’s nice to have that challenge to do something interesting and think outside the box.’
‘The amount of joy a fireworks display brings…it’s like theatre.’
Why do you think Lewisham should be London Borough of Culture?
‘One of the things that stands out about Lewisham compared to lots of the other boroughs I’ve worked in or been to – is the integration in Lewisham. You know, when I was growing up…to my left I had a Pakistani family, I grew up with a boy called Mehtab who was my age. To the right there was a Chinese family. It was just everybody on the same street, there was no real division like you see in other boroughs. It was wonderful, a really nice environment.’
‘Lewisham does need the money and the input because there are so many creative people here that could do with the help. The extra money to fund the arts could really, really help…especially young people.’
Blackheath Fireworks has been running for 30 years and is the biggest free display in London! Don’t miss the amazing event on Saturday 2 November 2019 at 8pm and please make a donation to keep it going for year’s to come!