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Monday, December 22, 1997 Published at 15:30 GMT

Special Report

London's bright past
image: [ The West End stage brought yuletide imagination to Regent Street in 1994 ]
The West End stage brought yuletide imagination to Regent Street in 1994

When Christmas lights were frirst switched on in Central London, they were such a great attraction they inspired an unsuccessful attempt in the House of Lords to bring action against those responsible for causing chaos and obstruction.

  • Regent Street first lit up in 1954. Prompted by an article in the Daily Telegraph commenting on how drab London looked at Christmas, the retailers and businesses which made up the Regent Street Association organised and financed the first display.

  • Oxford Street and its corresponding Association followed suit in 1959.

  • The recession of the late1960s hit London's centre at Christmas. The lights went out in Oxford Street in 1967 and four years later Regent Street also succumbed.

  • In 1978, financial and electronic power was restored. The resulting laser show devised by Oxford Street was a brave attempt but deemed a little too dangerous.

  • 1979 saw the resumption of normal practices and since then funding has always been a contentious issue.

    [ image: Recurring themes in Regent Street]
    Recurring themes in Regent Street
    In some years Regent Street has seen interesting varieties as the lights take inspiration from their sponsor. Disney's Aladdin and Cameron Mackintosh's Celebration of West End Musicals have starred.

    But, for the last three years, we've had Flashing Crowns with Stars in Regent Street and a hotch potch of Christmas motifs in Oxford Street.

    Other incidents of note, aside from the comings and goings of the funding saga, have been the fall of an 18-inch electric candle from its fitting over Oxford Street in 1959. It happened again later that same year, but this time the falling article was 15ft long and this time it caused a death.

    In 1963, the lighting up of London was postponed as a mark of respect to the recently assassinated John F Kennedy.

    And in 1989, the great switch on in Oxford Street bowed to the power of pop celebrity, waiting several weeks past its usual mid-November date for Kylie Minogue to make a window in her hectic schedule.

    [ image: Frankie and Pete follow in a long line of celebrity sparklers]
    Frankie and Pete follow in a long line of celebrity sparklers
    Despite the controversy, the lighting ceremony remains a matter of national interest and celebrity aspiration. To be invited to be chief switch thrower in Oxford Street means you are currently the people's favourite, take pop stars the Spice Girls and Peter Andre for example.

    And in Regent Street, the lucky candidate joins a long line of Royals and choice notables such as former Prime Minister, John Major, and champion jockey Frankie Detorri.

    Electric stars may now be no competition for the human kind but the annual illumination of London continues to be an integral part of the country's Christmas preparations.

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