Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The stars of the switch-on

Lights map

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The town of Portishead chose a humble Homebase worker to switch on its Christmas lights, Bath struck it lucky by getting Nicolas Cage and Birmingham hit trouble when they got the excessively popular JLS in. But why has this Christmas ritual assumed such importance?

The routine is something like this.

On a date that seems obscenely far from Christmas, often near the beginning of November, thousands of townsfolk gather for the great festive lights switch-on.

There's a countdown and then the energy-guzzling display flickers into life.

The master of ceremonies is usually a local radio DJ, who leads the proceedings watched by the great and the good, mayors and council leaders rubbing shoulders with regional development quango bosses and chamber of commerce reps.

Pantos have got tickets to sell and have to appeal to the local audience
Alistair Smith
The Stage

But the people are not here to see the suited functionaries, they want to see the stars. And who these stars are tells you a lot about the status of your town.

If you get a big name, it is not unreasonable to assume that this means your town is, well, in a sense, a big name. Perhaps your council had the money to pay a healthy appearance fee, or perhaps your switch-on was a sufficiently high-profile occasion to represent a big promotion opportunity to a star with a new release to plug.

Examples like Nicolas Cage's appearance in Bath are the exception rather than the rule. Despite the knowledge, provided by the local newspaper, that the Leaving Las Vegas and Face/Off star decided to sell his houses in Bath earlier this year, a crowd of 8,000 greeted him like he was the chosen one.

The reason for the A-lister's attendance at the switch-on seems to be that an enterprising employee from the local paper popped a note through his door suggesting it, and he said yes. One had to assume that Cage was turning on the lights simply because he liked Bath.

Nicolas Cage turns on the lights in Bath
Nicolas Cage's arrival marked one of the high points of the history of Bath

But these days, switch-ons are for the most part dominated by two categories of celebrity - the ubiquitous panto star and the ex-TV talent show contestant.

And even in this there is a clear spectrum of star wattage. If you're big you get a big talent show star, particularly one that is from a recent series. If you're Stockton-on-Tees, on the other hand, you end up with Chico (quarter finalist on X Factor in 2005).

So it is that Manchester had Alexandra Burke [winner of 2008's X Factor] for the council-sponsored switch-on. But even that was trumped by the Trafford Centre unveiling JLS [runner-up in 2008's X Factor]. It rather seems that this boyband are the biggest switch-on attraction around.

Bath may have had Cage, London's Westfield may have had Mariah Carey, and Oxford Street was illuminated by Jim Carrey, but JLS have generated the biggest headlines of the switch-on season.

The band featured alongside a list of other notable performers - Alexandra Burke, Sugababes, Calvin Harris, Tinchy Stryder, Natalie Imbruglia, Little Boots, The Saturdays - at Birmingham's grand switch-on concert.

Aerial photo of switch-on chaos in Birmingham
JLS's appearance in Birmingham caused a crowd surge

But it was JLS's performance that generated a crowd surge that led to 60 people being injured and the cancellation of the event.

The crowds and the razzamatazz are all for a reason of course. The vast majority of the switch-ons take place on a Thursday evening, with the most popular dates this year being 12, 19 and 26 November.

The choice of Thursday evening - traditionally designated for late-night opening - is because the goal is to kick off the Christmas shopping season. So the switch-on provides a crossover between commercial interests and the desire of councils to entertain their taxpayers - a sort of postscript to the municipal fireworks display.

Richard Dodd, of the British Retail Consortium, had first-hand experience of switch-ons in his former life as a local radio presenter. He introduced Little and Large, Philip Schofield, and ex-Coronation Street star Ken Morley in glitzy ceremonies in Nottingham and Mansfield.

"The Christmas light switch on has probably grown in significance and become more common over the last 20 years," he says. "Now they are quite significant and a very well-established date in the calendar in a whole range of towns and communities.

"It does give a focus to the start of the Christmas season for town centres."

This year will be more important than ever after retailers' struggles during last year's festive season, he says.

And the panto crossover also reflects the importance of the Christmas season for hundreds of provincial theatres.

  • Jean Fergusson (Marina in Last of the Summer Wine, and Fairy of the Bells in Dick Whittington) was switching on in Middlesbrough
  • Christopher Biggins (Widow Twankey in Aladdin) was co-switching in Plymouth
  • Roxanne Pallett (Jo Sugden in Emmerdale, and the title character in Cinderella) was doing Newcastle, and
  • Lorraine Chase (the Wicked Queen in Sleeping Beauty) was switching on Swindon

Alistair Smith, news editor at The Stage magazine, says that as with struggling retailers, so theatres across the UK are often reliant on the money-spinning pantos to push them into profit.

West End lights
Film stars turned on the lights in London's West End

"It is a cross promotion thing. Pantos have got tickets to sell and have to appeal to the local audience. One way is to get a panto star out there turning on the lights. It makes them like they are part of the local community."

But there are plenty of towns and cities that prefer to remain above the eddies of celebrity culture.

Edinburgh and Glasgow feel no need for a panto or reality star, trusting instead that the throngs will turn out for the Lord Provost, and the mayor led the proceedings in York. In Liverpool, children did the deed as part of a street performance, while Father Christmas himself had bookings in Northampton and Bristol.

And such a choice at least avoids the word that no council events manager wants to hear uttered at a switch-on.

"Who?"


Below is a selection of your comments.

We had a couple of actors from Hollyoaks here in Chorley. Nice enough, but I know they were at least third choice. As councils and reality shows know, if you can't get a proper star you can always get someone from Hollyoaks.
Ian Robinson, Chorley, Lancashire

High Wycombe got Shane Ritchie ... coz he's in panto. Personally I think it would be better if we saved the electricity.
Pat Monroe, High Wycombe

We got Santa and real reindeer. I thought we were supposed to be trying to be green - billions of Christmas lights all around the UK is not going to help our carbon footprint.
Anita, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire

We had Peppa Pig and her brother George switching on the lights with Father Christmas in Hemel Hempstead. Watford had Diversity doing the lights in the Harlequin centre.
Darren Bourne, Hemel Hempstead

You can judge a town (like Rochdale) that leaves its lights up all year round. The poor excuse being that it's too much trouble to put lights up and down for all the minority religious festivals. A pretty poor excuse. Every day I pass switched-off snowmen high on the lampposts and I don't know how that celebrates Eid. Together with the three brightly coloured wheelie bins sitting on the pavement outside each back-to-back house, my route to town is a depressing mess.
Julian Smith, Rochdale

Chico turned on the lights in Darlington as he's in pantomime here. It's usually Zoe Birkett from the original Pop Idol show but think most people would have preferred Steve Staunton, the town's football club manager.
M, Darlington, Co Durham

I don't know what the opposite of the word 'excelled' is, but Belfast certainly did that this year - with some anonymous person dressed as Bob the Builder. "It's for the children," someone shouted when I called the city council cheapskates - as if a 21st Century child would be fooled by someone in a Bob the Builder outfit. I think a slightly larger crowd might have turned out for Jim Carrey, Mariah Carey or Alexandra Burke.
Kevin, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belper, a market town near Derby, had the lights switched on last Friday, bucking the trend of Thursdays mentioned in the article. Our celebrity was Nigel Clough, manager of Derby County Football Club. The switch appeared to be a box with a tinsel covered broom handle sticking out of it.
Jonny, Belper

Bracknell had Flawless this year to switch on their lights, with a local Performing Arts centre, Artemis Studios, providing the daytime run-up entertainment. Previously it has always been the local panto cast. This time, I have to say I have never seen such crowds in Bracknell - so the appeal of celebrities proves that it works.
Hayley Gunning, Bracknell

Paisley town centre reached the dizzying heights of Ruth Lorenzo (fifth in X-Factor 2008) and Lemar. So we had the spectacle of a wannabe and a has-been proving that Lemar's career must be well and truly over.
Jamie Gledhill, Paisley, Scotland

In our village, Little Lever (actually a suburb of Bolton), word spread that someone famous would be switching on our Christmas tree lights last week. Cue posts on the web about such local luminaries as Peter Kay or Jason Kenny coming to do the honours. Who did we get in the end? Our two local councillors, one Labour, one Conservative. It's the first sign of cross-party unity we've had in years.
Tim Blackburn, Bolton, UK

This year we had Damon Hill, last year Anthea Turner and previously Ben Elton. Not bad for a sleepy little town, mind you our Christmas lights do look fantastic.
Seb Bone, Godalming

This year the lights in Bidford on Avon were switched on by Una Stubbs (a resident of the village, Karen Drury, has worked in TV and theatre for many years and hence she asks her friends to switch on the lights - for zero fee apart from some wine and food). This occurred on a Sunday and had nothing to do with shopping or commerce. The lights were purchased and installed by villagers and the 'switch on' night is an excuse to get people from the village to meet up, have a few glasses of mulled wine and enjoy themselves.
Mark Clare, Bidford on Avon, Warks

Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire, out did themselves this year. 'Allo allo's Mimi - Sue Hodge - switched on the Christmas lights. Wow! They're eco friendly too, four strings of lights on a few trees round the market square, such a wonderland of lights. Thankfully Milton Keynes is close at hand and always has a brilliant display in the shopping centre.
MH, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom

Shame you missed Basingstoke from the list. We had Alvin from Alvin and the Chipmunks. Now there's a star.
Andy, Basingstoke

In Yate a small town in South Gloucestershire, they had Peter Andre in the shopping centre, who played a few songs and then turned on the lights, followed by Santa Claus. Surely this matches Bath at both levels.
Chris Hatwood, Yate

Huddersfield had Patrick Stewart to switch ours on.
Richard, Huddersfield

How about a fake Roland Rat? Proved to me that I was growing up in a backwater.
Rosie, Cambridge, UK

Won't have a problem with "Who?" on the Wirral - our council has again decided not to put anything up. If you want to avoid Christmas - come to Wirral.
Russell James, Wirral



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