Fantastic Fireworks Founder and Managing Director Jon Culverhouse recalls 30 years and more of Fantastic Fireworks
It’s funny how life weaves its rich tapestry. I’ve had two great jobs and count myself lucky to have forged a second career from a hobby that started in childhood.
My earliest recollection of fireworks was back in the early 1960s. I remember going to school one day and seeing a couple of boys showing off a 10 shilling note (50p in today’s money). They excitedly described how they’d written to Standard Fireworks to complain about a couple of dud rockets. Their 10 shilling refund set me thinking. If it’s that easy to make money maybe I should try it too! A few days later a crisp 10 shilling note arrived in the post. We’ve all done things perhaps we shouldn’t have done but I plead the innocence of youth. And the experience taught me a valuable business lesson: the customer is always right, even when he isn’t!
Back then fireworks were very much a once a year occasion and there was always a great sense of excitement when they appeared in the shops. Our Bonfire Night parties were family occasions with popcorn, toffee apples and, I later discovered, more than a little fuelled by my mother’s anti-papist sentiments.
Chemistry lessons spurred my interest and, armed with the family Encyclopaedia Britannica, I found the formula for gunpowder. My first ‘fireworks’ fizzed and sparkled with the addition of iron filings. I even managed to create a red effect with the aid of some Strontium Nitrate bought from Boots the Chemists.
It was around then that the Space Race hit the headlines – the Russians struck first with a series of dogs in orbit. I decided that I should join in. Having given up on trying to build my own rocket I went for the easy option of buying the largest Standard rocket available. My ambition was to launch a mouse. By and large it was a triumph. The parachute I had carefully constructed didn’t open as planned, but the mouse, nestled in a plastic capsule in the nose of the rocket – having first removed the stars – bounced happily back to earth none the worse for its 200ft ascent.
My interest in fireworks continued through University with ground-breaking displays (courtesy of Wells Fireworks) at summer balls and at my wedding in 1971.
And there it would have probably ended had it not been for a chance occurrence in 1981. Working as a journalist on the Daily Mail my eye was taken by some exotic looking rockets in a shop window. I contacted the importer and on November 5 1981 my article appeared in the Mail headlined ‘Foreign fireworks threaten UK market’.
The importer was so chuffed with the publicity that he sent me a huge consignment of rockets, cakes and shells. My New Year’s Eve party that year was the talk of the town. But the euphoria quickly turned to disaster. Not realizing a shell was about to go off I stood too near and took a glancing blow to my hand. I was lucky it wasn’t a lot worse. I returned home from Casualty with my hand heavily bandaged and my ego badly bruised.
But the seed had been sown and I thought fireworks had a future. My importer (the late Roy Jackson of Sohni-Esco) agreed to fulfil my orders and I started advertising in magazines like Private Eye. The results were encouraging and my fledgling business was soon flying.
1985 – We’re officially a company
Business had developed from a few orders to a few dozen and I was arriving later and later at work as deliveries took me all over London. I registered the name Fantastic Fireworks Ltd. I knew absolutely nothing about the industry nor anyone in it. It was a pure gut instinct that I could put my writing skills to work in marketing fireworks as an all-year-round entertainment.
1986 – A Royal wedding display
As well as supplying fireworks people started asking if I would let them off as well. I hadn’t bargained on this but ever eager to please I was soon packing my car boot with fireworks and turning up at weddings and parties, to the delight of the guests. My first ‘big’ booking was with Torbay Tourist Board to celebrate the wedding of Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson. We built a huge lancework set-piece of the happy couple on a scaffold tower and designed a display that consisted almost entirely of rockets. My photo tells you all you need to know about firework displays back then!
1987 – A momentous year
With business literally booming I decided to leave the Mail and nail my colours firmly to the mast of Fantastic Fireworks. Working in Fleet Street – asit was known then – was the Holy Grail of journalism and I took a long time agonizing over my decision. My first attempt at importing fireworks almost ended in disaster. I discovered that the fuses in the 5000 shells I was so excited to receive from San Tai in Taiwan all contained an illegal sulphur chlorate mix. There was only one thing for it. I hired in half a dozen students and we spent a week refusing the entire batch just in time for Bonfire Night.
1988 – War of the Worlds – a first in fireworks
Jeff Wayne’s best-selling album had been out for nearly a decade and I’d often thought it would make a great fireworks display. Jeff lived nearby and was very helpful when I asked permission to choreograph a display to his soundtrack. We premiered it at Thruxton Motor Racing circuit using huge lancework set-pieces to portray the Martian Fighting Machines. It was a huge success and remains one of the most popular shows in our portfolio.
1990 – A Home of Our Own
I’d started the business from my home in Hertfordshire, which I renamed Rocket House. But with an increasingly nervous wife – fireworks kept appearing in any spare space we had – it was time to move out. After a couple of seasons based on local farms I finally found a permanent base in the village of Pepperstock on the Herts/Beds border where a 16-acre site had become available. I renamed it Rocket Park and it has been our home ever since.
I was thrilled to get a call from Sky TV asking us to provide the fireworks for the launch of Monday night football. Our first show at Manchester City was only a qualified success and I knew we’d have to perform better the following week at Southampton. It was a filthy Bank Holiday night, we were firing from a postage stamp sized school playground and I was so nervous I couldn’t watch. The display looked spectacular on TV and we were back in favour.
1995 – Our 10th anniversary and a date with the Troggs
Wild Thing has always been one of my favourite pop songs, so when it came to celebrating our 10thbirthday I decided to push the boat out and book The Troggs. It was crazy money but worth every penny to meet the late great Reg Presley and hear him belt out Wild Thing. The only damper on the evening was that it was so foggy our celebration display disappeared into the murky skies.
We were invited to take part in the inaugural BFC in Plymouth. I was on holiday in France at the time and it was only when I got back that I heard the news. How did we do it? Three things: we were on last, which was a huge advantage; we finished with a 16-inch shell which was so big and amazing it got the biggest cheer of the competition; and we had a furry toy dog mascot which we placed on top of the 16. Miraculously we later found him, slightly singed but intact out on the breakwater. We called him Lucky.
1997 – London New Year’s Eve
Not many people know this: long before Groupe F, Kimbolton and Titanium took over this prestigious event we were there first. I could see it was a firework celebration waiting to happen but how to crack it? A begging letter to the London Evening Standard did the trick. They agreed to put up £25,000 to sponsor the event and so on 31st December 1997 we staged London’s first New Year spectacular. It was a great success and I was sure it would put us in pole position for the forthcoming Millennium celebrations. But the following year the City of London Police vetoed our plans for a repeat show on the grounds that they couldn’t afford to police it. The opportunity was lost and the following year Bob Geldof brought in the Australian Syd Howard to mastermind the much derided River of Fire. How I hate Sir Bob.
We decided to refuse Syd Howard’s miserly offer to be one of his Millennium crews. Instead we were lucky to be offered the British Gas Millennium concert at Greenwich, alongside dozens more celebration events, on the biggest money-spinning night in firework history.
2006 – World record
We failed to impress at the 10th anniversary British Fireworks Champion of Champions competition in Plymouth. But we still went home on top of the world. We were invited to try and create a new world rocket record – more than 50,000 rockets launched in 20 seconds.
The noise was phenomenal. We were Guinness World Record holders.
We’d been working with Liverpool City Council throughout the decade in preparation for their bid to become European Capital of Culture. When they were awarded the title we were appointed firework contractors for the curtain-raiser – a £250,000 celebration of the city’s 800th birthday. Wirelessly fired from the roofs of the city’s two cathedrals, the waterfront and a barge on the Mersey this was a hugely ambitious show. It was a beautiful, warm August evening with a bright full moon to add to the magic. A massive crowd turned out to watch and we gave them a magical display. Our Display Director Steve Boothman said he aged 30 years during that 30 minutes.
2009 – The Bournemouth rocket disaster
No one likes talking about the things that go wrong but we couldn’t avoid it in 2009. Bournemouth Council asked us to try and beat the world record we created in Plymouth. We loaded more than 100,000 rockets into their launching crates and laced the fuses with enough quickmatch to ensure almost instant ignition. We figured that 100,000 rockets would take some rapid firing to get them all up in 20 seconds. In the event they blasted off in less than 6.
Our team were convinced we’d beaten the record. It was only on their return to shore, when they received a somewhat hostile reception from the audience, that they realised all was not well. We spent the next few days in lockdown as the media had a field day with stories of the rockets all exploding at once and the barge catching fire. Neither in fact was true but it was nevertheless a PR disaster. The only crumb of comfort I could take was that in the Daily Mirror’s Top 10 Disappointments of 2009 we came 2nd to Andy Murray failing to win Wimbledon.
2011 – Raising the roof at Hatfield House
We were thrilled to get the job helping historic Hatfield House celebrate its 400th anniversary. It was every firework enthusiast’s dream: firing a show off the roof of a building that’s older than Big Ben and Tower Bridge. The display looked stunning and we were delighted to receive a letter of thanks from the owner, Lord Salisbury, saying it had exceeded ‘my wildest expectations.’
Now and again we get a show that gives us all a big buzz. One such was the launch of the new Expendables movie at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. An event organizer I hadn’t spoken to in 10 years called out of the blue and gave us the job. There we were rubbing shoulders with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford & co at the After Show party and loving every minute.
Another triumph was our adaptation of Warhorse, the epic story of a Devon horse thrust into the horrors of the First World War. We staged it at Windsor Racecourse with live horses and special effects including a German ‘tank’! What made it special was the spontaneous audience applause at the end when we fired up thousands of red ‘poppy’ stars.
None of our successes could have been achieved without the support and enthusiasm of the hugely talented team it’s been my fortune to work with all these years. We’re still all fired up, waiting for the next phone call that could take us anywhere from the Maldives to Minehead. That’s what I love about fireworks.