The firework display industry in our country is positively booming. Think of any major sporting event – from the Olympic Games to the Rugby World Cup – summer parties and festivals, weddings and even the odd funeral, and fireworks have become a technicolour backdrop to a moment of celebration or remembrance. We’ve come a long way from the days when fireworks were largely confined to a night or two in November, and New Year celebrations in major cities.
Here in Plymouth, of course, fireworks figure spectacularly in the city’s calendar, with the annual British Firework Championships at the heart of the pyrotechnic popularity boom. This week will see the 20th staging of the event, which brings ‘firers’ from around the country to entertain and amaze crowd in their thousands over Plymouth Hoe. On a warm and clear evening, with reds, blues, greens and golds blooming in the sky and reflected in the water, it is as spectacular a sight as one could wish for.
People are fascinated by pyrotechnics. In an age when highly-polished and sophisticated computer generated images are the norm, a live firework display feels like ‘border country’. It’s a rare mix of controlled, careful choreography with that exciting sense that anything might happen. For, while almost all large displays are fired electrically, once that electrical pulse is turned into fire, the device is unstoppable. It’s a hypnotic cocktail of science and spectacle, raw power and beauty, colour and noise.
And here’s another reason why we love fireworks – they are transient, and we know they will inevitably come to an end leaving us wanting more. At a time when we are able to find anything on the web, and our favourite television shows are held in stasis for us, accessible at the touch of a button, we, the firework spectator, have no agency over the display nor the length of time they light up our retinas. Even a large ‘weeping willow’ lasts only a few seconds as it hangs in the sky. To appreciate a display, you have to be there – like a great gig or a live sporting event. Clips delivered via the internet are pallid representations of the real; no technology can replicate the vibration that you feel in your stomach when that shell explodes in the sky; no camera can truly capture the kaleidoscope of colour and light. A good choreographer will ensure that there’s an ebb and flow to a display so that the audience is wondering what’s next at some points and are fully aware that there’s a build up to something big at others. Some of my favourite displays are synchronised to music.