Blackpool's Pleasure Beach has the tallest, steepest, fastest rollercoaster in the world. Harvey McGavin meets its keeper.
Keith Allen's grand daughter Natasha thinks he's got the best job in the world. She's not the only one. Being operations manager at Blackpool Pleasure Beach is like being a big kid in charge of a larger-than-life playground.
Keith is responsible for the smooth running of dozens of rides and attractions. It's a job with more than its fair share of ups and downs. There are the "woodies" - old wooden rides like the Big Dipper, Zipper Dipper, Wild Mouse and the Grand National - a two-horse race over all the famous jumps. Then there are the "steelies", modern rides like Revolution (which loops the loop), Avalanche (like a bobsleigh run), Steeplechase and Space Invader. And then there's the Big One.
The Big One is the tallest, steepest and fastest rollercoaster in the world. Everything about it is over the top. It cost Pounds 12 million and is so high they had to get Civil Aviation Authority clearance and attach aircraft warning beacons. After a slow haul to the summit, it's a 235ft drop. The G-force feels like a facelift with just the adrenalin for an anaesthetic. They've got an expression that describes the experience. They call it "vertical reality".
Two minutes on this stomach-churning helter-skelter from hell and you'll be wishing you never had that fish and chip supper. But three weeks? In 1994, Richard Rodriguez, from Chicago, went round for 549 hours, nearly 23 days, to set a world record for non-stop rollercoaster riding.
Naturally the Big One is a mecca for members of the Rollercoaster Club of Great Britain. "They are absolute nutters," says Keith, adding tactfully "and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Some of them dress up in white overalls and a blue bomber jacket, the same uniform as the people who work on the Big One, and stand around hoping that people will think they are staff and ask them questions. They're always here - I don't know where they get the money from, or the time off work."
The Big One may be the crowd puller, but Keith prefers a more horizontal type of transport. "I go on most of the rides most of the days. I'm not afraid of heights, but let's say I've got a lot of respect for them. My favourite ride is probably the monorail because I can observe the whole of the park from there."
The Pleasure Beach's 7.4 million visitors last year (it's Britain's biggest tourist attraction), mean Keith is a busy man and his daily routine is anything but. "If there was such a thing as a typical day I wouldn't be doing it. "
He starts work around 8am, checking the park is clean and the rides are working okay and he stays until everyone has gone home. "We have been known to stay open until 1am."
"My job is to make sure that the customers come here, ride safely and have a lot of fun. What I really enjoy is seeing a family get off a ride and say 'that was fun, let's do it again!'. I love it when the park's busy because it just buzzes. And at night it's a different world."
Keith, aged 46, and his family moved from his home town of Darwen in Lancashire, where he had been an engineer, to Blackpool six years ago. His sister Christine and wife Kath now both work on the park. "The wife said 'you spend half your life at the Pleasure Beach so if I want to see you I'd better get a job there too'."
The peak season staff of more than 1,000 are gearing up for an extra influx of funseekers this summer because Blackpool Pleasure Beach is celebrating its centenary. It's 100 years since the first ride, a merry-go-round, appeared on the sand hills at South Shore. A young entrepreneur named Alderman William George Bean, then fresh from a trip to America, decided to create an amusement park based on those he had seen in the States. "The fundamental principle, " he declared "is to make adults feel like children again and to inspire gaiety of a primarily innocent character."
The terminology has changed along with the technology, but at the Pleasure Beach good old-fashioned fun, of the kind Keith enjoyed as a lad, is still the order of the day.
"I used to come here quite a lot as a boy. My grandmother had a guest house. We would say we were coming to see her, but within 10 minutes of walking in the door me and my sister were off again, down here on the Grand National."