The following article was written for the "Magic Eye" website.
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Barry Island Pleasure Park ..... after the Scenic
Like it or not, in 1973 the owners of Barry Island Pleasure Park, brothers John and Pat Collins, decided that the huge wooden scenic railway was to be demolished. It had occupied a very large proportion of the total area of the park since its opening in 1940, and as a consequence, after its removal a gigantic hole was left in the park's entertainment offering. The scenic railway had been a big money-earner, but the land it freed-up could potentially earn far more with other new attractions.
Collins Brothers turned to Alan Hawes for their first major project .... the Jungle Boat Ride. Alan had been president of Universal Design in the States, and had built monorails, sky towers and dark rides all over the U.S.A. during the 1960's. But in the early '70s he returned to his native Britain, and teamed up with Ivan Bennett from Long Eaton who was producing travelling rides for showmen. It was Ivan who introduced Alan to John and Pat Collins and subsequently the Jungle Boat Ride was developed at the lower end of the old scenic railway site. The upper end became the site of the SDC Galaxi roller coaster, and the middle portion became the location of a large children's dark ride "The Magic Island", using Modern Products "Alice in Wonderland" cars and track, and nursery-rhyme scenes created by the park's very talented resident artist, Norman Pratt. That still left space for a number of other attractions including a Haunted Castle, Crazy Cottage, various kiddy rides and side stalls.
The South Wales climate didn't lend itself to the growth of lush tropical jungle foliage, and the animation mechanisms of the fibreglass animals soon rusted-up and became moribund. John and Pat needed to inject some instant life and atmosphere into this expensive new investment, and this is where I came in. It was July 1974.
I was working on the filming of the last few special effects shots of the James Bond film "The Man with Golden Gun" at Pinewood Studios. Whilst working in the film special effects industry I also produced a number of standard products which were used by showmen, two of which were dummy human skeletons and gorilla costumes. John Collins had the idea of dressing someone up in a gorilla suit and they would leap out at the passing boats near the end of the ride and give the passengers a scare. This animation method required nothing more than large quantities of beer and hotdogs to keep it running. In addition, a few skeletons draped around the rather sparse foliage might add to the atmosphere. So he ordered a gorilla suit and six skeletons which he would collect from me (according to my diary) on 17th. August.
It turned out that on that particular day I was due to work on the set at Pinewood in the afternoon. John Collins arrived to collect his skeletons in the morning and asked what I did (apart from making skeletons and gorilla costumes!). I explained that I worked in film special effects and was due to be at Pinewood later that day. He expressed interest, so I said he could come with me and watch the action. I smuggled him onto the set and he witnessed some Bond filming taking place. From then on we became the best of friends (and he was the best man at my wedding many years later).
A few days later he phoned me up and asked if I would be interested in completely refurbishing an old Supercar double-decker ghost train at Barry Island. I said yes, and several weeks later (after the filming of "The Man with the Golden Gun" had ended) I went down to Barry to have a look around. I had always wanted to create a fast and furious "Larf in the Dark" ghost train. As the years had gone by, many operators had removed the effects from their dark rides because of vandalism. Riders tended to vandalise ghost train effects because the cars were slow (hence the riders could easily jump out, or lean out, and smash up the effects), and the rides were boring and amateurish, which left the riders in a frame of mind to abuse them. I was convinced that if the ride were fast, disorientating, and packed full of well-made robust and entertaining effects, it would not get vandalised. But I needed someone with the vision to help me see this through.
I talked this over with John Collins, and he said it was worth a try. John was a very forward-thinking man, who, although brought up within a traditional showman's family, was prepared to move with the times. He also had tremendous generosity of spirit, a kind nature, and a great sense of fun.
The first thing I felt we had to do was to put the ride flat on one level. The slow grind of the cars up the ramps took all the pace and disorientation out of the old double-decker ride, the dip in the middle was rather tame compared to the roller coaster across the park, and the descents back to ground level were a safety nightmare. The existing building was big enough to pack a huge amount of track into it on one level, and the cars could be speeded up to belt around the circuit at high speed.
One feature I also felt should be built into the ride was that it should emerge back out into the open at least once (and preferably twice) during the course of the ride. This was to provide a spectacle for the riders waiting to board (and arouse the curiosity of spectators undecided as to whether or not to ride). This had been done on ghost trains before, but I felt it important to precede each emergence with a shock effect just before the riders came into view, so that they would be reacting in a dynamic way when they were seen by the spectators.
I measured the building, noted the track geometry of the old ride (in particular the radius of the bends the cars could negotiate) and set to at the drawing board to create a track layout (see the track layout plan I have recently re-drawn from memory).
I made sure I allowed sufficient room for effects, and where these were within reach of the riders I determined that they should be built in such a robust way that they would be impervious to assault from riders (and some were designed in such a way that if malicious riders did try to vandalise them, it was the riders who came off worst!).
The old ride building was gutted, the floor made level, and the Pleasure Park team (led by Len Smith, Len Marsh, and brothers Jack and Albert Holland) laid the new track. We tested the cars, and they went round the circuit a treat. Even when we speeded them up (and the rear wheels skidded round the bends!) it was obvious we still had a good long ride.
Before the partitions were put in I designed the effects, but I'll talk about these in more detail later.
John Collins and I were convinced we should not call the ride a Ghost Train, and we needed a different image altogether. John's brother Pat was not so sure. To him a Ghost Train was a Ghost Train, and that's what it should be called, but he agreed that if we could come up with something better he'd go along with it. I have always tried to design my rides to have the widest appeal, and believe that although mystery, surprise and the occasional fright are perfectly acceptable, I am dead against sheer horror and depravity. For this reason we wanted to come up with an unusual name that would arouse curiosity in the visitors to the park, and then give the outside of the ride an appropriate façade. The name "Scream Machine" seemed to fit the bill, and a design that gave the appearance of a gigantic mechanism with revolving cogs, reciprocating levers, and smoking chimneys seemed to appeal.
But the concept was still missing something. We needed to take the aggressive edge off the ride and make it family-friendly without losing the teenage appeal and the spooky theme. So this is where I came up with the idea of Uncle Frankenstein. We would create a large animated friendly-looking monster with a smiling face and welcoming demeanor who would stand high up on the façade to draw the crowds. I commissioned Mike and Janet Blackman from Chichester to sculpt and mould the character, and a local engineering company to produce its animation mechanism.
The British public were wary of traditional dark rides that had spectacular facades promising all sorts of thrills within, only to find a dark empty booth that the trains trundled round, ejecting rather bored and dissatisfied riders at the exit. In fact the German "Geisterbahns" are mainly still like this, with incredibly elaborate and ornate facades, and virtually nothing inside. Instead, we would use the façade to draw the crowds to the ride, but let the riders be the show on the front. We would ensure that everyone that got off the ride was the greatest advocate in persuading others to ride. To ensure this was the case, considerable effort was put into conceiving the effects that assaulted you just a few seconds before you emerged from the two sets of mid-course doors and the final exit doors. Hence, the interior effects would have the lion's share of the budget, and the façade the bare minimum. It was a risky tactic, but John and Pat had the confidence in me that I could make it work.
So the façade was quite minimal, with a plain black background, huge white letters bearing the words "Scream Machine", revolving silver cogs, metal chimneys, and, of course, the large Uncle Frankenstein figure. I composed the lyrics of a song (inspired to a large degree by the song "Monster Mash"), edited some music as a backing track and found a penniless actor at the Redgrave Theatre in Farnham to record it, and this accompanied Uncle Frankenstein's gyrations on the front of the attraction. And at the same time, a motley team of people all over the country were creating the interior effects for us.
And now I'll let you into the secret of just what the riders of Uncle Frankenstein's Scream Machine experienced ..... (please refer to the layout plan)
The cars went through a pair of double doors which formed a light lock, and took a sharp right-hand bend. Sinister laughter could be heard in the pitch darkness. A glowing skull appeared ahead and rapidly moved towards the car whizzing close over the heads of the riders, and screaming as it went. This effect (which can also still be seen in Blackpool Pleasure Beach's fabulous Ghost Train) was achieved by suspending a long run of heavy duty overhead sliding door track from the ceiling, pivoted about a centre point, and tipped first in one direction then the other by a pneumatic cylinder. The UV painted skull was attached to a runner in the track, and, as the car approached, the track tipped downwards towards the approaching car, and after the skull had passed over the heads of the riders the track would tip in the other direction and return back to its starting point. The skull was within reach of the riders, but anyone with malicious intent would discover the whole thing was built like a chieftain tank and if they tried to grab it or punch it, their knuckles would be grazed or their shoulders ripped out of their sockets. The local yobs soon began to realise, you don't mess with the Scream Machine!
The next effect was a skeleton prisoner chain to a brick wall, who writhed and yelled as you passed. This had to be protected by a Lexan carbonate sheet, which was always kept polished and the effect was lit in such a way that the Lexan sheet was not visible. Again, if you leaned out of the car to grab it, you got a very nasty shock (and a bruised forehead!).
After this were a series of dark bends where you then encountered a giant (4m tall) monster brandishing a massive club. He brought this club violently down supposedly on your head as you passed. This figure used the same fibreglass body moulds as Uncle Frankenstein, but with a different head.
The next effect was to my mind the best of the whole ride, and something which was completely baffling and disorientating. Many other park operators who rode the Scream Machine would ask us how we did it, but (with one exception) we never revealed the secret. (That one exception was my dear friend, the late Geoffrey Thompson, whose kindness and generosity to me meant I couldn't deny him the secret). This is what seemed to happen .... A skeleton appeared to leap out in front of the car and jump up and down. You swerved to narrowly miss it and were confronted by a second skeleton. You swerved to miss this and there was a third! But this time you didn't swerve out of the way &ldots;. You hit it, and it blasted apart, with its arms and legs flying in all directions. The effect was amazing and something that people still talk to me about. How was it done? Simple .....
You have probably seen that when things are illuminated by strobe lights, they appear to move even if they are static. As long as you (the observer) are moving, the object being lit by the strobe takes on a life of its own. I discovered that if you put a piece of special black glass (known in the trade as "Wood's glass") in front of a strobe light, it removes all the visible light and turns it into a UV black light strobe. The skeletons were low-relief fiberglass panels fixed to the wall. The mould which produced the three sets of panels had three sets of arms and legs, so that different poses could be produced by painting different limbs in fluorescent paint and leaving others painted black. Two of the panels were fixed to the walls that the cars narrowly dodged, but the third was irregularly cut along a zig-zag line down the middle and fixed to a pair of doors which the cars hit and burst through. But the real secret of the apparent animation was the use of the black light strobes, which gave about three or four flashes of intense UV light to each skeleton as you approached it. The effect was simple, vandal-proof, but very effective. And people were convinced the skeletons actually moved!
The doors on which the last skeleton was located were the first pair of the light lock leading out into the first exterior loop of track, so it was necessary to do something fairly diabolical to the riders to make them react as they emerged into view of the spectators ..... nothing sophisticated here ..... just a blast of water spray and compressed air from a spray nozzle at the side of the track at face height. It was guaranteed to make even the toughest visitor react in just the way we wanted. Everyone emerged with their hands in front of their faces looking very surprised or laughing helplessly. And then as soon as they had come out they were spun straight back in again for the second section of the ride.
The effect they then encountered was none other than Uncle Frankenstein who popped his head up from behind a low wall in front of the track. Then round a couple more bends a massive hairy caveman tried to roll a large rock over onto the track from an elevated ledge. Just before the second exterior loop, the reaction we needed this time was caused by a stack of four wooden crates, piled precariously on top of each other, which wobbled and toppled over in front of the car. This was obviously going to be a potential safety hazard, and the park's resident engineer Len Marsh built a very solid steel articulated framework within, and heavy safety chains to restrain the boxes should they really fall in the event of the mechanism failing. During the ride's life, this (and the other effects) operated over one million cycles, with never a problem.
And then it was back out into the daylight, and straight back in again for the final section of the ride.
The riders were assaulted by some loud noises, and then a hanging man dropped down from above in front of the car. The penultimate effect is one that I have racked my brains to remember. There was definitely something in this corner, but I'm blowed if I can remember what!
Then the final effect ..... Again we needed something that was guaranteed to produce an emotive reaction on the emerging riders. The car appeared to pass through a series of archways supported by pillars continuing on into the distance. Halfway along this colonnade the car appeared to derail, swerve first slightly to the left, then to the right, and crash into one of the columns and then through the brick wall behind. This was accompanied by strobe flashes and suitable very loud sound effects. In the ensuing apparent chaos a second brick wall was hit, and the car immediately burst into the daylight and the safety of the exit.
Uncle Frankenstein's Scream Machine was a huge hit. It operated at full capacity from 10 in the morning till 10 at night all over the Easter holiday period, with long queues forming outside, and continued to thrill visitors to Barry Island Pleasure park for many years to come.
I had intended to stay down in Barry to keep an eye on the ride for another week after Easter, but much more was to follow ..... the Whacky Goldmine, the Logflume, Madame Tussauds, Chessington World of Adventures, Alton Towers, Nemesis, Oblivion ..... but that's another story.
But it was Uncle Frankenstein's Scream Machine that really started it all!