Cupcakes and Coasters meets: Peter Lambert

Wow, it's been a hot minute since I shared one of these with you guys, but an opportunity arose that I simply couldn't resist! For those of you who don't know, the wonderful Peter Lambert is the brain and brawn behind the British Theme Park Archive, an independent project exploring the UK theme park industry and classic attractions from the 1970s-2000s. He has dug deep into the dusty depths of the warehouses and long forgotten drawers of theme parks and designers all over the UK to unearth some incredibly nostalgia-inducing stuff, and the documentaries he has created from his findings are basically a time portal back to the 90s for me. Here's what happened when we met!

You created British Theme Park Archive - can you tell us a bit about the project?
BTPA explores British theme park history, archiving old pictures and tapes before they’re lost and interviewing past industry designers & developers.
It started as a passion project 4 years ago on classic UK dark rides, with 4 mini online documentaries, and grew from there. It’s still just me and a couple others, doing it for the enjoyment!

What inspired you to start it?
I thought it would be great to have something fun, resourceful and independent where people could learn about the strange things that happened in the industry’s past. There are a lot of people with a great growing passion for the industry and the UK had a lot to be proud of. With people like Keith Sparks it was once the biggest exporter of themed rides to Europe and grew so much talent. Later with Tussauds and other parks it made some fabulous park developments.

When I was young I was inspired by the big theatrical British attractions that were around at the time. Straight away that got me hooked on creative stuff, experimenting with ideas. Then, like many people, I discovered the big coasters with friends & family as I got older.

So British theme parks had always been something I found fun and different. I wanted to get to the heart of what it was that had hooked me & so many others in the first place.

What's been the best received documentary?
The best received one was the new Alton Towers Haunted House documentary I put out last summer.

Haunted House originally had this fantastic British eccentricity with a really weird, surreal hook to it, later on it became more of a standard ghost train. Even to me having researched it inside out with extensive videos & pictures, riding it too many times and walking it backstage, it still holds this strange mystery with plenty of secrets.

This meant it was particularly difficult to do a documentary about, in fact I almost cancelled the video the first time round because I didn’t think it captured the spirit of the ride. I had got quite far with research and new material, but it remained so elusive. Eventually last year I got it to a point I was happy and completely redid the documentary, it went from being the least popular video to the most popular.

Which was your favourite to make?
The Terror Tomb documentary was my personal favourite. I had just one burning memory of it to go by and I was determined to stay true to the spirit of the ride. Tomb had absolutely nothing online, loads of people had great memories of it in the 90s but it had never made its presence known on the internet.

This was a good thing because it meant it had no online misconceptions or nostalgia, which I found was a distraction with Prof Burp’s Bubbleworks (another fantastic dark ride but got very misrepresented & jaded online). I didn’t want to tone Terror Tomb down for today, at the same time I didn’t want to romanticise it. I just wanted to throw it out there, unabashed, for people to love or be totally bemused by, like the ride was at its best. Terror Tomb was nuts!

Producing that documentary was a bit like getting sucked back in time to a childhood nightmare and enjoying every moment of it. I hoped to share that and it was lovely to have lots of people say how it brought back the same memories, people who remembered it well or had worked on it for years.

What's the most difficult aspect of the project?
Trying to bring everything together in the end and strike the right tone. Everything on British Theme Park Archive is first hand research, which takes a lot of effort. With the internet, everybody (including me) tends to fall in the trap of feeling they know something from a google search or watching a few clips, which just isn’t the whole picture.

It’s just an unfortunate fact that when a good ride is changed, you can’t just go back and watch the original like you can a movie or music. You can’t get to grips with a ride online, because you absolutely have to be in it, wait in line and jump on board, see it all around you in a way no camera can, hear it and smell it. So it was a challenge to try capture the spirit of the rides in a simple, fun way, while also revealing how they were made.

I’ve also worked backstage in theme parks and was fascinated by the difference in what the guest experiences and how that effect is put there. I understood that if I showed too much construction in the wrong context, it would steal the effect of the end result. It was a balance of down & dirty behind the scenes stuff, and the finished ‘show’ with all the lighting and colour.

Nothing is ever in the same place and so much material is scattered around the country, but then I suppose it would be too easy if everything was simply in a treasure chest in an archive room! On one trip I spent a whole 3 days in an old stone basement, it took a day to move everything out, a day to look through and a day to put back. On a few occasions I’ve saved stuff that was literally in the bin about to be lost, other times I’ve been too late by a year or even a week!

What is/was your favourite park in the UK?
I used to love Chessington because, at that time, it was so silly & charismatic. It was actually a smaller regional park but all the rides were like big boxes of enormous fun, always unpredictable, in a way that a child of any age could really sink their teeth into.

Later I discovered Alton Towers, which is my favourite UK theme park. It was a beautiful place and had that same kind of fun on a vast scale. I look forward to Wickerman opening this year.

What change/closure hurt you the most?
I’ve never really been hurt by a favourite ride closing and I try to keep an open mind, but what’s sad is great unique stuff being replaced by strategically planned mediocrity. This happens in all entertainment very often, and I think global mass marketing plays a part, but theme parks in particular really do rely on surprise and passion to be the most fun. Children will enjoy all sorts and that’s fine, but there was something special about those earlier attractions that was very rewarding for a growing imagination. Always had something more to enjoy each year, rather than simply growing out of it.

The closure that made the biggest difference for me was the original BubbleWorks being redesigned in 2006 with the soap sponsorship. I remember the it was getting a bit shoddy in its last couple years but was still wild fun and really popular. I simply lost all interest afterwards because the fun had now gone. I wondered why, since you could see most the scenes were recognisable, I had ridden it only a few months before as Prof Burp’s and was still the target age to enjoy it. So what made the remarkable difference?

I began to realise it was the coming together of all the energy, humour, the lighting, the audio, the look & the surprise - the huge role all that elusive stuff makes to every guest’s experience. That taught me so much at an early age about creative industry. So I guess trashing my childhood dreams had a good effect. Ha!

What does BTPA have planned ahead?

For the last 2 years I’ve been working on a book. It has evolved a lot during that time and in the Spring we’ll be announcing full details, it’s been the most challenging thing to do yet but very excited to see it coming together. It will cover a whole lot more than anything we’ve put out so far.

*interview end*

I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on Peter's book and read more in depth into the history of Britain's theme parks! In the meantime please head over to the British Theme Park Archive on Facebook and give the page a like to receive updates!

Talk later xoxo,