REPORT of meeting 16 March 2016 with JON CULVERHOUSE managing director
High Peak Business Club met as usual for breakfast at Chapel en le frith Golf Club over the bacon baps as our speaker Jon Culverhouse talked about the astonishing award-winning fireworks business he founded in 1985. An appropriate spot, given that where Fernilee Reservoir now lies, there was once a gunpowder factory.
Gunpowder was discovered by the Chinese sometime in the 11th century, possibly by accident as meat preserved with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) was heated on a charcoal fire with some sulphur (the origin of the term bangers, perhaps?). It rapidly changed warfare: “the atomic weapon of the Middle Ages,” Jon called it. Marco Polo brought it to Italy, where fireworks as an art form began. Good Queen Bess loved them and appointed the first Firemaster of England, but the 1749 spectacular for which Handel wrote the Royal Fireworks Music was not such a success, as the first rocket set fire to the royal tents. “I always breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over, even now,” said Jon.
From left: Edwina Currie, Jon Culverhouse (speaker, MD Fantastic Fireworks), David Castle (St James Place), Sharon Steele (Good Care Group), Phil Stanyer (Midland Business Advisers) at the High Peak Business Club breakfast meeting 16.3.2018
“Lovely to meet the lady behind the legend! It was all good fun and I very much enjoyed it…. The other thing I meant to say was how good the breakfast was. These sorts of things often go unrecognised so hats off to the team at the golf club who got up so early to warm the pastries, brew the coffee and heat the bacon. Costa couldn’t be bothered to do that!”
He started life as a journalist and spent 10 years on the Daily Mail sports desk. One day in 1982 in a toy shop he saw fireworks: not the usual dismal Brocks or Paynes, but “some exotic-looking rockets” imported from China via Germany. He wrote them up for the paper: the Daily Mail headline for November 5th was.. “German Rockets Threaten England.” What a way to attract attention.
The importer, a Yorkshireman, was happy for Jon to find more customers, though for a while he was still working on the Mail night desk. The new company he set up attracted star clients like Tommy Steele; fireworks for personal parties was something new. The shift from just selling rockets to setting them off was a journey: “all a bit of a black art then,” Jon admitted. When he started importing shells directly from Taiwan – “big, beautiful starbursts” – he learned one hard lesson, as every fuse had to be changed to meet exacting western safety standards. Now, Trading Standards will frequently summon him to check whether imports are safe; he is the acknowledged expert. And fireworks still come from China, where every single one has to be made by hand, with no steel or spark anywhere near. “Labour-intensive, couldn’t do it here.”
The UK is unusual in having relatively few (though well enforced) rules, in contrast to much of Europe. Fireworks are now so reliable that injuries are relatively few. Nobody needs to be licensed or supervised to have a fireworks party. One who tried is a Club member, who recounted one Bonfire night in Whaley Bridge when some (non-paying) spectators chose Toddbrook dam as their high viewpoint – only to find themselves at the level where all the rockets were exploding, very loudly. Nobody hurt but some shaky moments, perhaps.
We take for granted now that sophisticated displays will be set to soundtracks, but it started when Jon Culverhouse asked Jeff Wayne of the “War of the Worlds” for permission back in 1985. They’ve been doing it every year since, most recently at Drayton Manor Park. You can watch on Youtube, but believe me there’s no experience like actually being there. “Computer technology has changed everything,” says Jon. “Now we have millisecond timing, you know it’ll take 2.6 seconds before it bangs – we have lasers, sound, the lot.”
There have been failures, like the 2008 Bournemouth attempt on the Guinness World Record for the most rockets going off within less than 30 seconds, dubbed “The Roar on the Shore.” Fantastic Fireworks managed to co-ordinate the firing of 114,000 rockets, but they all went up in 6.5 secs, an unimaginable bang (afterwards, the throng of disappointed spectators turned the town into “one gigantic traffic jam” reported the local paper). “We were over-enthusiastic,” Jon agreed. They got the record, but it was no fun. And then he moved on swiftly to talk about picking up litter afterwards.
The firm has only 15 full time employees and a £1.3 m turnover, but at peak times like Bonfire Night some 200 trained operatives will be all over the country for displays. “We pay attention to keeping our staff,” he said – “otherwise you train somebody up and they can go and set up a rival outfit.” And if you want to buy fireworks and do your own for an organised group like Scouts or Rotary, Jon’s company will train your firemaster, for free.
He’s been flown to the Maldives for a billionaire’s birthday party; set off huge La Mascleta daytime bangs in Valencia (they like them LOUD); featured at the Cannes Film Festival surrounded by A listers; spent a budget of £250,000 for Liverpool’s 800th anniversary in 2007, the biggest display in Europe. You’ll find it all at www.fantasticfireworks.co.uk. It’s clear he is still having the time of his life, with no plans to retire. And as he drove away in a lovely Aston Martin with the perfect number plate 5 NOV, why would he?