Triumph and disaster: 11 memorable Leeds Christmas Lights switch ons

Which Leeds Lights switch on stands out for you over the years?

Wednesday, 7th November 2018, 7:43 am
Updated Wednesday, 7th November 2018, 7:44 am

The big switch on has seen its fair share of drama over the years.

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Back in the dark days of 1982 Britain was in the midst of a painful recession and George Mudie, now retired Leeds East MP, was leader of Leeds City Council.

It was he who spearheaded the move to put in place a feature which most of us will assume have always been present – the Leeds Christmas lights.

But it was touch and go from the beginning.

He said: “I kind of sprung it on the council not that long before Christmas. And I have to say the lights that year really weren’t that very good because we didn’t really have enough time or money.

“And I have to say the Yorkshire Evening Post was very kind to us – they could have ridiculed us for our efforts but instead they could see what we were trying to do and supported is in a very generous way.

“And as a result we were able to put more effort into the following year, and the year after that and it’s been a huge success ever since.

“I have to say every year when the big switch-on comes it makes me immensely proud, not least because we were among the first, if not the first, provincial city to have Christmas illuminations.”

There had been talk for years of having a city-wide display of lights and a spectacular big switch-on ceremony but it took a certain degree of convincing since most cities outside London didn’t have anything close to a Regent Street display.

Trying to ape the capital seemed like an exercise in indulgence and an expensive one at that.

Any attempts at individual efforts were invariably fraught with problems, for example in 1973 a mini-switch on of illuminations at Leeds train station saw rail bosses forced to turn off the bulbs after 15 minutes due to a fuel shortage.

Which convinced Mr Mudie that there had to be a better-financed, more comprehensive effort made to light up Leeds over Yuletide.

“Back then as leader of the council when you said something it just happened and people would back you,” he said. “There was also the assumption that if you had an idea you had usually planned in money to back it up to. “But money was actually quite tight, in fact at one point we looked at buying some old illuminations from the Golden Mile in Blackpool but in the end worked out it would be more economical to set up our own workshop to create the lights.

“After quite a lot of wrangling in years gone by, I think there was a general consensus by 1982 that Christmas lights were a good idea and most people could see the benefits so it actually came up against very little opposition among councillors and civic leaders.

“I was the driving force behind the project in terms of money and support but really the flair and imagination of having a big switch-on was down to other people like Councillor Nash who was head of leisure services at the time.”

Councillor Elizabeth Nash was left with the task coming up with a plan and executing it, even though she didn’t have as much time and money as subsequent heads of department have enjoyed.

And that wasn’t the only problem she faced. “Not long before the big switch on there was a terrible storm,” she recalled. “We’d only just put many of the illuminations up and they were quite badly damaged by the wind and rain – it really was a bit of a freak occurence.

“So we had to get all the workmen back up the ladders working round the clock to get everything back to where it was and all the bolts strengthened ready for the switch-on date.”

That came courtesy of Russ Abbott which, back in the early 1980s, was quite a prestigious star signing.

But the guest list wasn’t always quite so glittering.

Other ‘famous faces’ who’ve turned on the lights have included Look North’s Harry Gration, Showaddywaddy, Timmy Mallett and Phill Jupitus.

Thankfully the Noughties and 1990s brought some bigger stars including Vinnie Jones, Girls Aloud, McFly and Mel B, but more importantly it has brought the rewards which the organisers always hoped to reap.

Coun Nash said: “What we wanted to do was help the traders of Leeds who were suffering quite badly at the time.

“And what was most important was that we combined the lights and the turn-on with late shopping nights.

“Going back 26 years very few shops would stay open past 5.30pm in the evening which was crazy as, of course, most people who wanted to go Christmas shopping wouldn’t finish work until that time.

“So there was always, and still is, a serious point to the Christmas lights and it makes me very proud to think that we set out to achieve something and achieved it.”