On the 23rd August at 9pm Channel 4 are screening a new documentary called “Inside Alton Towers“. The documentary looks at the impact of the The Smiler accident at Alton Towers and how, three years on, they are trying to lure guests back with the launch of a new ride – Wicker Man. The documentary covers some of the design, the construction, and the run up to the opening day. We meet some roller coaster enthusiasts along the way, keen to try the first wooden Roller Coaster built in the UK in over 20 years.
It’s the first time in a while Alton Towers have opened their doors to a documentary crew, and allowed a ‘fly on the wall’ look behind the scenes. I’ve been lucky enough to have a preview of the documentary, and have written up a VERY exhaustive preview of what happens. Obviously, it contains spoilers, but to some extent, those who have followed the ride will know a lot of what’s happened! If you want to go into the documentary with fresh eyes I suggest you stop reading at the end of this paragraph – and scroll down to my ‘Final Thoughts‘ below (or click on this).
Let’s go Inside Alton Towers
The documentary opens with discussion of the 2015 incident on The Smiler, and flashes forward to 2018, asking if a ride based on wood, fire and ancient rituals can ‘bring back’ the thrill seekers to Alton Tower? We meet Ian Crabbe, who is the General Manager of Alton Towers for 7 years. Where talks about his first visit to Alton Towers in the 1950’s, and falling in love with it from his first trip.
It cuts to news reports of The Smiler incident, and Ian discussing the impact on him, the staff, and the victims, and how hard it was, for him as senior management he felt responsible for injuring people. The accident impacted visitor numbers, with a quarter of usual visitors staying away. But Ian wants visitors to be reassured by visiting themselves, and seeing, first hand that rides ARE safe.
Meet Bradley Wynne
We then meet Bradley Wynne, the designer behind the Wicker Man. Who describes himself as a Willy Wonka and the his designs “reflect Willy Wonka’s lightest day, his darkest day, his the craziest day”. Bradley’s brain wave was to go ‘retro’ with the first Wooden Roller Coaster to be built in Britain in over 20 years. After research, they found that the Wicker Man concept using ‘wood and fire’ was the route to take. Bradley shows us some of the concept artwork, of the ride entrance, and station. It’s something that as a member of the public you don’t get to see, and it’s fascinating for a ride geek / designer like me!
Bradley then discusses the ‘Beornen’, the fictional folk who worship the Alton Towers Wicker Man. Explaining that visitors are ‘lured in’ by the Beornen and that by burning the effigy of the Wicker Man will bring him to life. To do that, they need participants in a ritual ‘to be offered’ to him. He flicks through the ‘ride narrative’ of the guest, which details what they’d see, hear and even smell as they make their way through the ride. There are even more concept sketches which closely match the finished product.
Bradley explains he is a ride enthusiast and Wicker Man is his biggest project to date. He was keen to create memories, and discussion between riders, friends and families when they leave the ride.
Meet Adam House and Neil Walker
The focus shifts to Adam House, the Senior Engineer from GCI (Great Coasters International) whose company is are enjoying a wooden coaster renaissance. Adam’s team, with the guidance of Senior Project Manager Neil Walker, hand crafted 7.5 thousand tonnes of wood to build the Wicker Man. Adam explains the ‘triple down drop’ of the ride will send the cars across the track at around 46mph by the time they reach the bottom.
Adam and Neil walk the track discussing how modern engineering allows them to twist the track at 50 degrees to throw the riders around. Then the ‘zero G Bunny hop’ to give riders a brief feeling of weightlessness. The ride has been deliberately designed with ‘near miss’ elements as you pass through the Wicker Man. This has been done to make you feel like you could hit the structure. There’s a lot of on-ride footage near the end of construction showing the ride in a previously unseen state, which is amazing to see.
The documentary cuts to Megafobia at Oakwood, which is the last Woodie to be built in the UK. They cut to super fan Mark Lewis, who has a massive Megafobia tattoo. He rode it 178 times in 1996 in 12 hours! Mark is a member of the RCCGB and loves Wooden Roller Coasters – he’s got a vast collection of ‘Woodie’ Memorabilia. Mark sees rollercoasters as an escape and enjoys a little trip to Oakwood to ‘Chill Out’. Mark see’s the construction of Wicker Man as important for the UK.
Wicker Man construction is well underway!
We then cut back to Alton Towers to see the construction of ride well underway, and the effigy of the Wicker Man hidden under tarpaulins. The effigy in the centre of the ride is the biggest and most expensive theming structures built by Alton Towers. Bradley explains they “Have to get it right!”. It shows the first moment Bradley sees the Wicker Man with the covers off, just 4 months before the ride is due to open. He explains why it has two heads (there’s a detailed explanation in this post!).
Early on in 2018, the ride is unveiled to the ‘top brass’ at Alton Towers. With Neil Walker keen to get the Wicker Man’s flames and smoke up and running for them to see. Bradley Wynne is excited to see the effects they’ve spent a year and half developing ‘fired-up’. If it doesn’t look great, they have just 3 1/2 months before opening to make changes, however – they really need it looking good first time. The smoke and flames work and so do the video screens with the rippling fire effects.
The narrator explains that the structure, whilst looking like it is wooden is actually made of steel and concrete. Bradley seems happy with the finished product and is convinced guests will be ‘blown away’ by it. Neil Walker explains, that although the guests will ‘feel’ close to the flames, they are a perfectly safe distance from them. Plus the smoke isn’t actually smoke, it’s a fine water vapour. Meanwhile Ian Crabbe is hopeful that the £16 million investment will “wow” customers. It can be considered a success if it bring more guests to the park.
We then cut to Blackpool to meet another coaster enthusiast and tram conductor Peter Baker, who is building his own model roller coaster on his Mum’s kitchen table. Peter reminisces how he used Alton Towers as a way to escape from bullying at school. Visiting Alton Towers was his ‘home from home’. Peter, like most enthusiasts, wasn’t put off by The Smiler crash – he was keen to get back on, as it ‘wasn’t the ride’s fault’. I must admit I felt the same – I flipping love The Smiler!
Meet Lizzie Roberts
The documentary then introduces the PR Manager at Alton Towers, Lizzie Roberts, as she gears up to unveil the Wicker Man to the press. Joining Alton Towers just a few weeks previously, we see Lizzie and the team ‘selling the ride’ to the press, with a press package put together and sent off to off to publications to drum up interest.
Meet Max Mayer
We meet Max Mayer who is Senior Brand Manager, who actually wrote his University dissertation on Alton Towers. He explains that it’s a “job he’s always wanted to do – making memories”. As he thumbs through some old park maps, he talks about his love of the Towers, and how he adored the ‘Peter Rabbit on Ice Show’ (which stood where CBeebies Land now is). With some super cute footage of him at the park as a child, and some of the old rides.
It then cuts to the Monday morning after the press release has gone out, and Max is prepared for the mention of The Smiler incident on Social Media. Lizzie and Max dissect the 110 pieces of coverage across the newspapers and online. Some areas of the press have picked up social media reaction from people concerned about the safety of ‘wood and fire’ in light of The Smiler accident. However the overall coverage is positive.
Time to fit the carriages, and give the Wicker Man a test run
It’s now time for the trains on the track. Each one weighs over 6 tonnes and ‘costs as much as a new Bentley’. Neil watches over the ‘tricky manoeuvre’ – in theory it should slot in, but it doesn’t immediately. With a bit of magic, the carriages are ready to roll.
Neil explains he’s delivering the first roller coaster to Alton Towers since The Smiler opened, and that he’d only been with Alton Towers for a year before the The Smiler incident happened. He saw how devastated some of his colleagues were, who had been with the park for over 30 years when the accident happened. He talks of how they want to “put it right”.
With the ride nearing completion, the testing can begin. It starts with a walk round of the track, checking for foreign objects and clearing them, then the track is greased. Adam from GCI loads dummies into the trains, and fills them with water, to give them weight. The ride has to be run over 500 times with different weight configurations of dummies to ensure that it runs correctly under different loads. Only when this is done will it get the safety certification required to be used by the public.
The documentary shows Neil Walker and Bradley Wynne getting ready for the Wicker Man’s first run. They watch as it climbs the 20m lift and roars around the track with the eerily silent dummies on board. The first run is a success – just another 499 to go!
Next we meet the Fiddemore family who have travelled the world, visiting theme parks. The family of six are keen to ride the Wicker Man and make memories. Their eldest son Toby has a few medical conditions, and they aren’t sure what his future holds. The use theme park trips as a bit of escapism and a way to connect together as a family in a shared love.
Teaching the staff to become Beornen
With the ride launch getting closer, Bradley Wynne meets Alton Towers staff to explain how they ‘fit into the world of the Wicker Man’ as member of the Beornen. There’s a presentation about who the Beornen are, how they should look, and how they should behave. It’s a first for Alton Towers to give staff such an immersive, theatrical role in the day-to-day operation of a ride. The team are taken to the Wicker Man ride area for some Beornen training, lead by Kieran from the ‘in-house acting troupe’. They are given tips on how to interact, and speak to guests.
Bradley and Max watch a teaser video that the Max has created, hoping to ‘go viral’. Bradley shows some concern that the Beornen, who are meant to be ‘fearful of technology’ have managed to create a video. Suggesting that it might be better to make the video more ‘dream like’ and have some post production to give it a more ethereal feel. The video is finished and released and is spotted by another enthusiast…
Georgia Clark is an enthusiast who has been watching the construction of the Wicker Man online, and is training to be an engineer so she can build rides herself. Alton Towers is a special place for her – she escaped to it during a difficult time in her childhood. She likes being scared by rides because it ‘makes you feel more human’.
Meet Laura Gerrard and Filming the TV Advert
It’s now the day for filming the ‘prime time’ television advert for the Wicker Man. the shoot is being overseen by Laura Gerrard the Senior Brand Manager for Alton Towers Resort. Laura says she’s always wanted to work at Alton Towers, and has been there for 8 years now. She says it’s her ‘Baby before she had babies!’ She was one of the core member of the team behind the brand of The Smiler. She found it hard that something that was designed to bring fun and happiness, could actually have a detrimental effect on people’s lives. She says that “It’s something I’ve found very hard to move on from, and I still think about”..”I hope that with the Wicker Man it’s a chance to re-build that trust with guests”. The filming of the advert seems to go well, but with a few shots left to get, the ride stops working, hampering the shoot.
Despite the teething issues, the ride is up and running, and Laura gets her finished television advert. The commercial is seen as one of the cornerstones to encourage visitors back to Alton Towers when the park reopens.
The press meet the Wicker Man
With 9 days before the ride is due to open, we cut to the day journalists were invited to try the ride. Which was the day I filmed the ‘Meet the Makers’ video. It’s Lizzie’s first big launch and she’s excited to see what the press think. The press are given access to Bradley and Neil for interview to find out more about the ride.
We then fast forward to the day before the park opens and the ‘Launch Event’ (my video from it is here!). Where Sian Alcock and the team are keen to have a ‘successful PR event to kick off their launch’. If you look really carefully, you’ll see the back of my head several times. The launch goes without hitch, and Sian declares it as “fun, loud, amazing and a huge relief!”
The documentary then cuts to Gloucester, where we meet Richard Jones, and his ‘shrine to the theme park world’. Richard is desperate to be first in the queue to ride Wicker Man, and add the ticket to his growing collection of memorabilia. He’s got a Guinness World Record certificate for riding Nemesis at Alton Towers naked. he’s travelled around the world to different theme parks to try the ‘tallest, fastest and longest’ rides. Opening day is important for him, because he wants to be able to say he was the first on a new ride. He was first to go on Air, Rita, Thirteen and Nemesis : Sub Terra at Alton Towers. He says being the first on Wicker Man would be a dream come true!
The Wicker Man is open!
We then cut to ‘the official opening day of the park, and the Wicker Man’, and we see Richard sprinting to the Wicker Man to claim his ‘first ride’. We then see the other enthusiasts from the documentary having their first ride too. We seen Ian Crabbe watching the crowds ride, with a massive smile etched on his face. As well as Bradley and Max getting positive reaction from the riders. Ian his hopeful for a ‘new chapter’ at Alton Towers.
The theme of the documentary, as well as showing the Wicker Man being built, seems to be putting faces on the other side of The Smiler accident. Not the victims, but those people who work at the park, and saw something terrible happen at the place they love, and work for. It’s not all about the big corporation – it’s about the people within it too. The Smiler accident is a very emotive subject, and I think it’s been handled well by the filmmakers. You can see so many of the staff that work at the Towers are passionate about their job, and their employer. It’s nice that they have been given a ‘right to reply’ in this film.
It was great to see some fellow enthusiasts covered in the documentary, too – although as ever, we were given a bit of a ‘look at these nerds’ treatment. It’s fair in some respect, some of the geekiest people I’ve met are ride nerds, but not all of us live with our Mum!
I think my only criticism, is that the ‘timeline’ is a little skewed. There’s no mention of the terrible weather the day the ride was MEANT to launch to the public. I would have been interesting to see how the staff dealt with it all. The documentary just skips to the ‘revised’ opening day, a week later – it was probably done due to time constraints! I imagine there was enough footage to create a whole series of ‘Inside Alton Towers’ which could have covered more of the process in greater detail. Who knows? If there is a big enough audience to this, we might see a series in the future, documenting further developments – how cool would that be?
If you’re a ride nerd or not, then Inside Alton Towers is a brilliant documentary. It’s great to see so many familiar faces on the telly and getting the recognition they deserve for the hard work they do.
Have you seen Inside Alton Towers yet? What did you think?
Images are reproduced from Channel4.com
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