It was 40 years ago today – June 11, 1974 – that two dramatic hours of flame and crashing timbers tore the heart out of Southsea’s holiday showpiece, South Parade Pier.
Despite the efforts of more than 100 firemen manning nearly 20 fire engines, the main structure of the pier’s Gaiety Theatre was reduced to a blackened skeleton.
At the height of the blaze, the wooden towers, for so long a landmark of the 66-year-old pier, collapsed into the blazing structure amid a cascade of sparks and flames.
It broke out during filming for Ken Russell’s movie of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy. The Gaiety had been converted into a holiday camp ballroom of the early 1950s.
Co-stars Oliver Reed and Ann-Margret were dancing a quickstep as a small band mimed the music.
Other couples danced with them and Portsmouth teddy boys – the only extras who were wearing their own clothes – provided a backdrop for the stars.
Everyone was evacuated to the Queen’s Hotel.
When Ann-Margret arrived there she looked strained but calm and described what other people on the set had said – that at first it seemed as if the fire was part of the film itself.
‘We had smoke coming from this machine to provide the smoky atmosphere of the evening ballroom, and I thought it was that,’ she said.
It is now widely accepted the fire started when a spotlight set fire to some drapes.
The 66-year-old pier, nicknamed the White Palace, was built after its predecessor was destroyed in a similar disastrous fire – at that time one of the most spectacular in Portsmouth’s history.
One July 19, 1904, a woman noticed smoke coming from the decking of the original, much smaller pier. Firemen, Royal Marines and soldiers fought the blaze without success, watched by a big holiday crowd along the seafront.
It remained derelict until the following year when a new pier was decided upon. It was designed by a Portsmouth architect and when it opened in 1908 the main hall of the new pier was claimed to be ‘absolutely fireproof’.