The history of UK Firework Review

Published April 25th, 2011. Filed in: Fireworks Blog from the Editor

Sometime in 1997 I decided that I wanted to put on a back garden fireworks display for November 5th. I’m not sure exactly why, I think I might have been reliving my childhood or otherwise in that fatal position us blokes find ourselves in from time to time: Between hobbies and with disposable income. But I do remember it was in the summer, a distinctly odd time to think about fireworks. Clearly I needed plenty of time to plan!

I knew that I didn’t want to buy the smaller stuff the newsagents at the end of the road stocked around bonfire night. So I turned to Yellow Pages and found a whole category devoted to fireworks! Remember back in 1997 the internet was still in its infancy, you didn’t simply search on Google back then. You used real books with actual printed ‘phone numbers.

A couple of weeks later and I was leafing through a number of brochures all filled with big boys toys. Fireworks costing up to £50! Huge barrages! Lots of terms I had never heard of such as cakes, mines and lancework! All of these were described in various enthusiastic terms and according to the descriptions, every firework would thrill the audience. With absolutely no independent source of fireworks information I had to effectively buy blind, trusting the catalogues.

Months later and having spent well over £500 (original budget: £100) I was running around my back garden like a headless chicken letting off a sequence of fireworks all of which had been set up beforehand. The results were pretty good for a back garden but I was struck by something and it wasn’t a firework: Some of the £10 candles outperformed some of the £50 barrages! Why did some of the cheaper items get a bigger cheer and why was the £60 finale firework rubbish when the catalogue said it was brilliant? And why wasn’t there any source of information I could have used to tell me all this before I spent my hard earned cash?

My first fireworks display

A video still from my first proper display in 1997. That’s me bottom right. The experience of this was the seed that grew into UKFR.

 

The birth of UKFR

At about the same time as this display I was tinkering with web pages. In those days the fad of the time was “personal home pages” where you used a web page or two to tell the world about yourself. Just like a Facebook page today. Naturally I had a section on fireworks, my new hobby.

Over the next year or so I realised the amount of information I wanted to share about fireworks warranted a site all of its own. I wanted to review all the fireworks I had tried and to tell people “This one is the best one to buy” and to tell people how to let fireworks off safely. If I could let off £500 of fireworks without a hitch then so could anyone else.

After a period of web designing, tinkering and lots of coffee, UKFR was born in February 1999. When it was launched I used the very catchy title of “Pyro Pete’s Independent UK Firework Review 1999″. The year was included in the title as I had no idea it would last beyond the coming Guy Fawkes season and then the Millennium celebrations. I was wrong and the rest, as they say, is history!

 

The growth of UKFR

The site was first picked up by journalists in 1999 searching for fireworks information for their articles. A website that actually reviewed fireworks was unheard of back then and a fantastic source for researchers. Suddenly there was no need for time consuming tests, just quote UKFR! The site was mentioned in a number of places in 1999, the best one being the Guardian.

Fireworks press cutting

Part of an article from The Guardian newspaper in 1999 which quotes UKFR’s early “Best Buys”.

Two firework retailers saw the potential for having their products reviewed and I have fond memories of boxes of fireworks – for free – arriving at my parent’s house from HFM Pyrotechnics and 1st Galaxy. With fireworks feeding UKFR it grew exponentially, new reviews bringing in new readers and new readers encouraging even more retailers to send review samples.

Once the Millennium had been and gone, I concentrated on two areas in the years that followed: Video and reviews. In those days there was no YouTube and not even any good ways to compress video clips.  So surely it was a crazy idea to upload fireworks video? Well I did and by 2003 UKFR was producing not only reviews of fireworks but video clips of them in action too. Quite an achievement considering I ran the site on an old laptop and dial-up connection.

It has to be said the use of video was met with some resistance from the fireworks trade. Although some companies could see this was the future (Firework Emporium being the first to invite me to a fireworks review night in 2002) many were running scared because consumers could see their fireworks warts and all. However empowering the consumer to make an informed choice was my overriding concern and I was not going to give up!

With the reviews growing in number I needed a better way of organising them. In stepped Richard Harwood who kindly coded a complete review framework for UKFR at a significantly discounted price (ie. student rate!). It was now possible to present reviews dynamically, by brand, price or duration and to filter them by Editor’s rating (I gave the best fireworks a “BEST BUY” award).

Because UKFR was becoming more well known, I was able then to start visiting firework companies and events to feature them on the site. This produced a significant amount of content in addition to the reviews with a favourite assignment of mine being a behind the scenes look at a professional show. The first major fireworks event I went to was Plymouth back in 2001!

Plymouth Fireworks

My first major feature. A wet and windy Plymouth 2001!

 

The membership years

Due to the spiralling costs of running UKFR not to mention the amount of spare time it was taking, I took the decision in 2001 to charge a membership fee to access most of the content. Priced at £23.88 a year (so I could quote the monthly cost as being just £1.99) this stayed in place right the way though to 2009.

I do miss some aspects of the membership site, mostly the great sense of community it fostered. However with a membership framework also came a responsibility to produce content and a pressure to update the site regularly, something that was not always possible due to personal circumstances. It also excluded a lot of passing visitors who needed help but didn’t want to pay.

 

The rise and passing of the reviews

The glory years for UKFR focusing just on consumer reviews was 2004-2006. I had a lot of time on my hands and was able to output a lot of content. That time was needed since the effort involved in a typical review was considerable: Photos, timings, a written review and of course a fully edited and compressed video clip.

There were growing challenges however. The number of fireworks on the market had increased exponentially since 1999 as more and more retailers turned to importing their own. It was becoming clear that fireworks were changing each year – even exactly the same firework could have wildly different effects from one year to another if the importer changed factories in China. I started to struggle to keep up with even the fireworks from just one brand, let alone the dozens on the market.

There was also an increasing feeling that reviews of individual items – to the precise and detailed level I was doing it – were becoming redundant due to retailer video clips. The use of product video on UKFR eventually forced retailers to see the light and not to be frightened of letting their customers see their fireworks in action. Over the years the number of retailers having product video increased from just a couple to the vast majority. These days there is no excuse not to have product video with the likes of YouTube making it easy to share footage.

Because fireworks are aesthetic and therefore highly subjective, in the end UKFR was spending huge time and effort filming and reviewing fireworks when the reader could watch them – for free – on the retailer’s website anyway. And so, the days of reviewing fireworks in this manner were numbered and eventually came to an end in 2008.

I’m really pleased to have reviewed as many fireworks as I have and at the right time too. UKFR helped countless consumers in the noughties to find the best fireworks well before retailers offered product video. Over 1100 reviews were published and according to the database stats this covered a staggering £27,524 worth of fireworks at RRP!

But is is now time to move on, and that brings me to the present day…

 

The new UKFR

In 2007 I turned my attention to taking UKFR in a new direction. The site was already feeling dated. My first step was to stop taking on new paying members – there was no longer any new content for them anyway – and the forum was the first part of UKFR to become freely accessible in 2008. It has gone from strength to strength as a result.

Behind the scenes I was busy working on a brand new website. The grand plan was to have a shiny new UKFR on-line by Guy Fawkes 2008. Then fate intervened firstly in 2008/9 (a particularly busy time off UKFR for me) and then in 2010 (I suffered from an unexpected illness which took me out of action for over 12 months right through until 2011). By the time I was back in action in 2011 the work I had started back in 2008 was already out of date. So there was no option but to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch, and the result is what you are looking at today.

I’m really excited by the possibilities offered by the new website in particular the ability to publish articles and features. I hope this enables me to produce a much better stream of quality output. Also exciting is the fact I can keep the whole site free to access, made possible by the kind support of UKFR advertisers.

I should add that I haven’t abandoned firework reviews. Far from it, this has now turned into a community-led effort through the Forum where both members and retailers are encouraged to share their video fooage.

To this day I continue to run UKFR in my spare time. It’s not a full time job for me and despite its size UKFR employs no staff (other than voluntary forum moderators). In many ways this is UKFR’s strength; so many websites today are started (and folded) for commercial reasons, UKFR remains a labour of love. In fact UKFR has outlasted many firework companies!

In the last decade my “day job” has changed as often as UKFR and I have graced the likes of the Post Office, BT, RBS and Miller Brothers. From 2004 until early 2011 I worked in the retail fireworks trade and that experience has benefited UKFR greatly especially finding out first hand what information the public need to know about fireworks. I left the fireworks industry as a full time day job in 2011 due to illness and am currently still exploring my long term career options – but UKFR has and will remain a part of my life.

So let’s raise a glass and make a toast to the next decade of UKFR!

Pyro Pete, Editor

©1999-2015 UK Firework Review

Established in 1999, UKFR remains independent from the fireworks trade and does not sell fireworks.