At first “The World Famous” was meant with more than a touch of irony, but the meaning of the words soon had its own momentum.
In early 1999, the company consisted of a 20 foot container in a Kent wood, a few boxes of fireworks, a name – The World Famous Fireworkers – and a very rudimentary website. So, when we were called by Osita Chidoka “from the Government of Nigeria”, we didn’t know whether to take it seriously.
The military junta who had run the country for 16 years was about to hand over power to a civilian government, and they needed a firework display to mark this historic event. Earlier that year, he explained, Nigeria had held its first ever public firework display, but this time, “we must have the world famous fireworks.”
Celebrating the triumph of democracy over militarism in front of dozens of world leaders wasn’t exactly what we’d imagined for our second public firework display, but we liked a challenge.
Greg flew to Lagos, to talk through our initial idea, which was “The people of Nigeria welcome democracy” written in six foot high letters of fire. After much negotiation, this transformed into a four metre high firedrawing of the president elect (a previous leader of the military junta) with the words “Nigeria salutes General Obasanjo”.
This would be accompanied by a massive aerial firework display, mostly in the green and white of the national flag. So much for the overthrow of militarism.
Back home, it seemed like everyone we spoke to had a horror story involving Nigerian scams. Although we insisted on money up front, all we got were repeated assurances that we would be paid. But time was short and if we hesitated it would be too late to make the show happened.
So we booked flights, bought fireworks, mortar tubes and other materials, re-boxed them for international transport and delivered them to the cargo agents. I sat in a café next to the Nigerian embassy, filling in six visa applications, adding what I hoped were six sufficiently different signatures. Our increasingly urgent faxes to Nigeria asking for reassurances about technical support went unanswered. Our payment deadlines passed.
Pyrotechny is a magical and dangerous art. Controlling and directing the destructive power of gunpowder to create moments of beauty demands skill and perseverance, but also a respect for the power of nature and the whims of fate. Like sailors, pyrotechnicians can be susceptible to superstition.
Aware we had already committed money we didn’t have to a venture that might never happen, I gave 10p to Madame Esmeralda, the mechanical fortune teller on Brighton seafront. The piece of paper she handed me said, “You will find success if you wear sensible shoes.”
I went straight to the shoe shop.
On a Friday afternoon, two days before we were due to fly, I was at the embassy collecting our visas, when I got a call. It was from Nigeria: the money was in the bank.
I jumped in a taxi and arrived running at the bank in Brixton minutes before it closed. We’d opened an account there a few months earlier, into which we’d never deposited more than a few hundred pounds.
“There should be £60,000 in our account,” I said, “Can I have £10,000 of it in cash please? Please.”
The cash was needed in Nigeria as a local production fee and to grease the wheels. To my amazement, I was taken through to the manager’s office and given a cup of tea while the cash was counted. I left the bank with an envelope of cash burning a hole in my jacket, and strolled as casually as I could through Brixton to Greg’s house, where I sat down on his sofa and promptly fell asleep.
Several hours later, I woke up to a knock at the door from the bank manager. I’d left my passport in the bank, and she had realised I needed it before Monday so had driven back from her home outside London to deliver it to me.
I was grateful I’d bought those sensible shoes.