GUY FAWKES burns this weekend. Wilf Scott, one of the world’s great pyrotechnicians, is unlikely so much as to strike a light.

What, hide beneath the bed like a frightened puppy? “I just don’t want to miss The Archers,” he insists.

Even amid fireworks phantasmagorical firmament he coruscates comprehensively. “In the pyrotechnic pantheon, a local lad made god,” the column observed in 2002, when last we’d met.

Loading article content

Back then he’d just masterminded the unforgettable display over Buckingham Palace which illumined the Queen’s golden jubilee, an initiative for which he forecast being struck off the royal Christmas card list.

“The one thing you never do in this industry is stand a living monarch on top of a pile of explosives and ask her to press the button,” he said.

It resulted instead in his becoming a Member of the Victorian Order, an honour personally conferred by Her Majesty. “I just wish my parents had been around to see it,” says Wilf, a man for whom the sky really was the limit.

Shildon lad, he has choreographed firework displays all over the world, worked for entertainers like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Tina Turner, fire-danced attendance at Middle Eastern royal weddings and appeared at Wembley almost as many times as the Arsenal.

Another sky highlight was the centenary of the Forth Bridge. “Visually it was stunning; we told the story of the bridge. It took 14 men 14 days just to rig the bridge. Then we lit up Union of South Africa.”

Union of South Africa is a steam engine. If he hadn’t exploded so iridescently into pyrotechnicalities, Wilf would have been an engine driver.

In 2002 he lived in Cambridge. Now he’s back up north, in Richmond, looked at 20 houses in four days before moving.

He’s 71, starting to feel his years, wanted a place where the walk to the pub was pretty much on the level. “Richmond’s lovely but it’s the hilliest place this side of the Yukon,” he says.

The interview kicks off at his home. Like the guy who owns it, it is a total one-off.

WHEN does “eccentric” become pejorative? Certainly he’s unusual – pony tailed, casually (let’s say) dressed, smoking aromatic tabs whenever in need of a high – and certainly idiosyncratic. It appears born of genius.

Arnold, his dad, was a baker – shop and house overlooking the railway tracks which ceaselessly shunted between Shildon Wagon Works and the once-massive main line marshalling yard.

It sparked a lifelong love of railways and of steam engines, led the baker’s boy to imagine that when kindling the oven on Saturday mornings he was really in Darlington shed, fuelling Sir Nigel Gresley.

He failed the 11+, his parents told by the headmaster that he’d probably join most of Shildon’s working population at the hammer-and-tongs wagon works. Instead they sent him to the fee-paying Scorton Grammar School, near Richmond, where began a lifelong love of the town and its Georgian Theatre.

As a 15th birthday present, his parents bought him a ticket for Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court Theatre in London. “Even then I understood what the play was about,” he recalls.

Dressed in Victorian finery – top hat, cane, the lot – he took the train to the capital, missed the last one back, spent the night on a station bench. It wasn’t the sort of thing which most of us Shildon lads did in the 1960s.

It was also unusual that he didn’t like fireworks. “My dad took me to a display once and set the box alight. I don’t think it was meant to happen.”

Wilf finally gained two fine arts degrees at Reading University, employing a fertile imagination to create everything from field guns to what now he terms fantasy engineering.

Fireworks took off when fine art fizzled. When he began there were five display companies in the UK, now there are around 200.

“I used to look at pyrotechnics from an artistic point of view, trying to make things look beautiful. Others came more from a chemistry standpoint,” he says. Shildon’s rocket man was set to make the world go with a whizz-bang.

BUT the house, the house. Rather it is a model railway museum, locomotives of all gauges and many nations overflowing every room. Some will even steam, on a scale of 1-to-1,000, about 1,001.

“Sometimes it takes me half an hour just to go to bed,” he says. “I’ll stand looking at a cabinet, trying to remember where I got them all.”

His favourite is of 68692, a humble tank engine – complete with West Auckland shed plate – on which periodically he’d clamber while Herbert Dobson, the driver, got his pipe in Scott’s café.

Elsewhere may be a stuffed owl, or memories from his time on narrow boats, or a newspaper piece about Anglo-Saxon cussing. He just liked the sound of it, he says.

A photograph of the Queen conferring the MVO hangs in the hall, next to it a personal letter from George W Bush lauding the “magnificent” fireworks which marked the G7 summit in London.

Having blazed the blue touchpaper, Wilf retired at 60 – probably too early, he concedes. “I didn’t have enough money and I think I was pretty good at the time, but I’d had enough of standing around in fields, freezing cold in the mud. This house is really cosy, it’s the first time I’ve been warm in my life.”

WITHIN nine months, he insists, he was broke. Excessive drinking led to a spell in rehab. His marriage also broke up, though they remain friends.

Subsequently he has drawn cartoons for magazines like Private Eye and The Spectator, written his autobiography – From Pits to the Palace – done a bit of corporate speaking and is a judge at the British pyrotechnic championships in Southport.

“There are some really imaginative guys and it’s amazing what they’re doing but the industry really isn’t big enough for 200 companies.”

Presently he’s illustrating a book by the celebrated percussionist Jody Linscott – “the most beautiful woman in the world” – whose two earlier children’s books were edited by Jackie Onassis.

After 90 minutes amid his memories, we head on the level for the pub. Richmond’s attractiveness never fades, he insists.

And Guy Fawkes night’s? “It’s still a big deal for everybody, though much more affected by health and safety. No offence, but I’ve seen so many firework displays I don’t think I have the enthusiasm to attend another. I just enjoy pottering around here, doing a bit of cooking.

“I have my house, my trains, a bit of money to buy a drink and some cigarettes. I’ve had a full life; I’m happy.”

Information on Wilf’s autobiography and other activities at