How did the viral Willy Wonka experience go so wrong?on March 2, 2024 at 9:31 am

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It was billed as “the place where chocolate dreams become reality” but became a worldwide sensation when the reality emerged.

Chocolate experience website

It was billed as “the place where chocolate dreams become reality”.

The website for “Willy’s Chocolate Experience” – held in Glasgow last weekend – featured vivid images of sweetie-themed fantasy worlds.

Inspired by the Roald Dahl character and the recent Wonka movie, it boasted an “Enchanted Garden” a “Twilight Tunnel” and an “Imagination Lab”.

Hundreds of parents were persuaded to pay up to £35 a ticket for an event which promised “surprises at every turn”.

Well, that bit was at least true.

Chocolate experience props

Image source, Stuart Sinclair

Eager families who turned up at an industrial area in Whiteinch described it as “little more than an abandoned, empty warehouse”.

A handful of embarrassed actors tried to make the best of some sad-looking props and a bouncy castle.

The promised chocolate fountains and “chocolatey delights” were conspicuously absent.

Children were instead offered a half-cup of lemonade and a small ration of jelly beans.

Chocolate experience props

As tempers rose, police were called. Within hours the event was abruptly cancelled, leaving some families unable to get in at all.

The organisers were House of Illuminati, an events company which according to its website specialises in “crafting extraordinary experiences”.

Its listing with Companies House reveals it is a limited liability company with just one director – a man named Billy Coull.

Last week footage circulating on social media showed a man identified as Mr Coull by actors involved in the event.

He was flanked by security staff as he tried to placate angry parents outside the venue, with one woman accusing him of having “scammed children”.

marketing and refreshments

He promised them that full refunds would be processed shortly, and has admitted that artificial intelligence (AI) was used to generate much of the marketing for the event

His firm House of Illuminati posted that it was an “event gone wrong” and it would not be holding any more for the foreseeable future.

So what do we know about Billy Coull?

Well it is not the first time he has been associated with controversy over a cancelled event.

In December 2021 a Santa’s Grotto for disadvantaged children in Glasgow’s Pollok area was pulled at short notice, citing concern about the Omicron Covid variant.

billy coull

Mr Coull, who was one of the organisers, insisted that they would be distributing food parcels, fuel vouchers and selection boxes instead.

He later publicly defended his integrity when some questioned on social media what would happen to all of the toys that had been donated to the event before its cancellation.

He told the Glasgow Times newspaper: “Even though there are people putting a question mark over what we do, the people who matter to us support us and their support shows how well we are trusted by the community.

“We have come from nothing more than a storage cupboard and a £100 voucher to helping 40,000 people in Glasgow in a matter of months.”

The Unknown

Another venture Mr Coull is linked with is a now defunct website called Empowercity which shared knowledge that could “enable even average Joe start and grow a widely profitable business”.

Mr Coull has not responded to a BBC request to tell his side of the story of the Wonka event, but a trawl of internet sources reveals he may be a very busy man.

Last summer an author with the same name self-published 17 novels that were listed on Amazon, with one of them – Operation Inoculation – described as a “conspiratorial journey into vaccination truths”.

The author’s biographical information describes him as an “enigmatic wordsmith from the bustling streets of Glasgow” and a “rising star of the literary world”.

It continues: “With each stroke of his pen, Billy Coull crafts narratives that blur the lines between reality and fiction, leaving readers enthralled by the unpredictable twists and turns that lie ahead.”

A reviewer of one of the books was not convinced, describing it as “absolute nonsense” full of “gibberish sentences” which had “all the hallmarks of being written by AI”.

Coull author info

Image source, Amazon

Since the furore over the Wonka event, some of the actors employed by Mr Coull have told how they were offered £500 for working the weekend but are unsure if they will be paid the full amount.

Paul Connell, who played Willy McDuff, a character seemingly based on Wonka, told BBC Scotland News he was handed “15 pages of AI-generated gibberish” as a script but tried to make the best of it despite things turning “scary” as people became angry.

The narrative involved him battling an evil rival chocolate maker called “The Unknown” – a character absent from the traditional Wonka plotlines – who is trying to steal Willy’s “Anti-Graffiti Gobstopper”.

Images and videos of the event went viral and have been viewed hundreds of millions of times on social media, with the story being reported worldwide including by CNN , the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

Scottish actress Karen Gillan – who is more used to working with slightly higher production budgets than the Wonka event – posted on X that she would love to be cast in any future movie based on the story of the debacle.

One widely shared picture showed an Oompa Loompa staring at some chemistry equipment in the “Jellybean Room” like she was desperately hoping the ground would open up beneath her feet and end her nightmare.

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The actress was Kirsty Paterson, who later told one interviewer she had just run out of jellybeans – which she had previously been rationing to three per child – and the organisers were telling her to “abandon the script”.

Kirsty told BBC Scotland News she had no idea what she was getting into when she agreed to take the role, adding: “I thought they were going to have people working through the night to make it look better but that was not the case.

“I think all the parents who attended can vouch, we were lovely, we didn’t make the children cry, we really tried our best.”

Jenny Fogarty

Image source, Jenny Fogarty

She has been shocked by the reaction, which was so overwhelming that she had to leave her phone switched off for two days.

“I’ve got incredibly thick skin, and I’m always happy to make a joke of myself but I think it did get a bit too much for me when it was outwith my control,” she said.

“People were slagging off my looks and everything else”.

The use of AI, both in marketing imagery and writing, appears to be a recurring theme of Billy Coull’s recent business endeavours.

Ivana Bartoletti, from technology consultants Wipro, said the widespread availability of AI meant a potentially misleading marketing campaign could be generated with minimal effort.

“While Generative AI can give everyone the confidence and the joy to create wonderful images, there is a big lesson in this story for all marketing teams: these tools must be used responsibly,” she said.

Willy’s Chocolate Experience now has its very own Wikipedia entry.

The event itself left parents enraged and children in tears.

But the internet’s fascination with things excruciatingly awful gave it a profile not even Billy Coull could have imagined.

His AI-enhanced online promotion promised “captivating entertainment”. He may have unwittingly delivered just that to a worldwide audience of millions.

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