Monday, December 15, 2014

A little 'behind the scenes' information on the Centenary Celebration!

The Centenary Celebration offered a unique opportunity and a unique challenge. Unlike, for example,  a musical, there was no script, score or indeed any real precedent to copy. An evening's entertainment had to be constructed from scratch. And on such a huge stage as well – there are five and half thousand seats in the Royal Albert Hall!

From the very beginning it was intended that the evening would be structured around a series of short documentary-style films shown on a giant screen - perhaps inspired by an occasion a few years ago when the Schola sang at the world premiere of the 3D version of Titanic
Two Vaughan parents who work in the film and TV business, Adam Scoffield and Flavia Ritner, amazingly agreed to help make these films - remarkable given the amount of time they must have known it would take - and around 18 months ago we began to film, starting by interviewing on cameras many Old Vaughanians and former staff. Scripts were written and pupils were slowly but surely filmed speaking the narration. More than 100 pupils took part in the filming process.

Filming is an incredibly time-consuming activity; for example, one day was spent at Westminster Cathedral - from which there was perhaps 20 seconds of footage shown on the evening. Another entire day was spent with two Old Vaughanians, John Sankey and Terry Denett (who very bravely also appeared on the stage on the evening) filming in the former grounds of Beaumont College where the Vaughan had been evacuated to during the war, again just for a short passage of footage on the evening. 
Many more hours were spent researching the Vaughan’s history and collecting and creating graphics and photographs to add life and colour to the films. Slowly but surely the films took shape. A film about sport was made by another parent, with an Old Vaughanian presenting from his sports anchor desk in Doha! Using the history of the School written by Peter Brennan in 1995 we also created an illustrated brochure of the School's history and brought the story up to date. Hannah Staff worked very closely on this, alongside the Fetherstonhaugh Publishing company.

Meanwhile, numerous ideas were considered for the musical items and eventually the programme began to come together. To make it into the evening the music had to be short, reasonably accessible, and not too challenging to play - the difficulties of performing in the Royal Albert Hall were sufficient without playing hugely difficult music! That said, the fanfare composed especially for the occasion (and which brilliantly used the school and the Albert Hall's resources) was quite tricky! The composer of that piece was Dr Philip Wilby - Miss Wilby's father. (We have two famous composers related to our music staff as Mr Jackson's grandfather is Francis Jackson, a legendary figure in the church music world and another greatly respected composer).
There were numerous technical aspects involved in making the event run smoothly. The films were projected on to the 30 foot screen from one of the audience boxes whilst the men who controlled them were hidden in the basement of the Albert Hall. They started each film on a cue from the show caller, John, who sat next to the lighting and sound people on the desks at the back of the arena, giving instructions from the script. Adam Scoffield was at the hall during the day with the computer equipment needed to edit the films if it proved necessary. Flavia Ritner was also present for the rehearsals to time everything (it would have been disastrous to discover that we were over time) and also to add last minute tweaks to the script. The script for our brilliant host, Stephen Cole, was run to an autocue controlled by a chap called Danny who sat in the ‘bull run’ as they call it – just be the entrance to the stage.

There were 200 microphones on the stage, all running to the desk at the rear of the arena from where they were mixed by the Albert Hall’s in-house sound team – the difficult acoustic of the Albert Hall makes unique challenges, especially when you were mixing live music, live voices plus video sound. Lighting was also controlled by the in-house lighting team of the Albert Hall, following the script – they were left to light the show as they felt best, according to the suggestions given. The school crest was shone onto the famous ceiling mushrooms (installed to improve the hall’s trick acoustic and of course referred to by John Lennon in ‘A Day in the life’) using a device called a ‘Gobo’ – these had to be made specially. 

Also contained in the ceiling of course were the 1500 balloons, each with the school crest printed on them, that were released at the end of the final hymn! Although I spoke to the balloon man a great deal on the phone we did not meet on the day as he worked away in the dome of the hall, inflating the balloons only once in the ceiling. He would also have been last to leave as he faced the challenge of lowering a device down from the ceiling to blow down the several hundred balloons that would be caught in the acoustic mushrooms and never reach the boys gathered below! I wonder if he then ran around bursting them all?!

All these various technical aspects were controlled by the stage manager, a wonderful lady called Maz Bryden who came to work with me for the final couple of weeks of the preparations. She was simply invaluable in controlling the many complicated aspects of the show and allowing the music staff on the day to concentrate on the music. The Albert Hall provided a team of around 20 technicians who ensured that the stage was set as we wished and looked after the challenges of the day, all led by Mo Crowe who was our show manager at the Royal Albert Hall. 
All of this help meant that the day itself was actually easier than the average large concert we put on! It was made easier still by having the help and support of the entire teaching staff, all of whom at some point were involved in chaperoning the performers and then bringing the rest of the School into the Hall at the appropriate time. Seating and ticketing in the Albert Hall is very complicated as more than a thousand seats are owned by the ‘members’, individuals (such as Her Majesty the Queen!) and large companies who have bought boxes and stalls seats and have the right to attend whatever they wish. They were not all terribly quick at returning their seats to us and so it became difficult to know how many could sit where. It was a major relief to see the whole School safely sat in the Hall waiting for the show to start! Particular mention should be made of Mr Kehoe who looked after the arrangements on the evening for the School. And credit for the ticketing of the event belongs to Hannah Staff who worked closely with me to ensure that everyone ended up sat in the right place.

The involvement of so many individuals was the reason for the show’s smooth and error free success and it is good to have the chance to thank them on this blog even if time did not permit them all to be thanked on the evening. I would also like to thank all the performers of course. It was wonderful to have with us so many Old Vaughanians for the evening. Many played in the orchestra or sang in the choir. Perhaps most impressive were the greatly accomplished, confident performances given by the Old Vaughanians in the musicals medley. And comedian Dominic Holland delighted the audience with his very funny routine about a maths test from his school days! 

If you missed it then its available on DVD! And if you were there, then thanks for coming! And many thanks for the countless messages that were sent in the days following and that continue to arrive. It is lovely to know that the work of all the  people mentioned above was so well received and so greatly appreciated.


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