The BBC Proms, the world’s largest and most famous classical music festival, took on a rather different form this year, having pivoted to become a multi-platform virtual event due to government restrictions on in-person events.
For eight weeks over the summer, classical music fans usually enjoy the Proms orchestral concerts, predominantly in the treasured Royal Albert Hall concert hall in London. With the event being such an integral part of the musical calendar for people around the world, the team at the Royal Albert Hall and the BBC – which organises and broadcasts the musical celebration – were eager for it to continue in some form, even without a live audience.
“The BBC was incredibly creative, not just in terms of finding a way to stage the Proms and the event’s huge scale (almost 500 musicians) within the restrictions of a pandemic, but to somehow turn those limitations to their advantage,” says Lucy Noble, artistic and commercial director, Royal Albert Hall.
The festival is created thanks to a successful partnership between the Hall and the BBC Proms team, with a vast range of departments working on every aspect of the season, from programming and production to health and safety, which was of paramount importance during the pandemic.
This year that close collaboration was more essential than ever and saw a core team, including Ollie Jeffery, head of technical and production, Royal Albert Hall; Lucy Noble, artistic and commercial director, Royal Albert Hall; Helen Heslop, manager, live events, Proms and BBC Radio 3; and David Pickard, director, BBC Proms, unite to create a reimagined event.
The solution they came up with would see the concerts still take place in the hall, but with only the performers, technical crew, suppliers and teams from the Royal Albert Hall and the BBC in attendance. It would be the first time in the event’s 125-year history that an audience would not be present for the concerts and would instead watch online or on BBC Four or listen on BBC Radio 3.
“We had lots of discussions with the BBC about various options, but nothing was confirmed until quite late in around May because if we’d come out of the pandemic and were able to produce an event for around 500 people then we would have done so,” says Jeffery.
“The biggest challenge for the BBC was artistically programming the events. How could they programme if they couldn’t feature any foreign orchestras due to travel restrictions? Could they even include any orchestras based outside London? This meant the programming was later than usual. We knew in June that we would produce a couple of weeks’ worth of behind closed doors events, but we didn’t know exactly what form that would take until around mid-July.”
As the concept evolved more people were brought on board such as production manager Steve Nolan, the Royal Albert Hall’s front of house team, the wider team from BBC Radio 3 and suppliers White Light, Delta Sound, SFL and Eat to the Beat, outside broadcast company Telegenic and TV production company Livewire.
Creating a safe environment
The most important consideration was how to put the event on in Covid-secure conditions to ensure everyone was safe; taking into account everything from the PPE that would be worn through to the cleaning regimes.
“I’ve never had so many conversations about toilets and which one is allocated to which group of people,” says Jeffery. “Everything you do is to minimise the risk of cross contamination which required a lot of thought in terms of the logistics, certainly for catering and toilets.”
The catering set-up changed to adhere to regulations which meant everyone submitted their order in advance, no hot food was served and nobody had to queue up. “You would handle your own food which had been stored in the fridge by our catering supplier Eat to the Beat,” adds Jeffery. “They did an amazing job and created different hubs, so if you were working in door 12, your hub was number 12 and only the people working in that area would pick up the meals.
The Royal Albert Hall team also reviewed how the orchestra would enter the building. In past years an orchestra truck full of equipment would be unloaded by the venue’s crew. This time performers were told to bring their own instrument, unless it was a large harp or a specialist instrument, which in turn removed the need to unload a truck.
When assessing the ventilation in the venue the team discovered the fresh air flow met the required standards to make the hall Covid-safe. Being the most well-ventilated area, the auditorium was selected as the best space for the performances to take place within, with the boxes in which the audience would normally be seated used as dressing rooms. The backstage corridors and dressing rooms which are fine under normal circumstances would not be spacious enough for this year’s Proms as they needed to be used at less than half the capacity to adhere to social distancing rules.
Not having an audience for the shows changed the atmosphere of the event but it also gave the team some flexibility. “As well as using boxes as dressing rooms, it allowed a mini studio – comprising a stage, Perspex screen, lighting and cameras – to be built which presenter, Katie Durham, used to interview guests,” says Jeffery.
Logistics and cleaning
To keep people apart, the load-in was staggered and separate bubbles entered through one door while another bubble exited a different way. The load-in understandably took longer as normally the teams from BBC Radio 3, the hall and the suppliers could be on stage at the same time.
“This year everything had to be staggered. If someone was working on the stage then you had the option that someone else could be in the gallery, but generally we really had to spread that load-in out and there was a lot of planning and scheduling involved which the BBC live events team did an excellent job handling – who arrives at what time and making sure everyone had filled in disclaimers and forms for track and trace,” says Jeffery.
A cleaning regime was put in place which saw the chairs, music stands and any other objects on stage that would be touched, quarantined for 72 hours and thoroughly cleaned on site, with double the amount of chairs and stands than would normally be used being made available. Jeffery, Stuart Page, director of systems and product at the BBC and the Proms live events team met weekly and sometimes daily to discuss how to guarantee everything was clean and safe.
“We cleaned everything at the start and then on day one there were 50 chairs and 50 music stands out on the stage. That night those stands and chairs went into a dirty room and the new clean ones came out. The next day, the dirty ones would get cleaned and this rolling pattern of chairs and music stands would continue,” says Jeffery.
“The Royal Albert Hall’s team were great and I brought a lot of them back off furlough to help with the cleaning – they were really happy to be working in the hall again. We used an antibacterial cleaning solution called Zoono which lasts for 30 days on surfaces and TFL also uses to kill the virus. Some of the performers were nervous about coming back, so Zoono was a real life-saver as the performers knew they were sat on a safe chair or a stand was safe to touch. Once we had set the stage, only the musician moved their stand or chair to minimise any cross contamination.”
Getting back to production
In between the logistical challenges, cleaning and creating a Covid-safe environment, the team also needed to produce an impressive production, from rigging the lights through to selecting the most suitable microphones.
As no audience was present for the concerts this year there was no need to install a PA system, so whilst the load-in was longer, some stages of the usual process were removed. BBC Radio outside broadcasts senior sound supervisor, Simon Tindall, used a mixture of Schoeps microphone models supplied by Delta Sound, mainly MK22, MK2H and MK4V, together with a number of DPA 4006 microphones. These were supplemented with various additional Schoeps and DPA microphones on stage, as required, as well as a few others such as the Neumann KMS105 and AKG 414ULS.
“We flew 37 microphones above the stage and arena, either as vertical drops to cover the instruments on the flat, or as arrays of two to four microphones to capture the overall performance,” says Tindall.
“Normally there are around 25 mic slings all the way across the audience. This time, the crew opted for single drops to make it easier and quicker, plus we didn’t need as many because there was no audience sound to pick up,” adds Jeffery. “It was all Radio 3 sound, so whereas normally there were lots of atmospheric mics, this time there were fewer and they were all mixed by the TV and radio OB truck as opposed to being mixed at Front of House because there was no live sound in the auditorium, apart from health and safety announcements.”
Outside broadcast company Telegenic has redesigned their OB trucks to ensure they are Covid-safe, separating the trucks into three areas using Perspex screens.
“Fitting them in the space available at the hall took a lot of work, making sure people were socially distanced as they left the truck. Filming the production was pretty much the same though as the camera crew tend to be quite separate and socially distanced during the shows,” says Jeffery.
In the past SFL Group supplied large fast fold screens positioned at the front for the audience, but these were not needed for 2020’s Proms. This year, the company supplied 155 panels of Desay M6 LED for the screens which were positioned at the back and another one either side for the last night of the Proms.
All processing was carried out using a Barco E2 while Green Hippo Hippotizer v4 media servers were driven by the Compulite Vector Green lighting console.
Around half of the Royal Albert Hall’s over stage lighting was used to reduce the amount of rigging required. LED lighting was then used along the brass handrail at the back. Lighting designer David Bishop, who also designs the lighting for Strictly Come Dancing, used a combination of Martin Mac Aura XBs, Quantum Washes and Encore CLDs; Robe DL7Fs, Megapointes and Parfects; Miltec Baten 2s; Elation SixPars; LED Creative BYTE LED; ETC Source 4 Lustrs and ColourSource Pars; Robert Juliat Dalis 860s; and ColourForce 48s.
“As the stalls space was available, David dotted hundreds of LED lights around them on different levels,” adds Jefferey. “It was fantastic and was probably the best-looking Proms yet. Of course, we wanted an audience, but having that flexibility was interesting and allowed everyone to be really creative.”
Reflecting on the reimagined event
From Jonathan Scott bringing the colossal sound of the Hall’s organ to life through to the first night’s powerful performance of Eric Whitacre’s Sleep from a socially distanced choir in the Stalls, this year’s Proms made an impact. The world-famous Last Night of the Proms usually features an audience rejoicing, singing and waving flags, but even though this year’s closing concert was performed to an empty hall it was still special, just in a different way, according to Jeffery.
“The last night was so poignant because we’d all gone through this pandemic and this journey. The Proms is such a huge thing around the globe and we were determined to make it work,” he says.
“I was lucky enough to stand in the gallery for the Last Night performance and when they sang the amended version of the national anthem it was absolutely beautiful. What made it so powerful was seeing the singers spread out, the orchestra and then nobody else in the beautiful venue. It was quite a unique and special moment and something I’ll never forget. But while it was beautiful, I would rather have had an audience there.”
On the last night the outside of the Royal Albert Hall was lit up in red, white and blue. “It looked absolutely amazing and we were also able to get the London Eye lit up in red, white and blue and Livewire Pictures, which produces the TV coverage of The Proms, hired a helicopter to film it,” adds Jeffery.
The road ahead
“Though we were delighted to be able to keep the spirit of the Proms alive, and we look forward to welcoming audiences back in whatever format, in the long term it wouldn’t be financially sustainable for us to stage either behind-closed-doors concerts, or our usual programme but with social distancing,” says Lucy Noble from the Royal Albert Hall.
“We typically put on almost 400 events a year and have to sell at 80 per cent capacity to make a profit. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a grant from the £1.57bn Rescue Package. We are asking for proper financial support from the government – rather than just the opportunity to apply for a loan – as well as encouraging donations from the many members of the public who love the venue, but ultimately our goal is to be self-reliant again as soon as possible.”
This year’s Proms concerts have taught all involved valuable lessons and proven that it is possible to create such a production on a large scale and in a Covid-safe environment.
“We’re in as challenging a position as any venue; this whole industry is in a very difficult situation,” says Jeffery. “What I loved about this year’s Proms was that we had suppliers there and that proved that if we could open the venues then we could open the supply chain and keep people in jobs. I feel really strongly about our suppliers and I was very involved early on with PLASA’s #WeMakeEvents campaign to support them.
“I sit on the PLASA board and PLASA’s managing director Peter Heath and all involved have done an amazing job with the #WeMakeEvents campaign which has really taken off. Will it make a difference? Who knows? But what it does is raise awareness and makes people think ‘wow, this is a really powerful and important industry.”
The Royal Albert Hall will be staging a socially distanced Christmas season. For more information and to buy tickets click here.