BBC Proms 2011: Take me to the World Mashup

I’ve been hastily reviewing some of my Proms ‘output’ from the past few years before the 2011 Last Night. A way of drawing things to a close and packing things away.

The Sondheim Mashup Video is a must for this short series. This was something which came about as a result of a commission from Radio 3 Interactive in January 2011. I had some meetings with a handful of people, first to road-test my ideas and then to locate suitable resources. There was a budget – travel and accommodation – but in BBC terms, it was a small one.

I’d been cogitating the idea since the end of the previous season. I’d know then that there was going to be a Sondheim celebration concert in the 2010 Proms season. This made me think of my most favourite Sondheim song – Take me to the World.

Taking the elements which made the BBC Staff Piano Duet a success – spotanaity, relaxed style and rough and ready as well as showing people in situations they wouldn’t normally be in – I wanted to see whether it was possible to partially recreate the sequence sometimes seen in the Last Night of the Proms when the fanfares are thrown around the country as TV viewers see live link-ups from the different nations and regions. We’d done admin, presentation and production staff the year before, so why not do orchestral musicians this year? And why not get them to sing? After all, musicians must surely be able to sing. And they must surely be terribly outgoing and comfortable to sing on camera.

There was a ‘political’ element to this. The BBC was moving ahead full-steam towards its Salford move. Staff were – whether it was deliberate or accidental – thinking more and more about the organisation they worked for in terms of what went on outside of London. For me, there was a palpable sense of guilt wrapped up with being a London staffer. So, producing something which attempted to show BBC musicians outside of London – and especially away from the Royal Albert Hall – was important.

As it was, this was not an easy gig to set up. One band failed to register enthusiasm for the project. Some were extremely reluctant to field any contributors. There was an understandable element of fear associated in the pitch – largely for those who were charged with recruitment. As a producer this is a difficult process. One wants to talk to the ‘talent’ (the players) directly. But in BBC-land those players are staff and they represent a mini-brand themselves. It is therefore vital that other people concerned with brand representation are involved in the discussions. As a producer however, that demands relinquishing control over the creative process. And sometimes that’s a different circle to square.

The soundtrack was a must. Taking the track I had on my iPod I gave it to arranger Pete Faint and charged him with the task of coming up with an instrumental version. I then used that track and played it out on my iPod dock in the various locations we filmed.

Filming took place on a selection of days in late spring. The BBC Concert Orchestra filming – choosing a field might have made for a pretty location but it was a bugger to film – was first, then the BBC Philharmonic. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Ulster Orchestra sequences were filmed respectively in an hour on two consecutive days.

By the time travel and setting up was factored in to both days’ schedule, there was barely time left to have a cup of coffee. That’s how tight everything was. The BBC Symphony Orchestra sequence was also done in a lunchbreak but this at Maida Vale – the band’s home. Each location saw a short ‘trailer’ being filmed, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ being a particular favourite of mine.

Editing was a mammoth task. An hour long session (for each location there were two cameras in operation although you don’t see all the angles in the final edit) for each location which needed transferring from tape to Mac, suitable sequences marked up and then dropped into the time line. The same principle was applied to this piece as with the piano duet. The audio you hear in this is as they sang it – not a pre-recorded mixdown. Coming up with the rough edit took two weeks – I had a full-time job going on at the same time, it has to be said. After that stage, it was just a matter of dropping in the cut-aways – players ‘cracking up’, things not going well, funny looks etc – and the entire thing was done a few days later, published just in the nick of time before the Stephen Sondheim Prom.

This video is the most popular piece I’ve produced online over the past five years. And it’s still something which makes me feel proud, not to mention warm and fluffy every time I watch it. Watching over the video below however I’m reminded about how this project very nearly didn’t happen. Shortly after commission and after production had got underway there was a period of two or three days when it seemed likely that the budget I’d thought was there to fund the project risked ‘disappearing’. Everything was secured – the total spend for the project turned out to be just shy of £1000 – but this element to the production story explains why I felt the need to detail project spend and insodoing reveal the fact that I never go anywhere without a selection of soft toys in my suitcase.

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