The Brit Awards, the UK equivalent of the Grammys, has struggled to shrug off a reputation tarnished by some very tacky presentations in its early years. When Mick Fleetwood and Samantha Fox co-hosted a shambles of a show from the Royal Albert Hall in the late 1980s, the laughter resounded through the national media for months. Since then the Brits has changed venue twice, first to Alexander Palace and last year to Earls Court. Each move has heralded an improvement in stature, if not polish.
The 1996 show received international notoriety for the exploits of Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of British pop band Pulp, who scaled the stage during Michael Jackson's performance and mooned the artist during the live broadcast. Needless to say, this February's show was recorded, edited, and broadcast the following day.
But more importantly, last year's awards ceremony marked the arrival of the Brits as a premier event with an ambitious presentation to match. Unfortunately, the pressures of the new venue, reduced load-in time, and live broadcast brought the show as close as it has ever been to crashing and burning live in front of millions of TV viewers. The PA system, in particular, came perilously close to meltdown.
The good news was that this gave the show's backers food for thought. This year saw the show's redoubtable longtime production manager Mick Kluczinski finally given the budget and the advance planning resources the show so sadly lacked in 96. By universal acclaim, 1997 was without a doubt the finest Brit Awards show ever, for the 4,000 music biz members in attendance but also for TV viewers, for whom the set and lighting were scaled.
Stage designer Bill Laslet produced a 50s sci-fi motif for the 150'-wide (46m) stage. To each side, three-legged towers of vertical truss were layered with truss circles, a theme continued in the presenter's lectern. This was made from three uprights of Trilite, with a halo of white forming its slightly angled top. A set of three circular lighting trusses of diminishing sizes, starting at 40' (12m) in diameter, supplied by the UK's Unusual Rigging Company, crowned the stage right tower, while the stage left tower had three identical rings of 20' (6m) in diameter. With the back walls and central entrance stairway dressed by a cyc overlaid by two white gauzes, the overall effect when lit was something between Forbidden Planet and Superman's Fortress of Solitude-decidedly retro.
Back wall center was dominated by a 38'x20' (11.6x6m) Jumbotron from Screenco. Made up of the latest high-resolution JTS17 modules (which have a 17mm pixel pitch), the screen was most notable for producing a solid image that only appeared dotty in the closest of close-up shots on TV. Because the various live performers carried significantly different levels of their own stage sets, the 12-ton screen was rigged by URC to travel vertically 20' (6m) up and down, not just to make the sets easier to roll on and off but to give the camera director the option of taking shots with or without the screen in view. For such a large and prominent part of the set, this variety of imaging proved important in sustaining a two-hour presentation.
Mike Sutcliffe has been the Brits' lighting designer for four years now. This year saw him draw on just about everything available in the modern lighting inventory, including the first UK outing for the liquid lens VL5Arcª (formerly the VL5A) from Vari-Lite. "I asked for 12 initially, just to try them out," says Sutcliffe. "But the company seemed keen for me to try more, offering me 24 to start with. By the time the live acts, who have the option to add lamps at their own expense, were included, I ended up with 36. I put most of them up the vertical towers and around the screen, with six on the floor at the front. It was nice to have the daylight source but, to be honest, there just wasn't the time to really put them through their paces."
Though the end result was well-received, Sutcliffe had little preshow programming time. "We loaded in on schedule and had the main show plotted comfortably, but the live acts' own stage sets didn't arrive until Saturday night, giving us just one night before show day," he says.
Sutcliffe's protests are actually more muted than the circumstances might warrant, as much of the Brits' historical troubles have come from their cart-before-the-horse production. "The producers from Initial TV commissioned the set design, but at no point was I consulted-I received my copy of the final set drawing just after Christmas for a show in February," he says. "There's no opportunity to contribute to the design process. It's frustrating to know that in some instances things could be done better with more integrated planning between lights and set." That said, details like the white, doughnut-shaped flats positioned horizontally above each truss circle on the towers made intense truss coloration possible, as light was reflected onto the awkward curves of aluminum trussing.
A further drag on programming time was the close calls on booking the live acts; this year, singer Mark Morrison confirmed just six days before showtime, and the artist formerly known as Prince didn't confirm his chosen song until the night before. Late additions inevitably lead to last-minute demands: Just days before the broadcast, Initial TV requested 400 fuzz lights for Morrison's number, but the rig was already up and the lighting budget spent. Fortunately for Sutcliffe, no one in London had 400 fuzz lights sitting on the shelf.
That aside, what Sutcliffe did put into his design worked very well: 159 Vari*Lite¨ VL5sª (in addition to the 36 VL5Arcs) and 98 VL6sª, plus 81 Icons¨ from Light & Sound Designª and 16 Clay Paky Golden Scan HPEs from SpotCo. "The biggest problem I had was making sure it didn't all look the same," Sutcliffe says. "With limited time it's easy to produce six or seven really good looks, and then you discover that on camera they're all very similar. One reason I chose the Icons was for their rotating gobo feature-they have some excellent glass gobos." Sutcliffe used this feature to good effect by projecting some very high-definition gobo images down onto the stage floor for the aerial camera shots.
Programming was a team effort: Andy Watson worked the Icon Consoleª, which also ran the VL5Arcs and floor lights; Sean Nugent handled the Artisan¨; and Mike Hegget ran the conventionals and scans off an Avolites Diamond. Add-ins, like the two 4kW Sky Arts that suddenly appeared for the Mark Morrison set, were allocated console space wherever was most convenient. Concert Production Lighting was the general lighting contractor, providing a modest conventional system-200 PARs, 80 Martin Robocolors, 24 8-lites with Rainbow scrollers, six Strong Super Troupers, and three Pani truss spots-but all the subcontractors were coordinated by Bill Martin and Steve Russling.
CPL also handled the audience lighting, putting in 1,600' (488m) of trussing, festooned with the moving lights, over the main floor. CPL's sister company, Theatre Projects, provided extensive exterior lighting around Earls Court including 16 Irideonª AR500sª, four 4-head Sky Trackers, and numerous 6kW and 2.5kW HMIs.
Sutcliffe stuck to a blue palette for most of the show, not so noticeable in the live environment but a dominant feature of the TV look. The thematic blue cast, relieved by well-balanced closeups during the presentations, was consistent with the flavor of the stage set and created the sensation that a very different kind of show was being televised.
The live audience, meanwhile, was treated to a splendid post-show party that ran long into the evening. SpotCo supplied the lighting, including its custom-made white fabric cones. Lit internally by Robocolors, with gobo patterns superimposed on their exteriors, the cones stand 20' (6m) tall, and enhanced the grand finale for a surprisingly memorable evening at the Brit Awards.
Contributing editor Steve Moles, a retired roadie based in Yorkshire, UK, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.