This week I finally went to my first concert since moving to London. I’ve been to a few musicals this year, but not an actual concert. And this was in arguably the most iconic concert venue in London – The Royal Albert Hall. I went there with the family in my youth for a Christmas concert, though I don’t remember it now of course. So going to a Christmas concert there this year felt like the first time really. And it was all for a good cause too.
I had got myself a ticket for Christmas With The Stars, with a few other members of the social group Thinking Bob. I wanted to do something with them for Christmas, especially as I’ve been a member for a year now (I signed up on Christmas Day in fact), plus I’m unable to go to their main Christmas bash or Christmas quiz this year, and a number of other events for which I’m away on the weekend before Christmas. So this looked ideal, and a lot of fun.
Although there were just 5 of us from Thinking Bob, we had got a group discount by virtue of the fact that it was a joint social with another social group called Spice London, with whom Thinking Bob now collaborate on a number of cultural events. That partnership has added yet more variety to Thinking Bob’s already considerable offering of events, which is brilliant. I didn’t get to speak to anybody from the Spice London group – our host was the main person interacting with them. But I got the impression they enjoyed themselves as much as we did.
We had a number of adjacent boxes on the second level at the back of the auditorium, and we had a great view directly facing the stage. Plus of course I was able to use my monocular to look at things closely on the stage whenever I wanted to. The 5 of us from Thinking Bob had our own box, which was nice – you get 2 people at the front, 2 people higher up behind them, and then one person can sit in the middle at the back, so it worked really nicely. Everybody gets a good view. You do have to be careful not to let the door of the box close completely if you leave it, because it self-locks then. You can get a member of staff to unlock it, of course, but it’s better not to lock yourself out to start with. And we didn’t, thankfully!
Also, the people in the box directly to our right (who weren’t connected with us) were directly above the Royal Box, where the charity’s patron, HRH Prince Edward, The Duke Of Kent, was in attendance for the show. So a few people were leaning over the front of the box to see if they could spot him! I didn’t, but it was fun to know that we were so close to him.
We also bought a programme from a lady in the long, circular corridor next to our box rooms, and then drinks from the bar, which was a fairly short walk away from where we were sat. You can order one drink to take with you for the first half, and then reserve another drink to pick up in the interval – they place it on a long ledge on the back wall of the bar with your name next to it, so you just go and pick it up. So I had a bottle of Isabel’s Berry cider by Aspall, which is a lovely berry flavoured drink. Obviously I used the eyesight of someone else in the group to help me find my drink in the interval, as I wouldn’t have had a clue otherwise. Likewise, the benefit of going with a group is that I was able to tag along with someone for the walk back to the Tube station, which made it easier, and meant we could have a nice chat along the way.
The venue looked really beautiful, as you’d expect. The Royal Albert Hall is a stunning building both inside and out, and it looks really lovely with all the Christmas trees and decorations inside. The stage in the auditorium was initially bathed in a purple and pink light, with white snowflakes projected on the walls, which looked really good. And throughout the show the lighting changed colours of course, with spotlights darting around the room sometimes. And for one song, everybody was asked to switch on the torches on their phones and hold it up, so you could see all these little pinpricks of light scattered all over the room, which looked lovely.
As for the concert itself, Christmas With The Stars is a show that’s been going for quite a long time by all accounts. But it’s the first time I’ve been aware of it, or indeed the wonderful charity that it supports – Bloodwise, which is for people suffering from blood cancer.
There are more than 230,000 living with blood cancer in the UK, it’s the most common cancer in children, and it’s the third biggest cancer killer. The research done by Bloodwise over the years has already had a big impact, greatly improving the quality of life, and indeed the life expectancy, of people with the condition. There is still a lot of work to be done – the aim is to cure the cancer altogether, of course. But from what we learned at the show, their work already makes a big difference. In 1960, when Bloodwise began, barely anybody survived 5 years after diagnosis – now two-thirds of people are still alive after that same period. So it’s lovely to be able to support such a cause.
And what better way to do it than with a night of wonderful festive music? The concert was amazing, with lots of great performances by a lot of great singers and a few dancers, interspersed with some carols that we all sang along to – the print in the programme was small, but I was able to hold it close enough to read it.
I’m not a religious person, and nor were most people in our group, but that doesn’t matter. I was still very happy singing along with everyone else. You don’t need to believe in a deity to sing and enjoy Christmas songs and carols. Christmas is celebrated by people of all religions and those of no faith, it’s for everybody. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the ending of the year, with messages of love, joy and hope that we can all share in, as we look back on the last 12 months and forward to the next dozen.
The one carol I ‘struggle’ with, so to speak, is While Shepherds Watched – purely because every time I sing it, I have to avoid singing an alternate version. I’ve heard a few over the years, but the one that always comes to mind is this:
While shepherd’s washed their socks by night,
All watching ITV,
The angel of the lord came down,
And switched to BBC
Silly I know, but there are lots of parody versions out there I think!
And as a quick aside, talking of alternate carols, there is a song we had in a school play one year that went:
The premises of Good, King & Wenceslas,
Looked out over Clyst St Stephen,
Opposite the cafe at the roundabout,
Selling deep-pan pizzas, crisp and even!
Somehow I’ve always remembered that first verse!
But I digress, back to the concert…
The atmosphere and acoustics in the auditorium are amazing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a solo choirboy or the 5,000-strong audience singing, it just surrounds you and sounds wonderful, wherever you’re sitting. It’s something you have to be there to truly appreciate.
Most of the singers I wasn’t at all familiar with – Ore Oduba was the only name that I recognised – but that didn’t matter, that wasn’t the point. They were brilliant performers, there wasn’t a duff note anywhere. And there some big name presenters in between to introduce the acts or deliver speeches, including Kevin Whately, Julia Bradbury and Gaby Roslin. And the leader of proceedings was Frank Renton, who was conducting his Brass Machine group to provide the music for all the performers. That was his 33rd consecutive year doing it for this event, from when he started in 1985, and he later posted on Facebook to thank everybody involved.
Everyone was giving up their time for free to raise money for Bloodwise, which was really generous and special. Indeed, you could argue that this is more special than going to a show with the biggest A-list singers out there, because the performers at this concert had no products to plug, no screaming teenage girls in the audience who might drown them out, no huge egos to make them want to show off, and stuff like that. And it wasn’t being filmed for TV either. A few people filmed a little bit on their phones, inevitably, but it didn’t seem to be many.
So this was a show that a lot of people wouldn’t have known about. I wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for Thinking Bob listing it, although I have now signed up to The royal Albert Hall’s newsletter to keep track of what’s coming up. So it felt very intimate, as if we were part of a specially invited group, particularly as it’s a one-off show each year. And because it is an annual event, you get the impression that there are regular attendees who go more than once, and it’s easy to see why.
The setlist ran as follows. In a few cases I’ve been able to link to video clips that other people have posted:
- Everyone – Once In Royal David’s City (led by Edward Hyde, BBC Young Chorister Of The Year 2016)
- Ore Oduba featuring Strictly Come Dancing partner Luba Mushtuk – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (video clip)
- Dr Ranj Singh with The Adam Street Singers – Writing’s On The Wall (title song from James Bond film Spectre)
- Everyone – O Little Town Of Bethlehem
- Classical Reflection (twin sisters) – I’ll Be Home For Christmas
- Tom Conti – Jesus My Boy by John Dowie
- Edward Hyde – Walking In The Air (video clip)
- Helen George – The River (a Bruce Springsteen song)
- Chris Villiers & Guests – Well, Did You Evah
- Everyone – The First Nowell
- Everyone – Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
- Chelsea Halfpenny – Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
- Disney Voices Choir – Disney Medley
- Edward Hyde – Ave Maria
- Shona McGarty – Once Upon A December
- Everyone – While Shepherds Watched
- Dr Ranj Singh & Michael Auger – Let It Go (from Frozen)
- Dean Andrews – It’s The Most Wonderful Time
- Speech by Gemma Peters, Chief Executive of Bloodwise (video clip)
- Everyone – White Christmas (video clip)
- Everyone – O Come All Ye Faithful
So as you can see, it was a great selection, with a nice mix of slow and upbeat numbers. And all for a very worthy cause too, I hope Bloodwise raised a lot of money. It was a great night that left us all feeling very happy and festive when we left. So it really does feel like Christmas has started, now that I’ve been to a concert like that!