'Rooftops We Have Loved'
Wednesday, 25th February 2009
London. BBC recce.
Up early to go back to BBC Broadcasting House for a final recce of the two shows we're doing there on Friday. One is quite straightforward, as it's in the radio theatre and is essentially a radio broadcast with a couple of cameras looking on. The second is a performance on the roof of the building. U2 are no strangers to the odd roof top, but what makes this particularly challenging is that we're kicking off at 18.30, when it will just about be fully dark. It's a surprise gig so there clearly can't be any soundcheck, and as it'll be daylight up until half an hour before they go on, there won't be any opportunity for lighting focus, programming, white balance or camera rehearsal... what could possibly go wrong?
In the afternoon I met a man called Nick who is going to be the crew chief for the lighting department on the U2 tour. I gave him my whole 'show and tell' presentation, which illustrates the staging design and whole idea of the show. I've done this a few times now, as you can imagine, but every time I do it I can feel adrenaline rising. We've still got an awful lot to do over the next four months, but I just can't wait to see this thing in the flesh. Nick got through it without laughing out loud or running screaming from the room, so I think that means he's willing to take on the challenge.
Thursday, 26th February 2009
London. Comic Relief. Jonathan Ross.
There's a tangible sense of rising mania amongst our happy throng. Happy we certainly are, as extremely positive album reviews continue to roll in and all seems to be going to plan, but I am relieved to find that I am far from alone in feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of activity. Two TV shows a day seems to have become the norm and the band are adding photo shoots and countless interviews on top of this. Plus of course they're squeezing meetings in between in order to stave off the vast quantity of crucial deadlines stampeding towards us all. Little wonder it's all becoming faintly surreal.
As TV shows go, this has not been my favourite day. It started well, with the warm feeling of childhood nostalgia which always accompanies a visit to BBC Television Centre ("Wood Lane, London W1A 1AA..." as they used to say on Blue Peter). They've built on a huge, modern glass-box complex now, but the central core of the building remains - a brick cylinder around a circular courtyard with fountain and mad modernist figurative sculpture, expressing the aspirations of the golden age of broadcasting.
As I've said every day this week, the hallmark of this kind of TV show is the lack of control which we have over the situation and today was particularly uphill work. We shot two things; In the afternoon, a version of 'Boots' for broadcast on a special edition of Top of the Pops for Comic Relief (a UK charity famous for its biannual "Red Nose Day"), then in the evening, the Jonathan Ross Show. To be honest, I wasn't thrilled with the way it looked on camera, but hopefully the TV directors will pull something decent out of it.
On another note, there was a great and glorious victory today in that a decision was made as to the colour of the structure for the touring stage. I appreciate this doesn't sound very exciting, but it was the last major design element of the 'real' show which needed to be confirmed. Mark Fisher (my co-designer and the tour's architect) came down to the BBC and amid the madness of the day we managed a three-minute meeting with the band, which proved to be exactly long enough to make the decision. I am so excited about the forthcoming live show that I can barely breathe.
After a monumentally long day I got the tube home, which was pleasantly anti-climatic after a full-on TV day. Two more to do tomorrow...
Friday, 27th February 2009
London. BBC Radio Theatre. BBC Rooftop.
This turned out to be a great day and quite fun in a ludicrous sort of a way. Up at the crack of dawn again to get to BBC Broadcasting House. (This is the home of BBC radio, as opposed to BBC television where we were yesterday.) The iconic building is situated just off the junction of Regent Street and Oxford Street, smack in the middle of London's glittering West End. It is all roundy art deco, with an imposing façade featuring an illuminated clock face, a sculpture by Eric Gill, and several balconies which face directly down Regent Street. On the uppermost of said balconies, on the seventh floor, U2 had decided it would be fun to play a gig, adding to their collection of 'rooftops we have loved'.
This sounds like a cute idea and I was rather hoping that they would play during the day in broad daylight, which woulds take the pressure off the lighting department but no; clearly the best time to play would be drive time – commuter hour on a Friday night, just after dark. Consequently I had to light the performance, so had been formulating a plan all week. In the end I decided that soft, diffuse, small lighting fixtures up close would be the best bet, as opposed to big fixtures on the buildings opposite. The notion of relying on radio communications to control operators on several high buildings sounded like it had far too great a degree of Spinal Tap potential. Consequently, all the lighting had to be placed on the balcony itself, along with the sound system, backline amps and drum kit, audio monitors, sound desk, two camera operators and a remote control camera. Oh, and the band. This was not a large space so you can only imagine the magnitude of the clusterfuck up there but, perhaps surprisingly, attitudes remained calm and tempers unfrayed. The sun came out and I think the view helped too – what a remarkable place to spend a sunny afternoon, the whole of London laid out before us.
Just to keep us on our toes, U2 were also playing a show in the Radio Theatre earlier in the day. This is a small theatre which has been used for recording radio programmes with a live audience since the year dot. Milestones of British comedy and culture have been recorded there and the place recently restored to its art deco glory. I've long thought that lighting for radio would be one of the great career paths, up there with the Jamaican bobsleigh team, and today I got my chance. In fairness, there were TV cameras present so my task had some sense of purpose and of course the live audience deserved some aesthetically obedient ambience too. U2 played four songs in a short session hosted by Jo Whiley and all went well. It was exciting to hear some of the new songs for the first time in anything like a real gig setting. It looked good on camera too.
The roof appearance was clearly going to be far more of a challenge, in terms of capturing it for the cameras, as there could be absolutely no soundcheck or rehearsal. I had been banking on having even fifteen minutes of semi-darkness prior to the gig so I could at least focus the lights and get some notion of what this was going to look like on camera. However, as soon as we started turning lights on, my walkie-talkie exploded with histrionic messages from Westminster Council that "absolutely no lights must be turned on until the performance starts". This, I thought, might be tricky.
There are two parts to making good-looking TV pictures. As with a movie camera (or even a stills camera for that matter), there is the lighting aspect combined with the settings on the camera itself. In television there is a video engineer who controls all of the camera settings from a central control desk. S/he can adjust the iris to make the pictures brighter or darker and has a whole host of filters and effects which can radically affect the way the picture looks. Creating the pictures requires skill in both aspects, hence the moviemaking term "lighting cameraman". A big part of the Russian roulette aspect of the past few weeks of TV shows has been working with a different video engineer at every show; it's a crucial role, the difference between glamour and horror on screen. Today's video engineer was a young guy called Peter who became the saviour of the project. When he realised that we were just going to have to wing it 100%, far from panicking, he seemed quite amused that this rock group of global stature were going to appear on live TV with zero preparation. He also turned out to be very good at making TV pictures so the rooftop appearance ended up looking great. I left very happy and headed straight for the pub.
Saturday, 28th February 2009
London/New York. BA 177.
Fortunately woke up early this morning as, when I came round, I realised that I had to leave for New York and hadn't even thought about packing. I've got the packing process down to about 20 minutes, as I always pack enough essentials (i.e. underwear) for three weeks. There are two reasons for this; i) I can do this on 100% autopilot, whilst messing with the formula by engaging the conscious mind will only lead to mistakes, and ii) if you have enough for three weeks, you can continue indefinitely.
At Heathrow airport I ran into David Walliams (of 'Little Britain', with whom I have worked) who was ahead of me in the queue for boarding, so we said our hellos and had a brief chat. Whenever I see him I can't help thinking "this man has swum the English Channel", a physical activity entirely beyond my comprehension.
Watched a documentary on the flight about Roxy Music which I thoroughly enjoyed. Ironically it opens with Bono talking about them, expressing an admiration for them which was echoed through the programme by many of his contemporaries. It's a great documentary, featuring interviews with all the original members, including Brian Eno.
I absolutely loved Roxy Music. For the teenage me there was T.Rex, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and Roxy. The timing of their existence was perfect for my growing up; Virginia Plain was released just as I was aged 12 and starting secondary school (high school). In complete endorsement of Bono's sentiments, seeing them on Top of the Pops was like watching the arrival of a spaceship of aliens from planet glamour. We knew it was all make-believe but it certainly sorted out our stylistic aspirations until punk rock kicked in (conveniently as I was just leaving school.)
On arrival at JFK it was clear that winter here is far from over. Snow was falling as I rode into the city and an icy wind was cutting through the place. Ambitions for the evening were low, so I tucked up in my hotel room for the evening and ordered room service.