“Can you show your wristband please?” I asked the young lad in a brightly coloured Christmas jumper.
He waved a yellow band in front of me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but that doesn’t allow you backstage,” I explained, “you need a black one.”
“It’s in my bag down there,” he replied, “in the room just round the corner.” He pointed through the black backstage curtain behind me.
I was stood stage left at Wembley arena before the second London Carols of the day began. The auditorium was filling up and there was a busy flow through that black curtain between front of house and backstage. As part of the church venue control team who volunteers with the SSE Arena security squad, I invariably get allocated to this spot and I love it. Next to the stage I’m in the close up mix of everyone who brings the annual Carols stage at Wembley to life. But I also have to stick to the rules.
“Well, I’m sorry, but you should be wearing it. I can’t let you in on a yellow,” I repeated. Only performers, musicians, stage crew and security can pass into the hallowed behind the screens area, mainly because there isn’t sufficient room for anyone else. Occasionally someone does forget and occasionally someone tries it on. There’s always one and Christmas jumper lad had to make other arrangements to get his other pass and bag.
Hillsong is a global network of city churches that adopt theatres, civic centres and sports stadiums each Sunday around the world to “do church”. In the Christian community they are known for their contemporary slant on praise and worship and have added songs alongside those of the Wesleys and Newton to international hymn books.
They’re a talented bunch when it comes to the performing arts and London Carols is a two hour dynamic production that rolls pantomime drama, the nativity story and cabaret together into a piquant and satisfying mix. Only at Wembley can three kings go round the world in 80 carols, well, not quite, but you get the gist, in search of the King of Kings and find him before Arch Enemy and all round bad guy Herod gets there first. All for £5 a ticket. Of course we know the happy ending.
Hillsong London, as expected, pulled out all the musical stops decorated with remote controlled additions. Missile goalkeeper lights swung in tandem along the stage lasering multicolours through incessant dry ice as myriads of filtered spots cut the darkness into shreds. I would have happily swapped places with the pyrotechnics technician above me in the stands zapping fireballs into play on stage as heavy metal guitar riffs filled the air.
I sang with a burly security guard, a diminutive stage manager and over ten thousand others to carol favourites along the Magi’s quest and watched a gospel choir/jazz/Motown mashup of Joy to the World/Jump by a sassy silver sequined Shirley Bassey trio underscored by a 50 strong choir and full pit orchestra. We Three Kings took on a whole new dimension under choir director Emma’s dancing hands and O Holy Night, as usual, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as shivers waterfalled down my back. Passion, joy and exuberant West End talent filled each minute in the two hours and they had every right to dominate a platform between Friday’s Nik Kershaw and Monday’s Robbie Williams concerts.
But what nailed the performance for me, very surprisingly, was Silent Night. I have always loved the simplicity and meditative quality of the melody and lyrics so was baffled by the raw jazz funk version delivered at startling volume in the opening minutes of the performance. It jarred.
Nerves however were settled by the penultimate song, a repeat simple rendition by a young lad and his electric guitar. Silent Night verses soared in a soft blues melody and calming order, in me anyway, was restored.
“I like this,” the security guard said to me. Suited and wired with a sharp beard, he oozed presence. I looked at him expectantly.
“Everyone is so nice. Chilled. Happy. Nothing like other events.”
“Why? What are they like?” I asked.
“Oh, there is always some kind of trouble at concerts. Usually over absolutely nothing. So much anger. People are so angry. I don’t get it.”
He had his theories but it clearly saddened him. As it did me.
Walking through the Wembley plaza lights later with crowds on their way to/from the carols I reflected on the two Silent Nights. The season of Christmas appears to start anytime from the summer holidays and is like the first version; it crescendos into a cacophany of media fuelled consumerism and expectations that invariably disappoint if gift returns data and failed New Year dieting resolutions are anything to go by. Unending Christmas musak and lighting bling do inevitably peak and pale too early and I hate it all.
With a vengeance.
In our search for direction and satisfaction, has society allowed the simple mystery and message of a star and associated baby to be replaced with some man made confection that changes by the fashionable minute and polarises still further the haves and have nots? No wonder folk are angry.
I flew home. Literally.
The Carlisle- Southend Loganair flight was more cost and time effective than either of the sardine packed and invariably delayed alternative rail options and it provided an opportunity to invest a little in the region I live and believe in.
It wasn’t Manchester, Charles de Gaulle or Shanghai Pudong. Carlisle is small and, with no radar and variable wind conditions, it sorts the pilot men from the pilot boys.
Whilst the environmentalists will slap my carbon footprint wrists, the experience was very second Silent Night, reminding me of all that Christmas should be; personal, peaceful, friendly and caring. With space to move, no queues, staff smiles and festive elves full of good humour on security scanning duty, the journey was a joy.
Starlight and babies never cease to generate an array of ooohs and aaahs. In their presence we all stand on the common ground of awe and wonder, leave baggage and battles and draw close. In this silly season I can therefore recommend anywhere off the beaten track exhibiting stable-like qualities. It’ll be divine. Promise.