For its final event of a busy year, the RTS centre went behind the scenes of the BBC’s Christmas choral treat from King’s College, Cambridge, in the company of director Ian Russell, production engineering manager Peter Taylor and lighting director Bernie Davis.
Carols from King’s, which was first televised in 1954, is a well-oiled machine in normal years, but this year the production team had to work under Covid-19 restrictions.
“It became very clear early on that we would not have a congregation,” recalled Taylor, who was talking to RTS Thames Valley’s Tim Marshall, a former BBC head of events.
The challenge, he continued, was “to reflect the congregational style and make it still feel like a church service, rather than a Christmassy Songs of Praise”.
The production considered using a “virtual congregation”, but this was rejected. “It would have jarred, I think, no matter how we had done it,” said Taylor, who has worked on Carol’s from Kings for a decade and a half. “We also looked at putting in some screens with people joining in the congregational hymns. In the end … it was decided that would be such a television artifice.”
Russell was brought on board in early December after the original director, Pamela Hossick, became indisposed. “A lot of the work and planning had already been done,” he said.
“The viewing public expects big occasions to look… as filmic as those productions on Netflix and other such channels. So King’s, being one of those jewels in the BBC crown, has to measure up…. To have any chance of achieving that, it has to be planned down to the last crotchet.”
The coronavirus restrictions brought advantages as well as complications. “Normally when we do King’s, I have to fade out the congregation for most of it because they are sitting fidgeting in their Christmas jumpers and can be a distraction behind shots,” said Davis.
The lack of a congregation, said Russell, made the sound “more simple. There [wasn’t] that noise floor of people in the chapel echoing around… they didn’t have coughing to remove… But what they did have instead was a very clean sound so, if there was a little noise, it was much more apparent than it would have been with a congregation there.”
Without a congregation, the production was able to use a jib for the first time, which improved camera coverage. “Having a jib and a moving camera is something that will probably remain a part of King’s for years to come,” said Russell.
Carols from King’s, which was recorded in advance of transmission, goes out on Christmas Eve on BBC Two.