Fran Scott gives a glimpse behind the scenes of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES international tour.
We know you’ll have heard of the Royal Institution CHRISTMAS LECTURES, but did you know that we also take these Lectures around the world? Well, I did know that, but only because it’s my job to oversee these… or at least it became my job in April of this year. As the Clothworker’s Science Content Producer, one of my first tasks was to take these historic Lectures from the famous theatre on Albemarle Street out to a filming studio in Singapore and a lecture theatre at Tokyo Tech. Not bad, eh?
Singapore came first, and after several early morning Skype sessions, we were boarding a plane with far too many suitcases all jam-packed with various last-minute prop additions. The Singapore Star Lectures, as the CHRISTMAS LECTURES are known over there, are funded by A*Star (Singapore's Agency for Science, technology and Research) and are a collaboration between Singapore Science Centre and us at the Royal Institution, with Mediacorp (the BBC of the Singapore world) providing the filming know-how. Day one was full of prop sourcing, sorting and painting, as we could only fly with limited props (especially fire related ones!), but after finding the ever-lovely Saiful Islam fresh from his plane ride and enjoying some impromptu drone-based fireworks, we were finally ready for rehearsals.
It was a slick operation. I handled all the fire-related demonstrations (my specialty is fire-related demonstrations), with my colleague Karl, taking the more innocuous props. We performed some sort of podium-prop-moving dance around Saiful as he delivered his lines to the five cameras following his every move. The Lectures are performed three times over consecutive days with the best parts of each performance being melded together to form a primetime television show. I’d re-written the Lectures somewhat so it was an amalgamation of all three Lectures performed at the Ri, and so there were lots of new links for Saiful to learn, but as the true professional he is, he took it all in his pun-loaded stride.
If you had never worked in a TV studio, I can imagine Mediacorp Studio1 could be an intimidating place, but as someone who started her career in studio television, this was a return to where I felt most comfortable. The huge props store out the back, the darkened wings, the friendly stage-hands and the constant chatter over my earpiece. This, I knew, was going to be fun.
Obviously, there were a few glitches; a flash cotton candle falling as it entered the stage (luckily this was before it had been lit!), a loose wire on a lightbulb, and a battery that just wouldn’t quite give us the voltage we needed for our final explosion, but one by one we solved each problem and Mediacorp, Singapore Science Centre, A*Star and most importantly, our audiences, all seemed to love the Lectures. So we left Singapore with our bellies full of chilli crab, happy that we had done our jobs well and helped to spread the word about the CHRISTMAS LECTURES. Next stop, Tokyo…
Tokyo was a slightly different kettle of fish. There’d be no filming this time, but two Lectures performed each day. The Royal Institution’s relationship with Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper that funds the Lectures in Japan (with a staggering readership of nine million) has been going on for an impressive 27 years, so I didn’t want to let them down on my first year on the job.
With no fire-demonstrations allowed in our wood-clad theatre, there was a collaborative re-write between myself and Kana (the project lead on the Tokyo side), resulting in another fresh script for Saiful to learn. However, this presented us with a new challenge as, as you know, the ‘fire-stuff’ is what the CHRISTMAS LECTURES are famous for. But I love nothing if not a challenge. I decided that without fire, the narrative and remaining demonstrations needed to be ultra-solid, with room for Saiful’s friendly character to come through, I also wanted to try and make the Lectures as ‘produced’ as possible. By that I mean, all stage actions would be seamless, so props appearing from seemingly nowhere, the lights going off and on with perfect timing and the stage craft such that the audience’s eyes were drawn to exactly where we wanted, when we wanted. This is achieved with what is known in the trade as a block-through, with each section of the script taken super-slowly and instructions issued step-by-step, with prop positions marked (or “spiked”) on the stage. During this process each person is taken through what they should be doing and when. And by George, did we have a lot of people?! We had 18 volunteers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology all keen to help and learn the science communication trade…. and it was fabulous.
Despite my ashamedly poor Japanese, we formed a brilliant team rapport; the volunteers were grateful for the training and I was utterly grateful for their ultra-competent help. So, with the newly-trained stage hands and myself backstage, my colleague Pete and Kana front of house manning the tech side of things, the live translators up in their booth, and Saiful taking centre stage (exactly in position, of course) we were ready for the Lectures to go live, just a mere 24 hours after Saiful’s plane had landed.
Rather scarily, the first Lecture was to be attended by VIPs, so we were all a little nervous. But the precision of our rehearsal paid off; Saiful delivered his lines with charm and flow, the stage-hands managed to silently move huge props into position in the dark and the technology managed to just about behave itself for once. The Lectures were a success! Or at least, that’s what the crowd of happy VIPs and smiling audience told us. Four Lectures later and we were done, packing balls and other random props into our large wooden crate, ready for the flight home, after another successful tour under the Ri’s belt.
The Ri is most grateful to the Lloyd's Register Foundation, Johnson Matthey, Schlumberger, University of Bath, and EPSRC for their support towards the CHRISTMAS LECTURES 2016 and making them happen.
The only negative was that this marked the last obligation for the wonderful Saiful as the 2016 Christmas Lecturer, but it certainly did make me excited for what is to come over the next few months as we prepare for the 2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES.
As his time at the Ri comes to an end, and he prepares to return to his PhD research, Matt Greenwell reflects on his experience as the Ri's Digital Intern.
Posted to Behind the scenes on1st February 2019