Timing and choreography have become second nature to one North-East company. Alastair Gilmour discovers how it has been making a big noise for two decades.
IT could be hell living next door to someone who says: “Fireworks are what get us up in the morning.” So, if you take Alan Hillary’s quote literally, it’s perhaps time to move.
Of course, what the managing director of Reaction Firework really means is that he and his colleagues eat, sleep and breathe rockets, Roman candles, waterfalls and air bombs. He also runs alan Hillary Event Management and, this weekend the combined expertise of the staff of both businesses is playing a major role in the BBC Proms In The Park concert being relayed from Middlesbrough to 100 million people worldwide.
“We’re effectively two companies, the event management business which organises outdoor occasionss, official openings and concerts,” says Alan, “and the fireworks side which my son Adam takes care of as display director. The Proms In The Park will be our third for the BBC.”
The twin enterprises are celebrating 20 years of business this year, in highly competitive markets where the ultimate aim is to give people a good time. Whether the organisers have a similar good time after sweating for months over crowd control, evacuation procedures, major incident measures, Portaloo provision, catering and medical services for audiences of thousands is quite another matter.
“It’s a stressful business but you’ve just got to hold your nerve and get on with it,” says Morag Robertson, the tightly-knit team’s project manager. “Health and safety has changed a lot and we measure it by the ‘thud factor’ of the documents we have to comply with.
“It’s not just about making things safe but being able to demonstrate that you’re going to make it safe. A lot of people use the term ‘event management’ who are not competent to cope with situations such as evacuations – and in terms of creativity, we’re unrivalled.”
Alan Hillary honed his event management skills on the first Tall Ships visit to Newcastle in 1986 whilst working for Newcastle City Council. Five years previously, he had been seconded to London in a production management role responsible for security at the Prince Charles and Lady Diana wedding. “I was basically the link to the North-East, the Geordie in Hyde Park,” he says. “I didn’t know the first thing about fireworks but I started to get phone calls saying, ‘I hear you do fireworks displays’.
“I got sick of saying no. In 1987 I decided to leave the council and have go on my own. I got work with Paynes Fireworks putting on shows; not small ones either. Reaction Fireworks were British Fireworks Champions in 2004 – we won first time we entered – and in 2006 we came second, which was another proud moment. Adam worked on two occasions in Australia for one of the biggest fireworks companies in the world. He came back and grew that side of the business. In effect, he wins us the contracts.
“You can’t rehearse live; it’s all choreographed to music – highs, lows and power crescendos timed to the second. On the night, it’s either by computer programme – two signals go out to the firing system then the sound system can’t go out of synch – or we run off a cue sheet timed in milliseconds, firing off stopwatches.” Alan and his team take enormous pleasure from the knowledge that people attending events think everything happens by itself – site set-up, safety and aesthetics – never giving any thought to the planning. In effect, the less they realise, the better the job done. An event, they believe, is something special; a one-off that should be remembered for all the right reasons. They plan them in meticulous detail, manage them from the ground, dismantle them when they’re over and assess the result back in the office – normally with a smile of satisfaction.
Every member of the squad is a multi-skilled “people person” – four full-timers and an army of tried and trusted specialists such as sound engineers and lighting professionals who work to the same exacting standards. Confidence in and reliance on co-operation and co-ordination are seldom flagged up on end-of-year balance sheets yet are crucial elements in every event management project.
“We’ve got to work throughout the UK, there’s not enough in the North-East to sustain us,” says Alan. “We’re operating at the top end of the market, the quality end. We’ve been preferred supplier at Gleneagles Hotel for 10 years and you don’t retain that if you’re not delivering the goods. We’re also a preferred supplier to Seaham Hall, another five-star hotel, and our business retention rate is very high. Customers are very loyal because we meet their needs – and deliver.”
The companies relocated last year to Derwentside from offices on Team Valley, Gateshead – a move to The Greenhouse on Greencroft Industrial Park, Annfield Plain, with sound reasoning behind it. Alan says: “We had to look at ourselves and where we’re going and appointed a team of growth consultants from Glasgow who advised us that it was a crucial year for the business. We moved it more towards sales and marketing and business development.
“The Greenhouse is an eco-site and part of our thought process. We’re all getting more involved in the environment and we’re looking at sustainable events. There are lots of different ways to minimise the effects on the environment by thinking twice about absolutely everything, like recycling badges and the way we used reclaimed timber and glass for an awards ceremony.”
A recent organisational success was the Ratpack concert at the Riverside Stadium in Chester-le-Street earlier this summer, an event which Alan was confident enough in to take over the promotion – at potential financial risk.
“It was a deplorable time weather-wise,” he says. “But it said a lot for the British attitude – it was tipping down but people queued from six o’clock – we were so proud of that. Our flagship event was last year when we helped celebrate 25 years of the Humber Bridge. The fireworks firing position was right on top of one of the towers. The lift was so small we couldn’t get people and fireworks in at the same time, then a power surge left the engineer in complete darkness – it’s a scary place to be standing anyway.”
Regular Alan Hillary events – most of which come through recommendation – include the Gibside series of outdoor concerts and a huge variety of projects for BAE Systems, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the National Trust, the Countryside Agency, Nissan and several local authorities and city councils throughout the country.
He recalls the time when their dramatic and theatrical presentation of the legendary BAE Hawker Sea Fury fighter plane visibly moved several watching former pilots so much that the company asked for it to be repeated another 14 times for its employees.
The BBC Proms In The Park on Saturday at Middlesbrough’s impressive new Centre Square features the world-class Northern Sinfonia orchestra at the centrepiece of the evening’s music. A blend of classical and contemporary music will culminate in a big-screen link-up to the Royal Albert Hall in London for the famous Last Night Of The Proms celebrations. Simultaneous Proms In The Park events are taking place in London, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, making it one of the nation’s largest musical celebrations.
“There are probably 100 things that have to come together before you even start on the high quality sound that will be broadcast to 100 million people live,” says Alan. “In this business, one day we could be dressing a factory to look like a Renaissance palace and on another we’ll be making sure that 250,000 rose petals are in peak condition for a giant Asian wedding. And we’re positively train-spotterish about new technology.” He’ll also heave a sigh of relief as the final chorus of Land Of Hope And Glory drifts off into the Saturday night Middlesbrough air. Then that’s when the sky will light up.