I’m so sorry that this has taken a few days to post. There are a number of reasons – we were asked by the BBC to withhold any photos of rehearsals until after transmission, the whole weekend was a bit manic (as you will read in later posts) and it’s taken a little time for me to process the events and try to get them down in writing to share.
I was out of the door at 6.00am on Friday morning to make sure I could be at the Royal Albert Hall in plenty of time to complete the accreditation process and be collected by my contact from the BBC. I got the first idea that this was not going to be an ordinary weekend as Michael Palin was in front of me in the queue waiting for his security pass!
Once I’d collected my pass, I was joined by a few more ‘Descendants’ and we were met by Amber – one of the team of ‘runners’ assigned to our group. Amber escorted us to our dressing / holding area in the nearby Imperial College. We had chance to get a tea or coffee and an opportunity to chat with people as they arrived… “Who are you remembering?”
In total, there were to be 60 of us taking part but not everyone was able to attend rehearsals on Friday. Some had little notice of their involvement and were unable to change their plans while others had a significant distance to travel to attend. Once all of the morning attendees had arrived we were given a short briefing by Louise Bracken, the BBC Researcher that had first contacted me. Louise explained that we were to be divided into 4 groups and each assigned a staircase. We would enter the arena using the staircase, holding photographs of our relatives and form a ring around Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the Cellist that played at the Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
At 11.15am we headed across to the Albert Hall and the first (of many) trips through airport style security. We split into our groups and arrived at our designated staircase in time to catch the end of Michael Palin’s rehearsal. It was interesting to stand there for a while, taking in the sights and sounds of the rehearsal in progress. My first view of the backdrop on to which animations, photos and video was being projected was astonishing. It wasn’t too long before Sheku arrived in the centre of the arena and started to play. We very quickly recognised our cue (although we weren’t actually told what it would be) and started to process down the staircase and into the arena. A ring of light was projected onto the arena floor for us to follow. We halted and were instructed to turn to face the audience, holding our photographs for everyone to see. It had gone remarkably well for a first attempt. All we needed to do was to adjust our spacing so that we would be evenly distributed. We were thanked and asked to leave the arena and get some lunch.
There was some time to wait for our second rehearsal. More of our group were arriving so we took the opportunity to share our experiences of the morning with the new arrivals. It was also an opportunity to share more stories about our relatives. At about 4.30pm we were called back to the Albert Hall. It was amazing to see how much progress had been made in the segments running before ours. Overall, it seemed much more polished and with fewer interruptions from the production team. We waited for the cue and repeated our entry to the arena. The floor manager tweaked our spacing again and we exited the arena so the rehearsal could continue. Having seen ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the Festival before, I was rather expecting to have instruction on how to walk down the steps – perhaps the Garrison Sergeant Major thought we would be a lost cause so didn’t even try 😉
After the second rehearsal, my next stop was the Tower of London to visit the light display that had been staged to mark the centenary of the Armistice – ‘Beyond the Deepening Shadow‘. It was incredibly busy at the Tower (4-5 deep at most viewing points) but I did manage to get a good view. It was amazing to think that I had taken part in the poppy installation 4 years ago. Rather oddly, I have a ‘soft spot’ for the part of the moat that I worked in when planting the poppies and wanted to make sure to get photos of the latest installation in the same area. I headed away from the Tower to journey home for a few short hours of sleep!
The alarm was set even earlier on Saturday! I left home at 5.30am as I needed to ensure getting to the Albert Hall for 8.30am. There was plenty of excitement in the dressing area. The last of the participants had arrived so, for the first time, we would have a full compliment.
Call time for the Dress Rehearsal was 9.15am and after a short briefing by Louise, we made our way into the Albert Hall once more. While waiting to enter the arena, we were listening to Sir Bryn Terfel sing ‘Roses of Picardy‘ – he made it seem so effortless. Sheku started to play and we entered the arena on cue at the beginning of the third verse.
Other members of the cast were acting as audience and they applauded when we finished. For the first time I got an inkling of what the public performances might bring later in the day…
The spacing with all 60 of us needed more work. We were adjusted by the floor managers and given visual markers to aid our positioning in the performance. We were also told that our exit from the arena would be guided by the floor managers. This made it much easier since we simply had to remain still until we were told to move. This would happen when the audience’s attention had been diverted to the next video segment (VT)
We were dismissed from the arena but were fortunate to be able to stay and take our turn being ‘the audience’ for the remainder of the performance including Sir Tom Jones, The Muster, Sir Bryn Terfel with The Kingdom Choir, the Act of Remembrance and most significantly for me, the Silence and Release of Poppy Petals. This was incredibly emotional. I’ve seen it so many times on TV over the years but had never thought I would witness it in person (let alone be part of the festival). I also knew by this point that I wouldn’t be able to be present to see it during the public performances so this was my opportunity listen in wonder to the Buglers of the Royal Marines as they immaculately performed Last Post and Sunset. The dress rehearsal complete, I was able to quickly retrieve a poppy petal from the arena floor before heading back to the holding area at Imperial College.
We had a quick debrief and the timetable for the rest of the day was finalised. We then headed to lunch. I’m not sure that ‘sausages with gravy’ or ‘chicken curry’ were the best things to have on a menu for people worried about spilling something – not least because we were briefed that we would be heading straight to the afternoon performance after we had finished!
At 2.30pm we headed through security and back into the Albert Hall to our designated staircase. We arrived earlier than we had been used to during rehearsals and was able to hear the VT, the entrance of the bereaved families and Sheridan Smith singing ‘Are You Just Sleeping?’ Even without the visuals you could tell how poignant it was from the audience reaction.
Nerves started to kick in! Before we knew it, the strains of Hallelujah had begun and we received our cue from Huw Edwards to enter the arena… Staircase safely negotiated, I turned left on my path towards the orchestra and realised that the audience were all holding photos too. It was certainly a moment to take a deep breath! I was later to learn that the audience pictures were ‘stock’ photos that the BBC had printed up in the same style as the ones we were holding and placed on every seat, but as I stood there, I was scanning the photos I could see in case they had duplicated those of our relatives. Huw completed the segment and moved on to the Invictus Games VT and the floor managers gave us our cue to leave the arena. Unlike the dress rehearsal, there was no applause but respectful silence as the audience re-took their seats and we made our way back up the stairs.
We headed out of the Albert Hall and back to the holding area just as the heavens opened. It was only 50 yards between buildings, but we got soaked! Luckily, I was able to protect my photo inside my jacket although we did have duplicates in case of emergency!
While we were drying out, we sat and talked through our experiences in the arena. I think we were all a little disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to witness the Service of Remembrance at the end of the festival but recognised how difficult it would be to fit another 60 into an already packed arena. We wondered how many of us might still be around to witness the Centenary of the end of WWII in 27 year’s time?
I’ve made lots of new friends. Everyone was so passionate about their family history. We were able to exchange wonderful stories about our relatives. The event definitely created a bond between us and I certainly intend to meet up with some of them again if I get the chance. One of the participants that I spent a lot of time with, Simon Boyd, also lives in Cambridge. He has written a book about his Grandmother Lady Sybil Grey who transformed her family home at Howick Hall into a hospital in the First World War, before travelling out to Russia to help set up a British Red Cross hospital in Petrograd. He’s due to give a talk about her early next year so I’d like to try to hear it if I can.
As the time went on, other members of the production started to filter back to the holding area as their segments were completed. Once the Standard Bearers appeared, we knew that the performance had completed.
It seemed a long time to wait until our call time for the evening performance at 7.40pm. Thankfully the rain had eased off by the time we headed back to the Albert Hall and through security for the last time.
We made our way to staircase H and there was a noticeably different atmosphere which generated even more nerves as we waited! We listened to Sheriden singing again, the Service Dogs VT and Bryn and in no time at all, Sheku started to play and Huw announced our entry and we headed into the arena. As I entered from behind the curtain (which had hidden us while we waited), I was able to quickly glance up at the Royal Box directly opposite. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I saw that along with the rest of the audience, they were ALL standing for us and they appeared to be holding photos too! I made my way down the staircase (taking special care not to fall during the televised performance!), turned left into the arena, halted at my mark and turned to face the audience.
All too soon, Huw asked the audience to retake their seats but unlike the afternoon performance, applause started behind me and rippled right around. It made me grow about 2” in height and brought a tear to my eye. Amazingly and purely by chance, I recognised someone I knew from Help for Heroes in the audience as I walked back up the staircase and out of the arena for the last time.
We headed straight back to our dressing room and took the opportunity to say farewell to our new friends and leave the vicinity of the Albert Hall ahead of the performance finishing. Once the performance ends the area is completely locked down while the Royal Family leave so we were advised to take the opportunity to leave early without being further delayed.
Heading home I was able to collect my thoughts from the last couple of days. While I had already researched the service if Joseph (and his brothers) and had opportunity over the years to ask the occasional question of my Mum, Aunt and Uncles, we never manage to ask all the questions we wish we could have, and all too soon they are gone. I certainly feel much closer to my Granddad now than ever before although I never met him.
Did we help keep the memory of our relatives alive? Absolutely! From what I’ve read from Social Media posts, the feedback for the ‘Descendants Walk’ was amazing and it inspired so many viewers to share photos and details about their loved ones too.
I can only offer my congratulations to the Royal British Legion and the BBC for coming up with the idea. I will be forever thankful for being asked to take part. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and the memory will stay with me forever.
Thanks for looking,