How Blenheim Palace’s Great Court gigs came to fruition

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Winston Churchill.

In terms of events at least, Blenheim Palace, Churchill”s birthplace, is a case in point.

The summer diary at Blenheim, “the most stunning World Heritage Site in the world,” according to chief executive John Hoy, is busy. It hosts the likes of the Grand Prix Ball, a triathlon, the Festival of Transport and much more, but since 2005 the Great Court, at the front of the Palace, has had to focus on the day job.

“We did shows there, which I promoted, in 2004, an amazing run of four nights, and 2005, which was much harder,” Hoy explains. “We took the decision to abandon promoting in-house as a result and we haven’t put anything into the Great Court since.”

The precious, uneven cobbles and stone columns at the site require painstaking attention in any production process, but it presents a truly unique opportunity at the same time, which finally come to fruition again this year.

Joined-up thinking

Ciro Romano’s Neapolitan Music partnered with Universal Live to develop and deliver the solution, introducing two nights of Nocturne Live to the Great Court at the end of June. A vibrant turn from Van Morrison and Gregory Porter came first and a sell-out set from celebrated Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, second.

“A friend of mine, who’s a Jazz FM DJ, said I should have a look at Blenheim Palace,” Romano tells Access. “I fell in love with the Great Court straight away and I thought it would be a perfect place to do a concert. John Hoy said yes and we did a deal.”

There was a lot of scepticism about whether 10,500 people would come to Oxfordshire on a Sunday evening, but they did and, Romano insists, next year will be four nights.

“Nocturne is the perfect formula,” Hoy says on site. “The Great Court is an incredible setting and we want this to be a 10 or 15-year relationship.”

Chain reaction

The production effort was the product of proven relationships. Firstly, Loudsound, which produces Love Supreme for Romano in Glynde Place, East Sussex, brought in its go-to infrastructure specialist, Star Events.

“One of John’s first questions was, ‘What are you going to do to protect the house?’” Loudsound project manager Mandy Johnson, says on the afternoon of the Einaudi show. “So I worked with [Star Events’ special projects director] Roger Barrett to put a ground protection plan together.

“Star does a lot of shows like this, we have a really good relationship and we knew we’d be working with them, pretty much from the start.”

The nature of the Great Court, which is a confined space for the numbers the promoters wanted to fit in, meant the footprint followed the pattern of Hoy’s shows 10-years earlier, albeit with a deeper stage and more seats. There were different production requirements and capacities for each of the shows too, which required a precise, staggered load-in of equipment and seating, the site open to the public throughout.

Star Events’ team, managed by Sarah Howlett, incorporated the stonework outside the Palace doors into its 20m VerTech stage substructure and devised a bespoke system to protect and level out the Great Court’s cobbles before putting in 10,675 QP flat floor seats.

“We’ve done seated shows before but never to this level and it’s the first time we’ve used Star seats,” Johnson continues. “It’s a good system, very easy to install, and they’re tip-up, which adds to the walkways and slashes ingress and egress times.”

“The project had been in our diary for some time and the bulk of the resources were already allocated,” Howlett says. “With several other events coming in at the same time we invested in some new stock to ensure the revival of Blenheim Palace as an event location got the best possible equipment.

“AutoCAD drawings of historic sites tend to have anomalies, so we were always prepared to tweak things on the ground,” Howlett adds. “We had to be mindful of working in such close proximity to the public and we overcame a number of other logistical challenges in terms of protecting features of the Palace grounds.”

The future

While the Neapolitan/Universal Live partnership came together mid-last year, it took time to get the financing in place for Nocturne Live, which meant booking didn’t start until late, hence the two dates, Van Morrison on Thursday and Einaudi, Sunday, split by the weekend.

“We got there though and it’s been a great success,” Romano says. “People stood up and moved to the front for Van Morrison’s show, which was very encouraging. Something upbeat would definitely work at the Great Court. Tickets sold so well this time, it’s given us great film, great pictures and great data for 2016 and I’m optimistic we’ll have four sell-out nights next summer. Blenheim Palace is such a special place, I love putting shows on there.”