A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

Friday 21 December 2012, 14:04

Simon Vivian Simon Vivian Radio Producer

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The Choir of King's College, Cambridge The Choir of King's College, Cambridge prepare for the service, photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Simon Vivian, is the person responsible for the international live broadcast on Christmas Eve of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. Here, he reflects on the role of the radio producer and explains how this world famous service makes it to air.

It’s a magical moment which, for so many decades now, has marked the beginning of the Christmas celebrations for millions around the world. As a small red light begins to flash, a lone chorister steps forward in the hushed and expectant candlelit Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge and begins singing the opening solo verse of Once in Royal David’s City. As it soars from the west end of the Chapel, high over the congregation’s heads, the innocence and beauty of the angelic unaccompanied voice takes us immediately away from the hustle and bustle of the world outside.

And in a state-of-the-art BBC digital sound truck parked outside, sits the radio producer, the sound balancer and a small team of audio engineers. They have the switch to operate that red light inside the Chapel which indicates when the service should begin.

For the past two years, it’s been my privilege to be the radio producer of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (not to be confused with Carols from King’s, the similar television sequence of Christmas carols and readings recorded a fortnight or so before). And I will be there again in Cambridge this Christmas Eve to ensure that those millions listening live, in so many different time zones – on BBC Radio 4, the BBC World Service, and distributed to many other radio stations around the world - can “hear again the message of the angels”.

When I arrive in Cambridge each year on December 23rd for the first sound-check with the Choir alone, my quartet of BBC Outside Broadcast colleagues will have already rigged the Chapel, laying long lengths of cable to and from the sound truck, lugging heavy equipment up the Chapel’s spiral staircase into the roof space, and slowly and carefully lowering 30 or so microphones through holes in the medieval fan vaulting.

During the rehearsals, I’m listening from the sound truck. As we work towards getting a good sound balance, we bear in mind that, once the space is full with congregation, the sound of the Chapel’s echo dries up considerably. Throughout it all, my intention as the radio producer is not only to reflect as closely as possible the beautifully crafted sounds to be heard inside the Chapel but to transmit the magical atmosphere of the live service to the listener, placing them in “the best seat in the house”!

Before the end of the rehearsal on Christmas Eve morning comes the all-important audition to find the chorister who will be asked to step forward and sing the solo first verse of Once in Royal David’s City at the very beginning of the service.

Stephen Cleobury, the Director of Music at King’s College, asks four or five choristers to audition.  Of course, he has a sense of who he may pick but, after the choristers have headed off to lunch, he is keen to hear from me as to how each of the choristers sounded over the speakers in the sound truck before making his decision. The name of the chosen chorister will be kept under wraps however - even from the chorister himself to prevent undue nerves – until seconds before the service begins.

As the 3 o’clock news draws to a close on BBC Radio 4, the Continuity Announcer in Broadcasting House begins reading the introduction to the service. As this proceeds, we begin to flash the red light – “Get ready”. Stephen Cleobury points to a single chorister – the chosen voice who will begin the Christmas celebrations of millions. Unheard in the Chapel, the Continuity Announcer is coming to an end and the red light goes off – “They’re about to come to us”. The chorister steps forward and clears his throat. And then comes the moment. The red light is switched on - and remains on. The world is listening. And a serene sound fills the space, floating through the Chapel and over the airwaves.

In the sound truck, we are subtly tweaking this fader and turning that dial, very aware of the great significance of the moment. For the next hour and a half we will be focused on the music and readings, and on the rehearsal notes we’ve scribbled down over the past day and a half, attempting to put into practice all that has been carefully rehearsed. But, with the listeners, we will also take the opportunity to marvel at the beauty and magic of this live annual service – cherished by so many millions and one of the jewels in the crown of radio broadcasting.

Simon Vivian is a radio producer in the BBC’s Religion & Ethics department.

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols can be heard live on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service on Christmas Eve at 3pm. A repeat of the service, including both organ voluntaries, can be heard on BBC Radio 3 on Christmas Day.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Christmas has just begun!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Having listened with my parents as a child I then listened on the crackly BBC World Service proceeding up the Persian Gulf on a 350,000 ton tanker in then temperatures of 120 degrees F, far away from the normal cold Christmas. Carols from King's brought me close to home, since when I have listened annually.

    This is a fantastic jewel in BBC's crown joining millions of people together as one.

    Happy Christmas to all


  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    As for so many people world wide this is the beginning of the real Christmas.
    I well remember in 1968 listening on the BBC World Service in the Sudan as I was a VSO celebrating Christmas in a far off land away from Family and friends. The sound of the choir from Cambridge brought home closer to us as we listened with the fading of short wave radio.
    This is indeed part of our heritage and what the BBC is all about
    best wishes to you all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Thanks BBC and this renarkable choir for making Christmas special. I'm spiritual not religious yet love the serice as it transcends all boundaries. It has been a part of my Christmas for more than 25 years and brings back fantastic memories especially of Christmas at home with my late parents often after I'd driven or flown home from London to Newcastle for the festivities.
    Happy Christmas one and all.
    Also loved the Act of Worship with Kings earlier today too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Please tell me I'm not the only person who gets a lump in her throat and tears in her eyes as the first pure notes of Once in Royal David's City ring out. And I'm an atheist!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Another fantastic job from the choir. It's a shame though that you are not broadcasting it live online in HD. It sounded amazing last year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    In my youth living in England this was the start of Christmas before Christmas Eve carolling. Now in the Midwest of the USA it is morning and a glorious way to start the celebration of the Holy Birth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Sitting in St Moritz and listening - what a joy - thank you Cambridge and the BBC

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Yes, this is where sanity returns and true christmas starts. As it has all my life. Another aethiest who finds much in the music . . . Thankyou you Kings and the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    This is the true beginning of Christmas for me!

    I have been listening to this inspiring programme for over 50 years, and I have to say that I think it gets better each year. Today's Programme was ABSOLUTELY MAGNIFICENT! Thank You King's, and Thank You, Auntie BEEB for a wonderful collection of beautiful singing, inspirational readings (especially the King James version of the beginning of St. John's Gospel) and the Complete J S Bach, "In Dulci Jubilo" Prelude.

    I remember one year when it was cut off by someone in a studio: ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN! It is a wonderful start to our Christmas celebrations. Thank you again, and a very Happy Christmas to all online and working hard to entertain and provide spiritual sustenance this Christmas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The broadcast was fabulous, but WHY is there no TV broadcast of the whole service, just the carols with some different texts in between? How hard can it be to record the whole thing and just replay it instead of editing it with different material? Is it because TV audiences would not have the attention span to listen to the readings - the TV programme is 15 minutes shorter. What is the point of creating this new programme and not letting viewers see the whole service? What's next for this treatment? Will you cut some of the bits of the New Year's Day Concert that you don't like or think that we might be bored by????

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I absolutely agree with VRC. More power to your elbow! We have the technology, so why do we not have the will?

    C'mon BEEB, you have been seriously remiss over the past many years (e.g. Savile, etc)

    Do make an effort to redeem yourselves,

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Yes also agree with vrc but also suspect that the average TV viewer could not cope with the whole service !!!!
    Somehow sitting in the peace and quiet of your own house listening to the service and imagining the scene is spiritually more uplifting and inspiring .
    Well done to all BBC staff who work hard to retain this piece of truly inspirational music and verse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Just got home from work here on the East Coast of the U.S. and am listening to the podcast. I'm not religious but listening to the service always brings a little peace to my life before the family Christmas visits. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Perhaps there's a concern, vrc, that all the paraphernalia of tv (cameras, lighting etc etc) would ruin the very special atmosphere of this live candlelit 95-year-old service. Hence the separate but equally magical television version which takes the opportunity to be a little less rigid in its choice of readings.


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