The director and co-creator of Later... gives a rare insight into the show from the moment it was created to its 25th anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall
Later's way of presenting and filming all started in 1991 as an acorn of an idea when I was working on BBC TWO's groundbreaking Late Show, a nightly arts magazine programme.
When The Late Show moved from Lime Grove to Television Centre, I organised a demonstration shoot in the round, both to get used to the new studio and to help single camera directors gain confidence in using a multi-camera space. The layout had a couple of chat areas, a band, and an art installation, all four corners utilised to maximum affect - with cameras filming in the middle of the performance areas.
Although this was complex to film, particularly in working out where to 'hide' the cameras as they moved around, I realised that it was something that hadn't been attempted before, moving from one item to another with a central circle of cameras.
My first experience of directing music was on The Late Show and I was enthralled by it. What if this concept could be used with just music performances, completely in the round, 360 degrees, a gladiatorial ring, everyone facing each other, cameras in the middle, with the audience being the viewers at home?
Mark Cooper was an Assistant Producer who booked the music back then, we sat opposite each other and so I shared my idea, it hadn't been long since the demise of the Whistle Test, as it was latterly known and it was difficult to convince the BBC to invest in another music show.
With much perseverance (well nagging!) a solution was found. Why don't we make a series off the back of The Late Show? A plan was formed...
Every Thursday we filmed Late Review, a chat show format, taking up just one corner of studio 7 at Television Centre which aired live on BBC2 at 11.15 pm. The studio, the crew, lighting, sound - the whole enchilada - was booked and paid for by The Late Show. As we didn't use the studio until late in the day, we saw the opportunity to "steal" the time and crew to make Later... with Jools Holland, on a shoestring budget.
Myself and Amelia Price, my close colleague and Script Supervisor at the time, spent many hours and weekends prior to the first show working on rehearsal schedules, and just how to make such a complex show run smoothly. We needed time for getting the set in, followed by each band's gear, and sound desks. The load-in needed huge lorries arriving and unloading in strict order, followed by soundchecks, lighting and camera rehearsals, all in a day. I recall long days and weekends, structuring the time, scripting the tracks and ordering takeaways, eating pizza late into the night!
Little did I know what a challenge it would be. The concept meant that the show had to run as one complete take, in order that Jools could link from one band to another. Of course we could stop but it requires much patience and knitting of links to preserve the seamless live feel. The choreography was tricky, for both myself to conceive the shots and for the camera team not to crash into each other, but create a smooth transition from one area to another.
The first show we recorded (although transmitted as 2nd in the series) featured kd Lang, Dwight Yoakam, The Rockingbirds and Loudon Wainwright. kd Lang didn't come to the camera rehearsal, and her backing singer stood in for her; she was extremely good, but it wasn't until kd performed that night that I discovered what extraordinary charisma, and vocal range kd has. We were off and running!
We were finding our feet on the first few programmes. Fortunately they were transmitted with time to edit and tidy up, but we soon got to the stage of having to shoot and TX in the same day. The day's episode of Later... had to be in the can by 22.30pm, before a mad dash to turnaround the studio to film Late Review which went live on BBC2 at 23.15pm. Later... followed off the back around midnight, we all crowded into the Green Room proudly watching it back. A heady mix of accomplishment and astonishment that we had made it.
I fondly remember a tired and emotional, John Martyn in the Green Room watching his episode go out, performing two tracks, my favourite being 'Sweet Little Mystery', he gave the classic debutant look, ‘Did I really do that? Thank god that’s over!!’
Looking back on those early shows, the studio was small, with a smattering of audience, not much set to speak of, and less bands/performances than we have today, but there is the constant pull of everyone performing to each other, and the viewer at home getting an intimate view of each act in the circle with Jools at its heart as our ringmaster.
So, here we are, in what feels like a blink of an eye, 25 years later. The show has moved from BBC Television Centre to Maidstone Studios, it has grown in the amount of performances each week, from the original four bands, we now have between six or seven, (more if Mark had his way, if only there were more hours in the day!) The studio is bigger, the set and lighting glossier and the audience around the edges has gone from a smattering to a couple of hundred. But we are true to our original premise of filming in the round which creates an electric atmosphere on the floor, with the artists being each other's audience, be they debuts or superstars, they are all stripped bare, nowhere to hide, performing live, whilst the cameras weave from one to another in what can only be described as a well rehearsed ballet.
It was always a crazy whirlwind to get everything ready when we had one show to make, but in 2008 we introduced the live show, so now Tuesdays involves both an hour-long programme, recorded first, followed by going live on air at 10.00pm on BBCTWO for half an hour. How we manage to do the camera rehearsals for all this in an afternoon, and evening I will never know!
I have loved this journey, every moment (almost), so many great highs, too many to mention, but here's a few. Meeting my childhood hero David Bowie, Radiohead's 'No Surprises', The entrancing, sexy Leonard Cohen, performing 'Dance Me To The End Of Love', when I would have happily joined his backing singers! Muse, Foo Fighters, Al Green and Coldplay's first appearance, a very young Adele bravely singing alone in the centre of the studio, U2 finally joining us in Maidstone and nervously approaching Bono and asking if could we film 'Every Breaking Wave' on one camera?
We did and he loved it.
Later...continues to be a challenge and it still feels like a minor... no, a major miracle each time we reach Tuesdays at 22.30 as Later... Live finishes. As Director, it's a wonderfully creative job, translating each performer's music into pictures, trying to adapt to the mood and capturing it. But this can only be achieved with an amazingly dedicated, talented team; I am the 'conductor' whilst they are the 'orchestra'.
The Later... studio team are a tight-knit bunch, like a family. The importance of having a superb camera crew is obvious, I found that in Gerry Tivers, Camera Supervisor for many years before he retired, handing the baton to the wonderful Eric Metcalfe, who together with his brilliant team make beautiful pictures.
Mike Felton, Sound Supervisor (never having missed a show) mixing every band live, stretching the sound desk to breaking point.
The late James Campbell, Lighting Director, whose extraordinary talent is there for all to see in the early shows. Followed now by the creativity of Chris Rigby and Oli Richards.
Antonia Castle, Stage Manager extraordinaire, organising just about everything and everyone with great care.
Sam Ribeck, Floor Manager, gently, kindly and efficiently running the studio floor.
Lisa Seabrook and Lou Johnson Script Supervisors holding the fort in the gallery, keeping me on track.
The great support and calming influence of Producer, Alison Howe.
To Mark Cooper, for providing 25 years of great music to direct.
To celebrate this, our 25th Anniversary Show at The Royal Albert Hall, we are following the concept of the circle - as much like the studio as possible. A challenge, given that it's likely we will have limited space between the bands and the lack of a smooth, polished, studio floor for cameras to track on.
For the first time the television show will reveal the inner circle of cameras/floor manager/stage manager/sound crew in the wide shots to show the bigger picture, the inner workings. A director's instinct is to make a 'clean' show, whereby the cameras and behind the scenes are never shown. But to include the beauty of The Royal Albert Hall in the wide shots, will also reveal the Later... team doing what they do best.
And fingers crossed it runs in one take!
Janet Fraser Crook
Director and Co-Creator