London 2012: How new year fireworks dazzled

By Helen Bushby
BBC News

media captionFireworks, set to music, lit up the London skyline for 11 minutes

London's new year fireworks dazzled their way into 2012 in an "awesome" display that has been widely hailed by both the media and public as a stunning success.

Newspapers described the capital as "the best in the world at putting on a show to celebrate the new year", while noting the "distinctly Olympian theme... with fireworks launched in the shape and colours of the Olympic rings" and there was also praise on social networking site Twitter.

The pressure had been on for the display on the banks of the Thames to do the capital justice.

And Jim Donald, executive producer for the company which puts on the show, said he knew they had to produce their best work yet.

Having produced London's new year displays for the last eight years, he and his team wanted to push themselves to the limit by attempting to launch fireworks off Big Ben.

"In previous years there had always been a chance in hell of that," he told the BBC. "No-one's ever fired anything off Parliament, the last one to attempt that was Guy Fawkes.

"So we spoke to the clock tower people, they were up for it, but we needed to get Mr Speaker [the highest authority of the House of Commons] and the powers that be to say yes."

image captionThe colourful fireworks display signalled the start of the Olympic year in London

They got London Mayor Boris Johnson to write to the Speaker, John Bercow MP. Permission was finally granted in the second week of December for fireworks to explode out of Big Ben, as each of the 12 bongs chimed in the start of the new year.

The fireworks themselves, which cost £276,000 out of the £1.9m budget, were all set to a music soundtrack masterminded by BBC Radio 1 DJ Nihal.

In order to explode exactly in time with the music, the fireworks were controlled by Global Positioning System (GPS). This meant satellite technology was used to synchronise the fireworks with the music, lighting and all the different firing points - the barges, London Eye and of course Big Ben.

"When they're fired off with a GPS, it's the most accurate clock you can use," Mr Donald explained.

"So each department has a time code generator, and they're all the same, accurate to 100th of a second. It's then firing out a message to a computer which triggers the fireworks, the music desk and lighting."

The whole display had to epitomise the capital as a whole, not just the events it is hosting, and had to "celebrate the quirkiness of London", Mr Donald said.

"So we included some recordings of 'Mind the Gap' announcements from the tube trains. We then stopped the display, turned the lights out and paused," he explained.

"We probably broke every rule, but we thought, well why not?"

As for synchronising the fireworks with Big Ben's chimes, the organisers had to work closely with the "chaps from the clock tower".

Big Ben's accuracy is determined by a stack of old penny coins, and a coin is added or removed to speed the clock's mechanism by one-fifth of a second.

"It's still the Victorian clock it was, a load of cogs, which is brilliant," said Mr Donald. "So our display was a synchronisation of Victorian and the latest satellite technology."

The display takes months to organise, and the £1.9m goes into every aspect apart from policing. There are 1,800 staff and 1,500 stewards ensuring the safety of spectators, with barriers going up the moment a viewing area is filled to capacity.

As well as heralding all the upcoming festivities, the display was also seen as a "good test event for London and the police, transport police, transport and councils to work together on big events," Mr Donald added.

"For those working behind the scenes it's now a brilliant machine with all the grey suits that operate in London all working together."

He added that the New Year's Eve planning had been used for last year's royal wedding, for crowd control and creating live sites. It has certainly created a template for future new year displays as well, and a Greater London Authority spokesman was hopeful that there would be another display next year.

"Our ambition is to end the year as we started it," he said.

Lighting, rigging and sound are also part of the display budget, while the 2012 spectacle was put together by David Zolkwer, Jack Morton's creative director, who was part of the Athens Olympics. He worked with Mr Donald and the Greater London Authority to come up with a vision to fit the budget.

Firework designer Darryl Fleming chose the fireworks using his knowledge of how high and long they burn for.

Because the display area is restricted, with 250,000 spectators, he also had to consider the size of the shells for safety reasons. This ultimately resulted in a "hugely complex" 300-page cue list with 5,500 triggers for each of the fireworks.

He said their main aim was to create an image "for the camera" as the primary audience is on television, followed by the spectators. "Our TV viewing figures were 12.6m, a million more than last year," he said.

It is the second year that London's fireworks have been set to music, and like last year, Nihal, who also works on the BBC Asian Network, was asked to DJ before the event as well as produce the music behind the display.

image captionNew Year's Day dawns over the Olympic Stadium

"This year there was the added pressure that it was London 2012," he said. "I worked with the events company, the mayor's office and Olympic organisers Locog and had to satisfy their demands while retaining my own creativity."

He described putting the soundtrack together for the fireworks as "not a DJ mix as such - it's more a curation of vignettes, mini-DJ mixes really."

He worked intensely for four weeks with radio engineer Dan Mumford, the head of station sound at Radio 1, describing their relationship as that of an architect and builder.

Nihal painstakingly chose each of the many tracks they layered together, including the vocal hook from Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody "thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening - as a cheeky way to put smiles on faces, put your personality on it."

He also used London rapper Dizzee Rascal shouting "Oy!" and of course Adele, who "owned 2011", as well as part of Vangelis's Chariots Of Fire theme, which was mixed into Labrinth's hit Earthquake featuring Tinie Tempah.

London's multicultualism was also reflected with tracks including a Punjabi Bangra version of the House Of Pain's Jump Around.

Nihal added that he felt that despite it being "pretty full on", he was delighted with the results and said: "Once I finished it I couldn't listen to it, it was such a stressful experience. I just wanted to see it live for the first time while DJing opposite the London Eye."

Mr Donald was also extremely pleased with the overall result, adding that each year they learned from any mistakes.

"Overall the plan worked and everyone got there and home safely. I have the best team in the world," he said.

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