The Advent of Christmas ...

Words and pictures of the final days of 'BBC Week' at Saint Faith's.

(Follow this link for earlier bulletins and background to the BBC story)

Thursday, December 2nd saw the pace hotting up, with the church occupied by assorted riggers, lighting technicians, security people, flower arrangers, tree erectors, tea makers, sweepers-up, your website manager plus camera, and general dogsbodies for a good twelve hours. Perched aloft on scaffolding towers, the lighting men rigged up rows of powerful lights to pick out features of the church and participants in the services. Scaling various sets of steps and ladders, the flower team made and displayed various flower arrangements and pillar garlands, as well as the all-important advent candle display on the font.

Outside, two unwieldy Christmas trees (yes, we know it's still Advent, but Christmas comes early for the British Broadcasting Corporation) were cut down to size, lugged in and put up. One went up quite easily, the other went up, tottered, came down and went up again, finally prevented from crashing down on the congregation by sandbags and rope lashings. By the evening, rigging and decorating was beginning to give way to rehearsing, as members of the production team arrived and the cameras were in position. We walked through the service to set up camera angles and mark positions, and two small candle-lighters were introduced to the font and to their candles in readiness for their role at Saturday's recording.


Friday December 3rd saw things move up another gear. Much of the day was spent by the BBC folk in continuing the wiring and lighting rigging processes (with an awesome labyrinth of cables), and the St Faith's folk in setting up the crib under the nave altar (complete with a premature infant Jesus and three even more premature wise men, whose Advent advent was part of the BBC package!), stringing up baubles, touching up flower arrangements, making tea and coffee and sweeping up after people.

The evening session saw what the production team call a 'stagger thru' for part of the first service - walking through the moves, practisisng the candle lighting and readings and of course, for the church choir and the core choir, going through the music. Liverpool's Love and Joy Gospel Choir, backed by formidable drumming, arrived and were installed in the Lady Chapel, where they performed various enthusiastic and loud numbers at various points. We got as far as the Gospel procession rehearsal - looking very strange in 'civvies' before being let home until tomorrow. The weekend was certain to be even more hectic...

Saturday December 4th  was a twelve hour day for the BBC and not a few church people. The choirs, including the Love and Joy Gospel choir and the action and speech participants were on duty early, joined mid-morning by the general congregation. After practising various items separately, it was time for a filmed dress rehearsal, some sequences of which, we were told, might be used as part of the final version. So it was important from then on to look up, look bright, sing well and, when others were performing with words and music, to watch them and listen to them with rapt attention!

The opening procession, the various parts of the liturgy, the choirs' musical numbers, (ranging from the 'pp' to the very 'ff') the responses and the hymns were all gone through, sometimes two or three times, until we were released for a break - lunchboxes and hot drinks in the church hall. Then we were back in for the actual recording. It all went smoothly, although with inevitable breaks and pauses, and some retakes at the end. Despite the presence of cameras, microphones and production staff scurrying hither and thither, the Sung Eucharist managed to feel something like a real service. We listened to Bishop James' sermon, all who wished to took communion, and the atmosphere succeeded in being more prayerful and reverent than we might have predicted. After a while, you got used to the presence of cameras: not just the  less ontrusive ones in the side aisles, and the big sit-on one which moved silently up and down the centre aisle, but the amazing long jointed rig, based in the Chapel of the Cross, which nosed up, across, over and down from a great height, looking, when it emerged behind one of the Christmas trees, for all the world like the vegetarian brontosaurus from 'Jurassic Park'!

Finally it was all in the can, and most people went home. The church choir stayed on, joined later by the core choir once more, to get to grips with the sequences for tomorrow's recording. But that's another story ...

Sunday December 5thwas more of the same. The choirs were rehearsed from 8.25, with the congregation joining at 10.30, and then the process experienced on the previous day was repeated, with the final recording beginning after lunch. The second service is a sequence of readings, congregational carols and choir items. The extra ingredients for Advent IV were Rthe presence of Rose Setten, BBC Radio 2 Choirgirl of the year, singing solos, and local Brookside actress Sue Jenkins providing two readings. The Bishop of Liverpool preached again, Fr Neil welcomed, prayed and presided, and various parishioners young and old from our two churches lit candles, read and led prayers.

This service was more static, with no big gospel choir to manoeuvre and no eucharistic liturgical movements to incorporate. But there seemed to be even more pauses, retakes, readjustments and mysterious silences, and the congregation, veterans though we were by now, were kept informed and entertained by the gentle and good-humoured encouragement of congregational conductor David Lawrence, attired in a splendid waistcoat like a refugee from 'Four Weddings...'

At last, at about 3.45 pm, and to resounding applause, we were told that it was all finished and we could go home, Not, however, before the heartfelt thanks of the BBC were offered, and, in a wave of euphoria and emotion, everyone applauded and appreciated the efforts of everyone else. Packing up began immediately, and was completed on Monday, with scaffolding coming down, vast quantities of gear dismantled, sweeping, tidying and polishing done, furnishings restored to their rightful places, and St Faith's restored to its Advent mode. Only two premature Christmas trees remained as a bonus as the season of school carol services got under way and we waited, after the false dawn of the BBC's Christmas-in-Advent, for the real thing to come in the fullness of time. And, of course, the next two Sundays, as we celebrate the Third and Fourth Sundays in Advent, the BBC will be broadcasting us to the watching world. Enjoy!

So was it all worth it? The buld-up lasted months, the preparations were far more demanding and complex than we could have imagined, the disruption far greater. There were tensions and conflicts, and some difficult compromises between what we would have liked to show the viewers and what others decreed should be shown. But the week, and especially the weekend, was an unforgettable and exciting experience. The professionalism of the BBC, with their amazingly high production values, was matched by the dedication and commitment of everyone in our churches, and, after all the weariness and grumbling is over, the opportunity to showcase our church and its distinctive and colourful worship and traditions, was something this writer, at least, is really glad to have been part of. We may complain that we live in a post-Christian age, where the church is marginalised and our voice and witness ignored. But the investment by our national broadcasting network in putting us on prime-time television for two weeks just before Christmas must surely persuade us otherwise.


All words and pictures by Chris Price.

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