10 years of park pop at Blickling
RICHARD BATSON This weekend Blickling Hall will host a special party marking 10 years of the stately home hosting pop concerts. Richard Batson looks back at the stars, divas and rockers whose music has added another chapter to the park’s rich history.
A man in black sang about a lady in red to a 7,000-strong picnicking crowd by the normally tranquil lakeside.
It was August 8, 1998 and in the grounds of the house where Anne Boleyn is believed to have been born and allegedly still haunts today, history was being made.
For several years the same natural amphitheatre had swirled to the sounds of live summer music - but it was classical symphonies with a fireworks and laser light finale, played to a sedate audience, dressed in black ties, posh frocks, sipping champagne and dining al fresco with picnic tables laden with fine food and candelabras.
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The appearance of balladeer Chris de Burgh was hardly a quantum leap into anarchic rock. He had an orchestra too, and the crowd were chilling out in chairs rather than “pogo-ing in the mosh pit.” But it was a start.
Just like putting some “growl” into an electric guitar, slowly the gain and volume were cranked up notch by notch, through Roger Daltrey and a rock symphony orchestra, and the power ballads of Meatloaf to the head-nodding riffs of Status Quo and the gravel-voiced rawness of Bryan Adams.
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Sugar sweet pop from the likes of Donny Osmond and Westlife pandered to a different crowd, and there was the occasional flashback to the venue's classical roots with appearances from the Operababes and Il Divo,
But the sprinkling of stardust from legends such as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, and Cliff Richard over the years was the hallmark of Blickling becoming a 24-carat outdoor venue.
Promoter David Heartfield said there was an initial reluctance for many stately homes to move into pop at the time, but after De Burgh was a success at a pilot show at Hampton Court the concept was “rolled out” to other places, including Blickling.
“We reckoned that if you looked in the cars of the classical concert-goers you would find CDs by these kind of pop artists in their collection,” he added.
The pop market had grown, and the outdoor classical concerts dried up to only a handful nationwide. But despite other stately and forest venues now following the Blickling lead, he was still convinced the market was not saturated and that people would turn out if the acts were good enough.
“We have a wish list, but selection is down to whoever is touring at the time,” he added.
An estimated 250,000 have visited Blickling since the pop concerts began.
The National Trust hall's events manager, Shirley Donovan, said the concerts had raised the profile of the property and the trust - with some concertgoers making a day of it and visiting the house and gardens before the evening show, where people could also sign up as trust members.
The concerts, now attracting crowds of up to 10,000, also generated extra money for restoration work at the hall.
The gigs are an annual pilgrimage for many, who eagerly await the announcement of acts, and then patiently phone or queue for tickets as soon as they are released.
Sir Cliff's arrival in 2004 saw the biggest ever stampede, with people lining up outside the hall from the early hours of the morning to await the box office opening - and then queuing at the park nine hours before the gates opened to get the prime spaces close to the stage.
People plan big parties around the gigs, arriving in minibuses or limousines. Last year one local bride-to-be sported a veil as she enjoyed her hen night among the Westlife crowd.
While some continue to dine in style under gazebos or in corporate hospitality tents, others enjoy humbler picnics before herding down to the stageside to get a closer view of action - still the best way of getting the full atmosphere despite the arrival of big video screens in recent years.
At the risk of cursing this year's concerts, in what has been a woefully wet summer, the weather has generally been kind to the Blickling shows, with only the Operababes suffering a major downpour during a show.
When it rained in the lead up to Ronan Keating's 2005 concert, the luck of the Irish saw the skies stop crying, and the crowd emerge from under a multi- coloured canopy of brollies, with the Blarneyful Boyzone man saying he had “called Bono to sort it out”.
Repartee from the stars also saw Tom Jones ask his female-dominated, knicker-waving audience: “If this is Norfolk, are they the broads down there?” And Simply Red's Mick Hucknall told the women in the front row he would rather they were biting him than the lakeside midges giving him grief. In contrast, Van Morrison just sang and barely spoke.
Over the next two weekends Blickling will reverberate to sounds as diverse as Peter Gabriel's progressive rock, the ska of the Madness nutty boys, and the 1970s hits of the Osmond and “Rollers”. But the emphasis this year is on partying - with the special Saturday gig featuring 10 acts including Gloria Gaynor, Bananarama and the Weather Girls, all belting out a string of singalong smashes that could even get a headless Anne Boleyn dancing around her handbag.
t The10th anniversary concert this Saturday, July 14, is a sell-out, but tickets for the others are still available by phoning 0870 010 4900
THE BLICKLING YEARS
t 1998: Aug 8 - Chris de Burgh.
t 1999: July 10 - Roger Daltry and British Rock Symphony
t 2000: July 22 - Bryan Ferry
t 2001: July 27 - Shirley Bassey; July 28 - Chris de Burgh
t 2002: July 26 - Bryan Adams; July 27 - Michael Ball
t 2003: Aug 1 - Van Morrison; Aug 3 - Simply Red
t 2004: July 16 - Simple Minds; July 17 - Opera Babes; July 22 - Donny Osmond; July 23 - Cliff Richard; July 24 - James Taylor; July 25 - Tom Jones
t 2005: July 15 - Meatloaf; July 16 - Status Quo; July 17 - Will Young; July 23 - Jools Holland; July 24 - Ronan Keating
t 2006: July 14 - UB40; July 15 - Westlife; July 16 - Van Morrison; July 20 - Bryan Adams; July 21 - Simply Red; July 22 - Il Divo
t 2007: July 13 - Bryan Ferry; July 14 - 10th anniversary party with 10 star acts; July 15 - The Osmonds, David Essex Bay and Les Mckeown's Bay City Rollers; July 21 - Peter Gabriel; July 22 - Madness