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View from the Stage - by Tim Sidwell

Did you ever dream of being on stage? On stage with a few thousand people cheering, singing and generally adulating in your general direction? Sharing this stage, in front of all these people, with Marillion?

Did you ever dream?

I have been there. No, honestly, I have. Some of you were waving at me, trying to get my attention. I've got pictures of you.

Rewind eighteen years and yours truly is standing half an auditorium away from the stage at the Birmingham Odeon at my first ever gig waiting for the band to come on stage. What happened next is the rite of passage that every live music fan experiences: the hum of the speakers, the dimming of the lights, the roar of the crowd, the surge of expectation and, like a steam train coming at you, the impact of the first notes as the band soars into its element.

This was the Misplaced Childhood tour, and at that point in January 1986 I was about as near to getting onto a stage with any band, let alone the band that had taken pride of place in my humble teenage record collection for the previous eighteen months or so, as I was to getting my physics homework in on time. Suffice to say, highly unlikely.

As the show was such a visual feast, as well as being musically mind-blowing, I came away from the gig with ideas in my head and immediately became a frustrated concert filmmaker. I'd listen to my music on the headphones with my eyes closed, images flowing, the band coming to life, as I'd unconsciously act out the part of lead singer. Oh yes, I've done stuff not only for Marillion, but, in my prime, I was producing stuff for U2, Simple Minds and Iron Maiden as well. 'Hallowed be thy Name' was a particular highlight.

Ahem. Back to the real world and fast-forward the tape eighteen years.

This time I'm on the stage. Well, perched on the end of it at least, with a camera pointing out at the waiting crowd. What happens next is the rite of passage that every camera operator filming the audience experiences… the hum of the two story speaker stack right next to your left ear drum (are my ear plugs in tight enough?), the dimming of the lights (oh my god, where are my camera controls?), the roar of the crowd (is that for me?), the surge of expectation (will I get the right shots?) and, like screaming down the biggest drop on a roller coaster, the ride of your life as the band performs an amazing set which, by the end of it, you just can't remember because you're more intent on getting a perfect shot of that gorgeous fan in the fifth row.

This was the Marbles tour, the Saturday night of the July weekend last year when THE boom boom BOYS came to town with a million cameras, cranes, tracks, dutch heads and stockings. Yep, you read that right. And the frustrated filmmaker finally got to shoot a big name band in concert. Except I was filming the audience rather than the band.

I'd done a little bit of filming of Marillion back in the Spring when h, Steve and Pete came to Birmingham to do a short acoustic set and signing session at HMV. I'd got a free day planned in between producing corporate films which coincided with the date they were due in town, round the corner from the Birmingham Odeon as fate would have it. The frustrated concert filmmaker, seeing an opportunity, offered his services.

THE boom boom BOYS were due from South Africa the day after the in-store appearance to start filming documentary footage on the European leg of the Marbles tour and, partly due to their absence and partly due to Lucy 'I can't hold a camera straight to save my life' Jordache's lack of filming skills my offer was readily accepted, the filming went well, the tapes duly dispatched to Paul and Jayce for future use and the request to help out in London received.

Tipping up at the Astoria with my usual cameraman Chris, who'd come along to work as a grip on the shoot (aka the poor guy who has to push the camera and operator back and forth along the tracks at the foot of the stage), we were immediately confronted with Paul, Jayce and the unloading of the equipment van which had just pulled up.

Now, many of you feel that the Astoria ain't a great venue. I'm here to tell you that when you have a load of cameras to set up, heavy equipment to lug up and down the narrow staircases in sweltering heat, trying not to breathe in the noxious fumes of what smelt like a burst sewage pipe in the vicinity of the toilets, it's even worse than you could ever imagine.

To make matters even more interesting, especially for Paul, the promoter of the gay club night which was due to take place in the same venue immediately after the Marillion gig, started breathing down our necks, convinced in his opinion that we would never be able to break down all the equipment in the 20 minutes or so we would have before all his punters came through the doors.

At this point, perhaps I'd better clear up the matter of dutch heads and stockings. A dutch head is a piece of equipment fixed to a tripod that allows you to smoothly tilt the camera at interesting angles. And if you stretch a stocking over a certain part of a camera's lens you get a really cool effect. You mean you thought we were wearing them? Not while we're working.

Cameras set up, a real highlight of the shoot for me was the sound check. I've managed a band and been to a load of gigs and experienced the frustration of my guys as they've struggled to communicate to an indifferent sound tech how their mix should sound. To hear the Marillos go through a small selection of tracks and to hear the mix come effortlessly together renewed my faith in humanity. Well, at least those representatives of our species who sit behind huge desks and twiddle dials.

It also served to whet everyone's appetites for the night ahead. I don't know about you but I think Marbles is the best thing these guys have done. Ever. I also think that they are performing live better than they ever have done before. To be part of producing something that would document this part of the band's career... well, I can't begin to describe the anticipation I was feeling.

But, before the gig of your life, you need pizza. Pre-shoot meeting was held in the Pizza Express round the corner.

What you see on the final DVD is no accident. Paul and Jayce have been producing video for Marillion for the last 5 years and have put their heart and soul into it. Something like this takes mundo preparation and highly honed levels of technical expertise, communication and imagination. One by one Paul and Jayce took us through what they wanted to see in terms of framing and composition.

For me the main point of order was not to concentrate on any particularly picturesque elements of the audience (so the girl in row 5 would only get a fleeting chance at fame then), and also to find different reactions: people singing, people lost in the music, people dancing and, in the best way I could, capture the intensity of the Marillion audience.

But I was but one cog in the machine... fixed camera operators were briefed, the jimmy-jib camera crane ops were briefed, the dolly camera operator and grip were briefed and we all departed with pizza full bellies and instructions ringing in our ears.

Now, this is where it starts getting blurry. It was dead cool to walk down past the queuing crowd with our shoot t-shirts on and go straight into the still-closed venue. It was good to calm the anticipation by double-checking my cameras, that they had power and tapes in the attached VTRs. And that they were actually sending a picture to the attached VTRs. It was useful to practice some camera moves whilst Kid Galahad did their shortened support slot. And it was all systems go when Paul walked round to set the stage cameras up for the shots of Ian and Mark and to tell us all that we had 5 minutes before show time.

If you want a review of the gig, you've come to the wrong place. I wouldn't have been totally sure that they'd even played anything from Marbles that night if you asked. A funny thing happens when you concentrate on other people concentrating on something... they become the interesting part of the exercise rather than, on this particular shoot, that band that you've loved for the best part of your life.

So, for me, the gig passed in about 5 minutes. So intent and interested was I on watching you lot watching Marillion that I hardly took in anything the band did. Save for a few glances to my right whilst Rothers was immersed in another of his amazing solos, my focus was on you, yes you, rapt in the music, singing your heart out, cheering and applauding the theatre in front of you. Wow. So that's what I look like!

The Marillion audience has evolved over the years. I've been in crowds at Marillo gigs where I've bounced beyond belief and come out the other end bashed, bruised and a bit sweaty - the Season's End Xmas gig at the then Town & Country Club is a good case in point. We are now, I think, more considered animals, choosing to stand and drink in the music, appreciating the spectacle. Either that or we've all got old, fat and unfit. Believe me, it's a good tack to take... I've recently nearly needed resuscitation after spending the night in the mosh pit both at a Wonder Stuff and a Ned's Atomic Dustbin gig. Terminally groovy? Well, at least until you're 30.

So, you are all forgiven for not giving me too much dancing to film. I understand.

But there I was, bathing in the reflective glory of a few thousand fans screaming and cheering in my general direction and I was left thinking... if you get this every night on tour, how good would that make you feel?

From the stage you get it. You get the reason why our boys are creatively going from strength to strength. You get why Marillion fans the world over feel part of one big family. You get why so many more people are looking in on our little world and wondering what they're missing out on.

From looking through a viewfinder at that crowd on that night from that stage I could see a shared delight, a musical community coming together to celebrate a band that means so much to those in the know.

Snap. Gay club. 20 minutes. Argghh!

The crowd filed out with gentle announcements over the PA urging them to vacate the premises immediately. Ordered, yet frantic, breaking down of equipment ensued; both on stage where the whole set had to be loaded back into the trucks even though the band were playing a second gig the next day, and front of house where a film crew were madly gathering up cable, putting cameras in bags, dismantling tracks and cranes and stowing everything away in a pokey little room backstage, three narrow staircases up from the stage.

You should have seen the look on the promoter's face when it was all done. Five minutes ahead of schedule. Oh ye of little faith.

Returning the next day to help set everything up again I was eventually forced to leave the crew for my own filming assignment at Stafford Castle, shooting a top band called Cassava with slightly less than a million cameras, tracks, cranes, dutch heads or stockings. I left Chris though, for a second night of pushing a camera and operator up and down in front of the stage.

One night on stage with Marillion, the frustrated filmmaker somehow comes of age and realises an ambition. Did you ever dream..?

First posted on the Web UK website in 2005.



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