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From producing Nick Cave's Idiot Prayer to hosting Wireless Connect, Ally Pally's Simon Fell tells IQ how he's kept the venue's doors open
By Lisa Henderson on 03 Nov 2020
While the majority of the UK’s stages have remained silent throughout the pandemic, the team at London’s Alexandra Palace (more commonly known as Ally Pally) have been on a pioneering streak to achieve the opposite.
Since opening in 1873, the Grade II listed venue has remained open even throughout the war and took only a brief period of respite when the pandemic took hold in March before launching back into activity.
During the pandemic, the venue has produced Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer live stream; hosted the Melody VR-produced Wireless Connect, and began delivering a modest programme of events for autumn/winter – all the while, acting as a charity base for the local community in Harringey.
Dubbed ‘The People’s Palace,’ director of operations at the venue Simon Fell tells IQ how that title has governed the way the venue is going about things now.
IQ: What’s it like behind the scenes at Ally Pally at the moment?
SF: For me, things are really busy as we sadly have a much smaller team now and still have events and film shoots etc happening whilst navigating our way through new restrictions, as well as trying to plan our way out of this in 2021.
Has it been difficult to work out the logistics?
None of it is rocket science. All the information is there in the government guidelines. Sadly, people have been bamboozled by so much change in legislation. We’ve made practical decisions on what we need to do; we scaled down the numbers, put in one-way systems, encouraged longer interval times, established three different exits and increased cleaning regimes. It’s about being pragmatic about what we can achieve safely.
What are the logistical advantages of a venue like Ally Pally when it comes to restrictions?
And as soon as the pandemic hit, we needed a bit of time to get our heads around it and catch our breath. But very soon, we realised that one thing that we’ve got here is a huge amount of space. And that was the one thing that came out of all [the advice] – in space you’re safe. We followed the guidelines and in the hall, where we can usually fit 3,000 people, we’ve got a maximum of 700 so we’ve really scaled down the numbers but it’s a nice atmosphere – it works and we’ve only had positive comments.
“It’s about being pragmatic about what we can achieve safely”
What was it like having Nick Cave performing without an audience in the vast expanse of the West Hall?
It was brilliant and eerie. There was a video that came out of it of Nick walking through the building, this empty palace, and the team that had remained here during that time, looking after the space, really related to this person walking through an empty building before he started singing his atmospheric, solemn songs. Nick’s show captured a moment for us as a venue.
Is it financially viable to do small shows in such a huge venue?
It’s not financially viable at all. At the moment, we’re doing really small events that you would normally do in a 300-400 capacity venue. And that doesn’t substantiate when you’ve got many 200 acres of land and a building of this age that you need to upkeep.
What’s the value in doing events during the pandemic, if not for financial gain?
The little things don’t pay as much as the big shows, like exhibitions, concerts and festivals, but it’s important that we are doing them. They’re contributing to the palace more so than they would do if we’d have shut the doors. Also, it keeps morale in our industry alive and gives everyone hope. Every time you hear of a venue opening or doing something, there’s camaraderie and respect in the industry – even if previously they were your competitors. There’s nothing but positivity now.
“Every time you hear of a venue opening or doing something, there’s camaraderie and respect in the industry”
Ally Pally is somewhat of a bastion in the UK’s music scene. Is there a greater significance in keeping its doors open?
We are the people’s palace. We’re a huge part of the community here. We’ve been around since 1873 and never really closed at any point. We were open during the war and we’ve always had a place in society through the bad times and the good times. The venue is almost like the Sacré-Coeur of North London, sitting on top of the hill with its big aerial antenna, and I think when people look up and know that we’re open, it gives people hope. I think it’s as good for the local community, as it is for London as a music hub.
How will you utilise the knowledge you’ve accumulated from doing these events?
If DCMS turned around tomorrow and said: “Right what we need to do to open venues safely?” We can give them a case study and tell them what’s safe and what’s not. With the learnings we’ve made, we wouldn’t have to start from scratch. So we’re poised to open as soon as we safely can and we wouldn’t be making it up as we as we go along. The entire industry is learning.
“We’re poised to open as soon as we safely can and we wouldn’t be making it up as we as we go along”
What’s your approach for programming next year?
I think if there’s one thing that we feel a bit more confident with, it’s doing things outdoors. Outdoor events seem to be something that we’ve got a bit of control over ourselves. For 90-95% of indoor events we rent the space out to promoters but we do a lot of the outside stuff in-house, so we’re able to take that risk and make decisions ourselves rather than relying on someone else.
We work in the financial year so we’re looking at April, which is what the government has put down as their line in the sand. There’s nervousness but I’m sure a lot of people will want to start doing things again. On paper, everything’s looking positive. Going towards the end of next year, we’ve never had so many inquiries and bookings for concerts and music-related things.
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