Our children’s regular appearances in professional musicals led directly to an invitation I received in 2010 to provide children for the cast of the 2011 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I was visited in my office one day by Brigadier David Allfrey in the autumn of 2010. I had no idea who he was or why he wanted to meet with me, and I had never attended a Tattoo performance in my 46 years living in Scotland. It did not take me more than a few seconds to work out that David was a larger than life and very persuasive character. He explained that he had recently taken over as the CEO of the Tattoo as well as its artistic director and had decided after his first season that the show needed to be refreshed and made more relevant to the people of Edinburgh. He told me that, having met with a variety of local people at various dinner-parties, he had on several occasions commented that he thought local children were what the Tattoo needed. He said that fellow-guests had also suggested that he should arrange to see me and as a result he was sufficiently intrigued to investigate further and so he decided to visit a school of which he had never heard!
‘So here I am! I don’t really like children or schools but I wonder if you could find about 120 girls and boys for me who would like to perform in the Tattoo’.
When I said that would not be a problem and that I would love our children to be involved he was quite clearly very surprised but that meeting turned out to be perhaps the most significant one I ever had in terms of the opportunities offered to our children. A partnership was formed which has strengthened from year to year and has to date continued for 10 years. During that first meeting David said he just wanted lots of extras by which he meant children of all ages who would add some colour, brighten up some acts and generally offer some local interest.
Once again I was to be hugely indebted to those of my colleagues who shared my enthusiasm for this new challenge, especially in the first years Alexis Graham from the Junior School Drama department who master-minded the creation of two very large groups of children to share the 25 performances, appearing at different times during each performance as Pictish warriors, Jacobean children and perfectly turned-out ESMS pupils. That sounded fine, albeit challenging, especially when we were confronted with our rather spartan changing rooms in which over 60 children each night had to go through 3 full costume changes and be made up with different warpaints before being cleaned up in time to change back into uniform for the finale. And if it rained? Well, the show always went on so costumes were soaked, make-up ran everywhere, and I mean everywhere, bits of apparel went missing …… and that was just the easy stuff. It was organised chaos with almost as many new challenges as performances and all the parent and teacher helpers were quite extraordinary. In the end the children’s involvement was officially considered a triumph but it was hard work, very hard work!
Not of course that you would know just how manic it was for the children and their helpers behind the scenes from this short official 2012 recording in which you can see the girls and boys (including a girl screaming a challenge to the posh seats and a boy bearing the crown of Scotland to a coronation) as Picts, Jacobites and schoolchildren – not a hair out of place and all woad painted on just as it should be. If only they knew!
Having watched the Tattoo for the three weeks of the run I formed a cunning plan to persuade David and his colleagues that our children could do more than perform as extras given all the challenges we had faced and overcome with boundless good humour. One night I took David out for a meal at Giuliano’s restaurant opposite the Playhouse where our ‘Joseph’ choir was enjoying pizzas between performances. It had become an established tradition for the children to sing some of their ‘Joseph’ music in the restaurant and I could sense that David was both surprised and delighted by their quality and confidence. I then took him across to the theatre to watch the children performing on stage and once again he was very impressed – he told me it was his first-ever musical! Afterwards we chatted about our schools and how much we had enjoyed being part of the Tattoo. I then asked him if we could provide the Tattoo choir in 2012 and immediately guessed he had been about to suggest the same thing. We agreed on the spot and have now provided a choir of between 40 and 50 children every year since then.
Many of David’s colleagues were initially very unsure whether a choir of young children, usually aged between 9 and 13, would cope with the demands of 25 late-night performances, including two each Saturday which finished at 12.30am. For that reason the children only sang three times during each of the 2012 shows and came off stage to rest between numbers. The Tattoo management had also suggested that it would be a good idea to rotate the choir during the performance run so that each child had regular nights off. However, I began to notice children were turning up on their nights off and soon we decided they would all sing every night, as they still do.
The choir’s involvement grew year by year as more and more military and international acts asked for the children to provide backing vocals. Please forgive the amateur (my!) recording of some of this and one or two other clips. The first one, in recognition of the Queen’s 90th birthday, is a parade of the Scottish State Coach to the music of Zadok the Priest – I think you will be as amazed as I was that the only singers performing the vocals are our 45 young children!
By 2019 they were singing 13 times each night and became and regularly featured in some of the spectacular numbers permed by massed musicians. Here they are joining in towards the end of a piece in 2018:
You may have noticed in the last clip that for several years too the Choir has been given their own performance area either in front of or beside the drawbridge. They are in fact the only performers out of a total of over 1,250 who never leave the stage and have to be ‘on parade’ in front of almost 9,000 spectators throughout each show. The next clip is taken by me of them singing extracts from a well-known song as the Trinidad and Tobago army band marches off after their performance – it will give you a good impression of what the children are doing although you will not of course hear the same amazing blended sound which the audience hears:
As you can imagine, the pupils love the Tattoo, the staff who support the show love it and so do all the parents who chaperone them each night. It remains a huge privilege for ESMS and the children to play a major and very respected role as the official choir of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
The choir is of course only as good as its last performance so the highest standards of musicality and behaviour are expected and in that context the choirs could never reach the required level of performance and self-discipline without the fantastic choral teaching and support they receive from the ESMS Music Department. The Director of Music at the time, Jason Orringe, supported by the Head of Junior School Music, James Skuse, set a very high standard in the early years and Sandy Chenery, who succeeded Jason, has continued with James to raise the bar higher every year.
You will not be surprised to learn that 250 shows spread over 10 years include far too many special moments to include here but I do have a few very personal memories to share:
- The most poignant moment in each year’s Tattoo occurs immediately before the Lone Piper plays a lament on the battlements after the Evening Hymn is sung. I am very proud that in recent years our ESMS choir has been given the responsibility of singing the hymn, accompanied by the Massed Bands, originally backing a soloist but latterly on their own. Tears flow every night as those who have fallen in war are remembered as the children’s voices soar into the night. Here are two examples, both again filmed from beside the children:
- Talking of soloists it was very special for all of us when a Primary 7 pupil, Archie Goodburn, was invited to sing Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’ every night, standing on a platform in the centre of the Esplanade and supported by the ESMS choir and the Massed Bands. In the video which follows you will see extracts from the children’s 2013 performance, this time filmed professionally and including Archie’s solo:
- At every performance a special guest is invited to take the Salute. It has been a privilege for our children to perform in front of the First Minister, Prime Ministers and other leaders from countries round the world (even singing the Trinidadian National Anthem for their Prime Minister!) and, most special of all, members of the Royal Family. Three years ago Prince Charles and Prince William attended together and two of our children were invited to join the Reception after the performance where they enjoyed animated conversations with each of them. I formed the impression that Prince William in particular was pleased to have a conversation with children as a break from his usual conversations with very senior members of the armed Forces and other dignitaries. The children presented him with two ESMS teddy bears for George and Charlotte – my main contribution was to ensure that the letters ESMS were prominently on display as the bears were handed over, having already prompted the many photographers that this was the photograph they really wanted! To be fair to the children they managed to manipulate the teddies successfully, obviously unknown to Prince William, and the handover was duly photographed for posterity
- Three days after Lynsey Sharp’s epic silver medal in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, we arranged for her to be a guest at the Tattoo. The children were very proud when she was applauded enthusiastically as she walked the length of the Esplanade prior to the show and was then photographed with them in front of the drawbridge
- Other highlights have included standing on the ramparts as the Red Arrows flew directly over our heads, the year when our choir was asked to sing an operatic aria in Italian by a Norwegian Marching Band and being word and pitch perfect in time for the next performance, developing friendships with performers from all over the world each year, the annual presentation ceremony in the City Chambers when our children are presented with a plaque on behalf of the City of Edinburgh and the Tattoo and thanked for their contribution, smaller groups being asked to sing at dinners before the shows for guests who have paid hundreds of pounds for a special experience, and so much more.
All these memories, however, pale into insignificance in comparison to the very special summer of 2018 when 20 girls from the The Edinburgh Girls High School in Malawi were flown to Edinburgh to perform with 20 Mary Erskine girls. You can read about this in the next ‘episode’!