With their unmistakeable red, white and blue smoke contrails you know when the Red Arrows appear over the horizon that it signifies a special event.
The RAF’s famous Aerobatics Team duly obliged on Monday afternoon, turning a menacing sky over the Forth into something altogether more colourful and exciting.
Timed to perfection, the Hawk jets stooped and banked out of the clouds and the onlookers below – visibly concerned about the possible onset of rain – momentarily downed umbrellas and ponchos and enjoyed the high-water mark of the official opening of the new Queensferry Crossing across the Forth.
Although the skies did eventually open, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was expertly performed by Her Majesty The Queen and Unique Events – tasked with the planning and execution of a multi-faced event – breathed a sigh of relief.
Sworn to secrecy, the Edinburgh events company had been meticulously planning the Royal event for several months (contracted by Transport Scotland) as the centrepiece event among a succession of ‘bridge celebrations’ taking place over the last two weeks. The coverage duly went worldwide and Al Thomson – who has put on countless high-profile public events, from Edinburgh’s Hogmanay to the opening of the Scottish Parliament, notched up another major event in a long and feted career in the industry.
Thomson, Director of Unique Events, says: “The only thing that didn’t go to plan was the weather and we had a fairly horrendous downpour afterwards. Coordinating the 3,500 people who were coming back and forth across the bridge is not without its challenges but fortunately it all went really, really smoothly, apart from the weather, which is the nature of outdoor events in Scotland.”
As for booking the Red Arrows, one might expect a special MOD telegram – or perhaps a direct patch into an equerry at Buckingham Palace itself. So I’m surprised to learn it’s as simple as picking up the phone to the RAF airbase concerned and asking to speak with the Squadron Leader.
“When we were putting together what the event would look like, the Red Arrows were top of the list and so then it’s obviously about contacting them and letting them know what the occasion is,” adds Thomson.
“The question was, ‘how would the Red Arrows like to come and be part of this celebration?’ Once you inform them that it’s for Royal attendance, they are obviously at your beck and call to come and do that. They want to make sure that any Royal event has as much profile and status as they can give it, and nothing does that more than the Red Arrows flypast.”
He added: “If you are looking for a more professional outfit, doing displays all over the country, as soon as you tell the Red Arrows there’s an opportunity to fly over all three bridges across the Forth, they were as excited as we were about coming to do it. Although the weather wasn’t the kindest they were certainly able to do a full flypast, which was the shot we were looking for because we had a helicopter camera picking that up to make sure we were getting all three.”
He said: “We were tasked with coordinating all of the broadcasts to make sure we had all the right permissions and exclusion zones for the Red Arrows, so it was just about joining all the dots together to make sure everyone was aware of the plans and making sure the timings for the ceremony, and the procession across the bridge, as well as the flypast, were all timed to perfection.”
Although the world’s media understandably focused on the aerial display – and pictures of the Queen, Prince Philip and the First Minister – there were many more elements that went into producing the event, including organising a waterborne flotilla, producing the event via Facebook Live (to an audience of 30,000 so far) organising a Royal Marine band, West Lothian Schools Pipe Band, a Royal Company of Archers, a music concert featuring KT Tunstall and King Creosote, and an event for 10,000 schoolchildren to walk the bridge the following day. And that was on top of a series of other events the company had been working on in the past 10 days, including the Mary Queen of Scots festival in Kinross last weekend and a torchlight procession in Stirling tomorrow night to mark the beginning of the Bloody Scotland crimewriters festival.
“We have been beyond our eyeballs,” says Thomson, who is currently scoping out another forthcoming project, Illuminight, which will transform Dean Castle & Country Park in Kilmarnock into a fire and light spectacular from October 25 to November 19 – an event scheduled to celebrate the renovation and relaunch of the historic building and grounds. “We’ve had an amazingly busy 10 days,” adds Thomson.
It has been an up and down year for Unique, a characterisation Thomson is happy to accept. The company, which conceived the Hogmanay street party and ran it to international acclaim for 24 years, fell victim to the cruel winds of commerce earlier this year when the contract was awarded to rival firm Underbelly. They also suffered the cancellation of the popular nighttime sound and light show at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh after three years of staging the event – despite attracting 42,000 visitors for the month-long event last autumn – in favour of a festive light show put on by a London-based promoter.
Despite the upheaval, I sense from Thomson that he is sanguine about the company’s prospects – Hogmanay was “very, very consuming”, he says, and a parting of the ways has given him pause for thought as to what kind of events Unique might get involved with in the future; I detect perhaps a lingering hint of regret in his voice, and perhaps some trepidation, but he also sounds genuinely upbeat about a number of projects in the pipeline and being free to consider how changing events and festivals audiences might lead to that next creative spark.
“Obviously, losing a 24 year reign of Hogmanay was a real blow to Unique Events but as we would have hoped we have come back stronger with some amazing new projects, some great new annual projects that we’ve been able to deliver; the Queensferry Crossing was the first major event and that went amazingly well,” he says.
He added: “We are about to produce our new illumination event in Kilmarnock – Dean Castle & Country Park – called Illuminight, which starts at the end of October, and we’ve also just announced a new winter project with the charity Social Bite, which is called Sleep in the Park. This is another new interesting event for us to take on and it will hopefully be the largest sleepout that has ever been held; we’ve got some great acts lined up to help raise £4m to eradicate homelessness in Scotland. The variety of new things that we are taking on and looking ahead to projects over the next 12 months, things are looking fantastic for Unique Events.”
And as for creating something that will capture the so-called ‘millennial’ events and festival goers – who are perhaps tiring of some of the outdoor music set pieces which appear to be dwindling every month – Thomson hints that there may be some opportunities for Unique as it moves to the next chapter in its story.
He adds: “Actually, it’s given us the opportunity to go and look at a lot of new projects and to go and work in new areas of the country, and there’s some exciting stuff that we’re looking at for next year as well. The winter events, illuminations, fire installations are all very popular at the moment; the summer festivals are changing, they’re evolving; even many of the big festivals are falling by the wayside as people look for different experiences. The festivals we all grew up with and loved, well, we’re all now grown up and have families and want to be able to do things with them. So we’re definitely looking at some exciting new projects which caters for that market – that’s where I think the direction of events and festivals is going over the next 10 years.”
And having put on the 50th anniversary of the Forth Road Bridge fireworks show in 2014, the Rail Bridge is the only remaining structure across the firth that Thomson can’t yet count as an event in his portfolio. It would be fitting if the famously girdered bridge was to be the focus of another celebration one day soon.
“We’ve done two of the three bridges and we’ve got our sights on the delivery of something for the third bridge – I hope we can do that in the future and have the whole set,” he says.
Red Arrows picture courtesy of Chris Brand @TinSwinger