A long shot … will our Bloomsbury Festival live event survive the 'Covid-19 circuit-break'?

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A short history of the ups and downs of organising a live event for the Bloomsbury Festival during the coronavirus


On 17 March 2020, just a few days before our world turned upside down due to the coronavirus, I received an email from Diana at the Friends of St George’s Gardens (where Nicholson is buried):

“This is just a long shot. But how would you like to do a walk round St George’s Gardens and talk about William Nicholson in late October, as part of the Bloomsbury Festival? We did this in 2018 for Zachary Macaulay with two actors in costume – Zachary and his wife. … “

A few days later on 23 March, the nationwide lockdown was announced by the government.  The prospect of 12 weeks at home provided the perfect opportunity to write up a script, and with everything looking so bleak, this was something exciting to look forward to.

At that time, although all summer events were being cancelled, we all thought that life would be back to normal after a few months and October was far enough ahead to be safe. How incredibly naïve!

By the end of April, we’d all embraced the powers of Zoom and a meeting with the Bloomsbury Festival team, led by Rosemary Richards, explained that they were going ahead with various contingency plans, and we should plan an online version as a backup. 

I was also interested to see that UCL were participating in the festival – for I knew they had a history of science faculty. As I had started writing the script and reached the scientific bits, I was wondering how we could get the discovery of electrolysis across in an interesting and engaging way – as this was distinctlynot my area of expertise. 

Having seen that the festival team had been involved with the science festival GravityFest, I asked if they might have any useful contacts at UCL. Fortunately on they wrote to say “UCell are happy to help/collaborate with you in giving a talk at the Bloomsbury festival” and Alice, Harry and Keenan agreed to comealong and recreate the water-splitting experiment from May 1800 and then demonstrate how electrolysis plays a role in clean energy production with their hydrogen fuel cell.

In May Diana emailed to mention “another committee member, Ian Brown, who is a theatre director and will have good ideas about how to make the most of a story.”  Looking him up online to find he had run the highly regarded West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds for a decade, I didn’t know whetherto be delighted or petrified. The sum total of my dramatic experiences to date comprised playing Mary in a nativity play at infant school and a mime on a student trip to Santander a few decades ago – neither role having had any script – what had I let myself in for? 

Thankfully, Ian turned out to be delightful and thoroughly put me at ease. He suggested the performance should take the form of an interview with Nicholson’s ghost (great idea!) and was also very pragmatic about the format of the online version when my multi-media ambitions ran away with themselves. Ian also took on the role of finding an actor, when it turned out that my friend was in a high-risk group and was shielding could be confined indefinitely (as it seemed at the time).

Details of the event had to be finalised for the programme by the end of May, and so it was agreed to perform live on the first Saturday 17th and the online event was scheduled for Tuesday 20th October.  The title of the talk was agreed as “In conversation with Mr Nicholson” referring to the conversazione evenings which were hosted by Georgians.

The running order started with me interviewing the ghost of Nicholson about his life up to the point of the experiment in 1800 – then we would introduce the UCell team and Nicholson would take up the baton and ask them about their experiments and the future usefulness of his work. I was thrilled that we would be able to show how relevant his work had been to the future of clean energy, and in a way that would be much more visually interesting for an audience.

However, this was not without a few challenges of its own, as the UCell team had to get approval from the university for their participation and use of the fuel cell stack (a very valuable piece of kit, the size of a large supermarket trolley).  And while we could record the interview on zoom at any time for use in the online version, the only chance to video the experiments would be on the 17th October (Covid-19 permitting).

We all pressed on in good faith, and I booked the last week of May off work to get the script finalised and over to Ian.

On 18 June, the festival team emailed to say “As you know, we are working with the current, and ever-changing, government advice regarding Covid-19 and social distancing, and of course the safety of our performers and festival goers is our absolute priority. With this in mind, we have come to the decision to cap the number of participants for your talk to 20 participants for the time being. As you can imagine, this is to protect the safety of the people attending, and yourself. If nearer the time restrictions are relaxed, we will release more tickets.” Having scoped out the layout in the gardens the FoSGG team were later able to increase this to a maximum of 30.

At the beginning of July, Ian helped me to shape the script – adding more depth to the character of Nicholson and his family, explaining all the other characters, adding some gossip and eliminating non-sequiturs! 

We still didn’t have an actor for Mr Nicholson. Hugh Jackman was of course isolating in Australia, so I spent an evening looking through actor directory websites – mercilessly judging men solely on their appearances. 

Meanwhile, lockdown had not ended, and we were all still working at home. It was necessary to decide on whether to charge participants an entry fee, and in the end it was decided that it was “a bit more than a talk, with a scientific demo and a speaker in costume” so fees were set at £8 for the live event and £5 for the online event.  The Bloomsbury Festival typically do a 50/50 split with paid ticketed events, and they have a “box office intern” and volunteer present to deal with last minute onsite tickets and to take payments. Soon, the contract was signed and Diana was looking into whether we should or could use microphones.

On 21 July, Ian emailed to say he had found a potential Mr Nicholson “I got an email from a local actor this morning - he’s a barrister as well as an actor. Going to meet him.”  A week later Julian Date had joined the team – a family barrister by day, I was amazed that he would have the head space to learn so many lines as well as running court cases up to the performance, but apparently these use different parts of the brain.

August and September saw us all rehearsing on Zoom and fine tuning the script.  It was quite enchanting to see Jules bringing Mr Nicholson to life after the character had been rattling around in my brain for so long.

The UCell team could show us some of their science online – with a mini hydrogen-powered car – but we will not get the full picture until the big day.  They normally participate in many live events, (and should have been in Florida for one of our rehearsals), but we were the only live event that was still on their calendar for this year.

Finding a costume for Julian turned out to be another challenge as all the theatres were closed, and consequently so were all the costumiers.  Eventually a service in Bristol was identified which provides costumes to the BBC and could send it by post, so Julian had to provide his vital statistics.

September ended, and despite a variety of lockdown measures and a recent new restriction of group sizes to a maximum of six people, the event was still not cancelled.  It was outdoors and thanks to Sue Heiser of FoSGG and her work on the risk assessment, it will be possible to keep everyone at an appropriate distance.  

Tickets were selling and by October the live event quickly sold out its 30 tickets.  But we still hadn’t nailed down the details of the online event, and while we thought we would be able to record all the interview on Zoom and the experiments on video, we were not sure how this would all come together and then be broadcast.  Fortunately, Rosemary Richards called in Hannah a digital producer and Mirabel who is also at UCL and doing science outreach. There was a debate about the comparative merits of YouTube and Zoom, but the latter has the added advantage of participation and so we can have a Q&A at the end.

This put us on track and reassured us that someone who knew what they were doing would be pressing all the Zoom buttons on the day.  I’ll be providing a live introduction before the interview and linking to the video, then managing the Q&A with someone from the UCL team who will handle the scientific questions.

On 7th October, we were still waiting to hear from UCell team whether they had approval from UCL to participate, and thankfully this came through and they can bring the hydrogen fuel cell stack.  The costume has arrived in London, and everything is planned for next Saturday, the 17th October.

With coronavirus cases rising by the day again, and with les than a week to go, we are waiting with bated breath to hear whether there will be a “circuit-breaker” lockdown over half term or a local lockdown affecting London, and whether the live event will still go ahead.

It’s a long shot, but we re keeping our fingers crossed that the show will go on


The Life of William Nicholson, 1753–1815

A Memoir of Enlightenment, Commerce, Politics, Arts and Science

Edited by Sue Durrell and with an afterword by Professor Frank James


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Exploring the life and publications
of William Nicholson 1753-1815