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Issue 75 - The Greatest Sbow on Earth

Scotland Magazine Issue 75
June 2014


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The Greatest Sbow on Earth

Roddy Martine meets Brigadier David Allfrey, producer of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

It has deservedly been described as one of the greatest open-air spectator events in the world. However, it unlikely that those who first came up with the concept over sixty years ago were aware of what they were creating.

For them it was little more than a modest British Army contribution to the birth of the fledgling Edinburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. A simple military parade in the gardens below Edinburgh Castle is how it all began before being elevated onto the castle esplanade in 1950.

Since then, of course, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has annually thrilled and entertained millions, brought to an even larger global audience on television screens internationally. Tickets have consistently sold out, with surplus funds donated to a portfolio of charitable causes.

And since that very first modest beginning, the entire extravaganza has been under the creative control of seven very different but immensely talented producers, the current maestro being Brigadier David Allfrey MBE who assumed the role three years ago. It takes a combination of personal style and show business instinct to take on a job like this, and the Brigadier knows that he is following in some remarkable footsteps.

David Allfrey was commissioned into the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1979 and commanded the regiment fom 2000 until 2002. Prior to taking up his Tattoo post in 2011, he commanded the 51 Scottish Brigade based at Stirling.

In addition, he has been the producer or creative advisor for a number of military spectaculars since 1987, notably the 50th D-Day Commemorations on the south coast of England, and overseeing the production of the Scots Dragoon Guards CD Album Parallel Tracks. In this, he was following the example of his former regimental colleague and Tattoo predecessor Brigadier Melville Jameson, who was responsible for the Pipes and Drums of the Scots Dragoon Guards' 1970s hit Amazing Grace.

Bubbling over with enthusiasm he recalls how when he was leaving his regiment, he wrote a play for army recruitment purposes – Jamie's Story, which has since been re-named The Piper's Trail. “A kind of Pilgrim's Progress, Pied Piper and Dick Whittington saga about a fictitious piping competition. It involves a 470 mile piping and drumming journey through Scotland with a series of challenges requiring Courage, Discipline and Selfless Commitment,” he says. “When it was launched in 2009, it played to a total audience of around 5.3million.”

There are now plans for this to be revived, and another of his ambitions being launched in November, is to effectively create a Tattoo “House Band”, recruited from existing pipe bands worldwide.

“There are between two to five thousand pipers scattered throughout the world and the idea is to bring together a universal Pipers' Trail Band,” he explains.

“This means that wherever and whenever there is a demand for a Tattoo performance, instead of having to meet the costs of travel and accommodation involved in taking a full band from one country to another, the organisers can supplement the ranks with proven local talent.”

The intention is for the Pipers' Trail Band to be piloted in November, and the Brigadier proudly shows off the tartan he has designed to be worn by band members. “There is a global network for the love of the pipes,” he says. “What we will able to do is to always have pipers on call when they are needed.”

The 2014 Edinburgh Tattoo which commences on 1st August has a deliberate theme: Our Home, Our Friends and Our Family, supportive of both Visit Scotland's Homecoming initiative and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, but cutting its own path by reflecting the uncertainties and excitement of departing on a journey and the joy of returning home.

It is one of David Allfrey's more engaging foibles that when he prepares the storyline brief for his team, he likes to sketch in the scenes of each act so that the sets can be visualised. He learns from experience. Instead of staying in the Control Box when the show gets underway, he likes to prowl around the stands and soak up the atmosphere to guage how the audience is responding. “But the principal cast member is the castle,” he insists. “Nobody could ask for a more sensational stage set.”

At the start of every performance, Alasdair Hutton, the Voice of the Edinburgh Tattoo in the Control Box asks the audience to identify where they have come from – Australia? Japan? Canada? America?

“To begin with I wasn't sure this was such a good idea” says the Brigadier. “There were some who thought it was a bit dated.

“But then I realised that with an average audience of 8.800, most of whom have never met one another before, it brings them together. It really works. After 90 minutes they are all holding hands for the finale!”

To assemble his cast, he is obliged to travel constantly, and to date has visited 47 cities in 29 countries, including Africa, Delhi and Mumbai in India, Hong Kong and Beijing in China, New Zealand, Singapore, Mongolia, and Indonesia.

“All of these countries have a view of Scotland and they understand fully how it fits into the UK and their world. It's been fascinating for me to see how Scotland is seen from abroad.”

For the 2015 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the theme is appropriately East meets West, with an ambitious and perhaps rather challenging plan to bring the four great world superpowers – America, China, India and Russia - together on the castle esplanade, and to have them appear alongside performers from the United Kingdom and Europe.

“Modern show business is so demanding,” he reflects. “Wonderful producers can produce amazing Olympic Games events with a budget of £27million. Our budget, as we know only too well, is rather more modest, but when the pipes and drums march out onto the castle esplanade in the dark and you hear that astonishing in-take of breath as they begin to play, it is truly magical.”

He recalls how when doing his rounds of the stands a year ago, he was confronted by a man with a North American accent. “It's a disaster,” said the man.

“But why?” asked the Brigadier.

“My wife has been crying for 85 minutes!” said the man.

And sure enough at that moment a very elegant woman appeared at her husband's side, her make-up running down her face. “Its the most beautiful thing I've ever seen,” she said.