The 2003 Knobbly-Knees Competition

A note about this event from Roderick Elms …
There are times in life when you embark on a project with a strong sense that it won’t let go of you for quite a while … and so it is that I have been asked to explain how I came to be seated at a grand piano, along with my good friend and colleague Alistair Young, at the front of the platform in the Royal Albert Hall, in full view of a capacity audience as well as several million viewers on a live BBC 2 transmission — both dressed as schoolboys, complete with short trousers.

It was 16 August 2003 and the occasion was Prom 38 — a programme of Great British Film Music given by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba and introduced by Timothy West. Towards the end of the first half there was to be a performance of the Warsaw Concerto given by Philip Fowke for which the piano was to be in its usual concerto position at the front of the stage. By a masterstroke of planning, the following piece, the concert suite from Malcolm Arnold’s music to the 1950s film The Belles of St Trinians was to follow, and the score called for a solo piano with four hands — usually accomplished by the use of two players.

In view of the nature of the film — the subtitle of the suite is “Exploits for Orchestra” — it was suggested quite early on that as they had to be at the front of the stage, it might be fun if the duet soloists were to dress up as schoolgirls. Initial enthusiasm for this idea was soon moderated when the full implications of this concept took hold. Luckily, the Director of the Proms, Nicholas Kenyon, stepped in with his own special request that we appear as schoolboys and so it was that we duly despatched ourselves to Angels in Shaftesbury Avenue, costumiers to the rich, famous and, in our case, child protegés, to be kitted out in a fashion of which Adrian Mole would have been proud.

Part of the performance was to be my ‘shooting’ by catapult of the conductor, resplendent his “Headmaster’s” gown. We had been released from the previous day’s rehearsal for good conduct and on the understanding that the time would be used wisely to do homework and also find a suitable weapon. This proved to be easier said than done as very few shops now sell traditional catapults, so I ended up vandalising a tree in my garden to make my own. Then came the lengthy search for a source of substantial elastic bands — eventually found in an office suppliers but in a box of 500 — the pocket money was seriously stretched.

Most free time in the final rehearsal was spent in the Green Room refining the ability to shoot paper pellets in a straight line, something which seemed remarkably difficult following so many years without practice, and which didn’t happen properly until the performance. I lost count of the number of colleagues who inadvertently came under fire during the rehearsal break. Alistair and I spent ages checking our uniforms and our ‘routine’ and were even treated to a little dutch courage by Adrian Evett (Orchestra Manager) before going on stage.

And so — a few words of wisdom from the maestro and we were all but ready to make our grand entrance. Ties suitably awry, socks lowered to the ankles, shoes scuffed and caps at the kilter, we were unceremoniously thrust onto the platform by a rather ‘angry’ headmaster. All seemed to be going well — we reached the piano without stumbling, a great catapult shot at the conductor, we were given the music to play as our ‘punishment’ and then, just as the downbeat was about to strike, the terrible realisation … I’d told myself earlier that the last thing I should do was to forget my glasses, and so it was that the very last thing I did before walking on stage … was to forget my glasses.

During the performance, we were provided with moral support by members of the percussion section who wore boaters and who had apparently developed long blond plaits since the morning rehearsal — great wheeze, girls.

What has been quite extraordinary about the performance has been the number of people who still come up to us to say that they watched the concert on television — greetings such as ‘nice knees’ and “didn’t recognise you in long trousers”. I think that’s a great tribute to the number of people tuning in to watch the orchestra’s Prom.

Roderick Elms – Form 4B

Article originally written for Soirée Musicales – the official magazine of the BBC Concert Orchestra Club and edited by Jenny Thomas.

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The repeat of ‘Happy Birthday Albert’ concluding a truly remarkable occasion. The organ’s might Tuiba Mirabilis gets an airing in the third phrase. This occasion marked the first full orchestra on the stage for eighteen months and the first non-distanced audience, both following the various lockdowns. Also the first opportunity to meet many friends and colleagues for a very long time, performing ‘A Circle of Sound’ by David Arnold, arranged and conducted by Nicholas Dodd.

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