Carols at Kings: Behind the scenes

For many, Christmas just would not be Christmas without the magic of the TV broadcast of carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Rebecca Franks heads behind the scenes to find out how it’s filmed...

Carols at Kings: Behind the scenes
The Kings choristers enter the chapel

A solo chorister, robed in white and red, stands in front of a glorious painting by Rubens. The spine-tingling opening notes of Once in Royal David’s City soar into the expanse of the illuminated fan vaults above. For many, Christmas starts here – turning on the TV for the annual Carols from King’s broadcast from the iconic chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. But what viewers might not know is that this is the fourth chorister to give the coveted solo their best shot, and that if the camera panned down, they’d find the chorister perched on two silver equipment cases. It’s only later that evening, holed up in the BBC trailer on the cobbles in front of the College, that conductor Stephen Cleobury and the BBC team will decide which treble will make the final cut. Nerve-racking? Yes. But there’s clearly a sense of camaraderie, as one budding soloist whispers encouragingly to another, ‘You were really good’.

Recorded in mid-December, the TV broadcast Carols from King’s is a tailor-made version of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which goes out live on Radio 3 on Christmas Eve each year. The radio service first went out in 1928; in 1954 the TV cameras rolled in for the first time. Today it’s a slick operation. Riggers and camera crew start their work the week before the recording, installing around 30 mics in the ceiling, tucking eight cameras into locations from the choir stalls to the organ loft. Lighting is key. ‘We keep it natural and fairly formal,’ explains a technician. ‘And this building is so precious, we have to be careful.’

Director David Kremer puts together a camera script – a running order including musical scores labelled up with camera cues – for his team. Most of the TV crew are experienced hands who can’t resist coming back to film at King’s. One cameraman has filmed there every year for the past quarter of a century. Not so the choir, which has a fresh intake of treble choristers and undergraduate choral scholars each year. Carols might seem like simple fare, but they’ve got to be note perfect for a TV audience of around 2 million. But that’s not necessarily the first thing on these singers’ minds. ‘Some people get their Carols from King’s haircut a few weeks before so it doesn’t look newly cut for TV,’ explains head choral scholar Robert Jacobs. And, amid Christmas services, does the choir get to watch the programme? ‘As soon as we’ve finished the live radio broadcast, we go into the college TV room and watch it together,’ says Jacobs. ‘It’s good fun – we all laugh at each other. And it’s a relief after the stresses of working really hard for these Christmas services. Watching it and then having dinner together is a good ending to an incredible experience.’

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