Putting on the Brits

Take the world's top acts, the music industry's biggest wigs and 100,000 bottles of booze - Helen Brown charts the excitement and excesses of pop's glitziest party

Madonna may be rumoured to have blown us out to appear at the Grammys instead, but next Wednesday some of the biggest names in the longest limos in pop will be heading for London to flaunt their stuff at the 26th annual awards ceremony of the British Phonographic Society on Wednesday. Or the Brits, to you and me.

The show has come a long way since that toe-curling night in 1989 when Mick Fleetwood and Samantha Fox stammered their way through a night of missed cues, fluffed lines and Awol artists. Our ringmaster for the night will be Chris Evans, whose appearance at last year's silver jubilee ceremony rehabilitated his ailing career. And the woman pulling the strings that hold the big top together will be the former Culture Club backing singer Helen Terry.

At Earls Court six days before the big night, the early-morning sunlight ripples from huge banners reading "Mastercard Welcomes You To The Brits at Earls Court". There is not normally much action in rock'n'roll circles before noon, but as I approach the security gate at 8.15am, I realise the building is already a hive of activity. "Mornin' love," says a grinning man in a hard hat, clutching two murderous-looking lumps of metal. I pass groups of men with coils of cable jutting from their necks like fetishistic Tudor ruffs. A few girls in sequinned shoes are smoking and gossiping about the Kaiser Chiefs behind a van.

"You've got to remember," the sound engineers' PR man, Mike Lethby, had told me, "this is the big music event of 2006; so much goes into it. All the technical contracts are huge. I think it's the biggest lighting UK contract of the year."

The technical guys I see around me all have determined looks, ike men preparing to undertake the labours of Herculean trials. Paul Woods of Kinesys is responsible for the videowalls. "They track on and off stage, to either be on for an artist, and open again and allow stagehands to change the sets and then close up into other formation for whoever the next artist is. We're the people who get shouted at when things go wrong.

"Although that hasn't happened yet, touch wood, and this is our third year at the Brits. We do the MTV Europe awards too so we're old hands. They're just finished building the rigging which all our machinery will be suspended from. So tomorrow the videowalls will be put together by the video crew, then we'll be attaching them to our winches, then the rehearsals will begin. Some of the artists will have input into what's shown on the walls, so details are finalised very close to the event."

On the night, Woods tells me there will be just one man handling the trio of 1.5-ton, five-million-by-seven-million LED slabs from a control desk behind the scenes. Fingers crossed for Erlend (it's Norse) Webb, then.

When I find Helen Terry, she's "absolutely frazzled". We already know that Kaiser Chiefs, James Blunt, Coldplay, Gorillaz, Kelly Clarkson, KT Tunstall, Jack Johnson, Kanye West and Paul Weller, the outstanding contribution to music award winner, will be performing. But I have been instructed in advance not to ask Terry about who will be filling the other three slots.

It is hotly rumoured that his Paisleyness, Prince, will be doing his funky thang, but this subject is off limits for my brief interview with Terry who bluntly states that "we never know until the day, frankly". Her experience on the artists side of the red roping has taught her lesson. "Talent are often treated quite badly by these sorts of events," she says. "You can be shoved around and called two hours early for things. So we do a lot of work to make sure the artists are treated very well. We go out of our way to make the backstage area extraordinarily comfortable; after all the show now goes out to 200 million people worldwide. Of course, we don't tell them that before they go onstage."

With her team of only 12 - she has to keep costs low because the Brits is a charity event - Terry has been working on this one evening since July, looking at the reception of certain records and selection the "must-have" artists. "It's hard because I have to second-guess the voters, who are drawn from a wide demographic, from social secretaries at universities to people within the industry."

A spokesman from Electoral Reform Services, the group which makes sure all is above board, says there are 1,000 of these voters, who cast their ballots securely by post and e-mail and tells me that they track ISPs and have all sorts of ways of making sure the industry can't rig anything.

Terry says: "Most of the bookings were finalised two weeks ago. I'm getting better at picking winners. I just have to hope that those who lose won't be disappointed on the night. But some of the more obscure bands that turn up on the nominations list also might not be quite suitable for the mainstream audience of ITV1."

She approaches the running order, "like a track-listing. I make a CD, take it home, move songs around, think about the mood. It's like making an album".

It is her responsibility to put together the five hours of programming around the main show: a televised launch, four half-hour "Brits are coming" shows, a red-carpet arrivals show and a backstage chat show during which we will talk to as many artists as will make themselves available. That's really the "artists being 'tired and emotional' show".

Taking a peep at the main stage, I see the theme for this year is Moroccan. There is a kind of lantern sculpture dangling over the heads of the chippies. I head up to the second level where Bruce French shows me the elaborate "End of Pier" set for the after-show party set he is co-ordinating. "I always try to keep the theme very English," he says with a grin. There will be a long, black glossy platform standing in for the pier, and a gigantic painted sunset looming over proceedings. Quaint beach huts will house comedians, tattoo artists and fortune tellers. There will be waxworks from Madame Tussauds shipped over from Baker Street so celebrities present can have their pictures taken with celebrities absent by photographers kitted out as paparazzi.

French, who mainly works as a set designer for ballet and opera, shows me boards which will be turned into tables. They are black, spattered with luminous paint. It turns out he was suspended upside down in a harness to create this effect: "You get to try all sorts in this job," he says.

The Brit awards have been accused of being nothing more than a carve up between the major record labels, that all this hard work and creativity is just one big, vulgar opportunity for corporate backslapping. And one fact that continues to rankle is that tickets are not available to the fans. There are 3,900 guests seated at tables of 10, all bought by the music industry and ancillary companies. There are two price levels £700 and £500 and all these sold out within a week of going on sale last November. There are also 3,000 "balcony seats" for competition winners, Mastercard customers, music industry personnel and international press and media. That said, it all raises an awful lot of money for the Brits Trust.

Industry people I contact to find out who gets the golden tickets and how great a party it really is all want to remain anonymous. This is because, as one person at a major label points out: "This is the kind of thing we're not really meant to be talking about to the press. And who gets invited lingers in that shady area of corporate dealings."

But those at the major labels and those at indies all agree. "It really is a great night out, very friendly, strangely English." One tells me he is looking forward to "the mint soup and tea that the tabloids promise we'll be served".

Another is more eager to get at the booze. "It's always a tremendous piss-up. The dreaded 'dry year' in 2003 was all wrong. People shouldn't be sitting silently in rows listening to speeches like they do at the Grammys. The vibe should be garrulous, witty and a bit naughty."

We'll see on Wednesday.

Red faces

1987 Paul Simon's best international artist award fell apart, providing him with a useful trident for picking at canapés

1988 As the show was rushed to a close, Rick Astley missed out on his debut BPI award

1989 Mick Fleetwood and Samantha Fox missed cues, fluffed lines. Julian Lennon went missing and an announcement for the Four Tops brought forth Boy George

1996 Jarvis Cocker rushed on to stage to waggle his bum at Michael Jackson during a performance of "Earth Song"

2003 Justin Timberlake groped Kylie's bottom on stage

Magic numbers

250 limos are expected at the 2006 event

35 The number of backstage dressing-rooms at Earl's Court - all exactly the same size

40,000 bottles of wine and 50,000 bottles of beer are to be served on Wednesday by a catering staff of 600

60,000 The number of bottles of champagne consumed by Brits-goers between 2000 and 2005

£500 The amount each Brit award costs to make

200 members of the press and 50 photographers will be at the awards in 2006

Pop & politics

Kenneth Clarke was booed in 1989, despite Cliff Richard's appeals for quiet

John Prescott was soaked by a member of Chumbawumba in 1998, describing the incident as "deplorable and utterly contemptible"

Charles Kennedy has attended the event every year since becoming an MP in 1983

Norman Tebbit admitted to knowing nothing about pop music, despite presenting an award in 1986

Margaret Thatcher turned "pop picker" in 1990

No politicians are invited this year

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