Ten years after
This week sees the 10th anniversary of Sir Bob Geldof's Live Aid concert, not just a charity gig but a global television event of staggering success. Serena Mackesy meets one of the men who made it work
Friday 14 July 1995
There can be few people in the developed world over 17 and under 55 who didn't witness a bit of those extraordinary events at Wembley. In fact, it reached 1.4bn people worldwide. Tomorrow night, BBC2 will be screening a boiled-down version between the hours of 6pm and 1.35am.
Interspersed with documentary slots and interviews will be sets by everyone who took part. This will already be looking a bit like a rock archive, but you'll want to see it anyway, even if it's just to remind yourself of who was big in your youth. Everyone who was anyone in pop at the time took to the stage at Wembley or in Philadelphia-- except Julian Lennon, who pulled out at the last minute, and Boy George, veteran of the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single, who reputedly had a falling-out with Saint Bob. There has never been a gig like it. It could make you think that pop stars are - gulp - nice people.
Mike Appleton remembers what he was doing on the day all too well, as he was the man who produced it, and has been a cousultant on the current show. He was a producer on that most influential of rock programmes, The Old Grey Whistle Test, at the time and was "standing in the way" when the job came up. "It was a very small snowball we picked up and it became an avalanche."
He had just six weeks to get everything ready from the moment the concert was confirmed. "On comparable projects you can get over a year, but I think in many ways that the speed at which we had to operate helped, because it didn't give anyone time to think and say no."
And we're talking Herculean here: 352 microphones, 40 miles of cable and 100 tons of stage equipment, 200 BBC staff and another 200 roadies. Because the concert was going out live worldwide, the six weeks involved all-night working a lot of the time to allow for the time differences. Appleton's team worked closely with CBS, but the BBC ended up taking the dominant role in the proceedings because "it was more difficult for them [CBS]. The BBC, as it was then, had everything in-house. You pretty much called extensions and everything was there... the outside broadcast units, the make-up team, stage managers, sound engineers."
The biggest technical nightmare, though, was beaming a live event to 170 countries at once. Even a few selected Soviet citizens got to see it. The load on the satellites was tremendous: "It was asking those that existed at the time to do massively more than they'd ever done before. It was a fingers-crossed situation. I think God was looking down and balancing the satellites for us." In the end, all went off remarkably smoothly, apart from a power blackout at Wembley which cut short the Who's last ever performance - and no doubt relieved the neighbours.
Not surprisingly, Appleton remembers few actual details of the day. "When you're working on a live programme like that, you're working in advance of what is happening at that moment, because you're having to make sure that the next thing in line is ready to come on." He had never actually seen the product of his efforts until he was going over the tapes for tomorrow's programme. "But I'll tell you what, it's incredibly entertaining still. Even with a 10-year passage, the atmosphere comes over."
This weekend, you can see some of what the pounds 40m raised by 1,600 volunteers in 200,000 telephone calls (one woman in Tyneside donated pounds 500,000 in one lump), and distributed by 93 relief and development agencies, went on. As well as helping to relieve the Ethiopian famine which sparked Bob Geldof into action the previous November, money went on agriculture, medical care, orphanages and education in Mozambique, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and the Sudan. More is still needed, though. Christian Aid projects that Ethiopia may attain self-sufficiency in 10 years' time, but "until then they need all the help we can give".
Donating or not, watching will be required prep tomorrow. If you were there, you can bask in that warm glow of memory and how silly we all looked. If you were in a shack in the Andes at the time, you should see what you missed. As Appleton says, "It wasn't just a television event... it was something everybody got wound up in and wanted to be part of. It was like your best friend's party and everybody wanted to come to it."
'Live Aid 10th Anniversary', tomorrow 6pm-8.30pm & 9.30pm-1.35am BBC2
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