My Experience of Giving Tottenham’s White Hart Lane The Send-Off it Deserved
Working for a Premier League football club is not like working for other brands, especially when you have been an obsessive fan all your life.
When Tottenham Hotspur contacted me in early spring to talk about being the creative lead on the event that would mark the last game ever at White Hart Lane, its home of 118 years, it was a memorable moment.
I did not spend a lot of time weighing it up - I jumped on board eagerly and there followed an intense three months of creative development and planning. Its culmination was the ceremony that took place after the game against Manchester United on May 14th, the last one ever played at the grand old stadium.
These kind of events don't happen very often so there aren't any full time opening/closing ceremony directors on the circuit. When the organisers of London Olympics wanted someone to take creative responsibility for the opening ceremony, it seemed to make sense to get a film director. And most people agreed that nobody could have done it better than Danny Boyle.
Film directors are used to moulding a selection of sometimes quite random components into coherent stories. I have twenty-five years as a director behind me and since I was the co-director of Tottenham's own official 125th anniversary films 10 years ago, I may have seemed like an obvious choice.
But apart from making two integral films, I had to devise a live show that would play to over 30,000 Spurs fans in the stadium and millions more TV viewers around the world. This was uncharted territory for me just as it had been for Danny Boyle.
It was also new for Tottenham Hotspur. The club puts on a show every couple of weeks during the football season in the form of a top-level football match, and they do it brilliantly. But the variables they deal with are all very familiar.
Creatively I’ve always thought that a lot of the same principles apply across different media. I started my working life as a journalist and a feature article has the same broad requirements as a film or a show. You must grab the audience with a beginning that is compelling and intriguing, keep them hooked in the middle and create a memorable and satisfying ending.
The most senior client was Tottenham’s chief executive Donna Marie Cullen. Happily for me her background lies in communications so her creative instincts are extremely well honed making her fully conversant with the tenets of storytelling.
We agreed that the White Hart Lane ceremony had to have emotional impact as its priority - football fans demand sentimentality on these occasions. And it also had to reflect the present day identity of the club. Tottenham Hotspur is going places. It has already built the best training facility in the country, construction is well under way on one of the finest arenas in Europe and the team is going from strength to strength at the top end of the Premier League table. All of this excellence needed to be reflected by the choice of components for the ceremony.
I decided that the best way to elicit the emotion was through the well proven combination of nostalgia and music. The opening film was a whistle stop tour through the history of White Hart Lane. Spurs had already sounded out Spurs fan Sir Kenneth Branagh to voice the film content but I thought if we could get him to appear on screen, the event would acquire instant gravitas. We asked the question and waited anxiously for his answer. The day he said yes I was punching the air like a goal scorer.
The club knew they wanted to have a parade of legendary ex-players and I wanted them to come on to a live, marching musical accompaniment. I recruited legendary musical director Steve Sidwell, who had worked on the Olympic closing ceremony and the opening of the rugby World Cup. I knew he would be able to add the scale and emotional punch to what I intended to be a seamless soundtrack running throughout the event. (It didn't hurt that he is a lifelong Spurs fan too.)
I rejected the idea of known pop stars because there are almost none that do not, to some extent, polarise opinion. Instead I went for a combination of acts that would not only sound great but would bring a timeless classiness to the proceedings. So we got the London Community Gospel Choir, leading Welsh tenor Wynne Evans (also a fan) and a brass band specially put together by Steve Sidwell.
It took seconds to choose the musical numbers - the two great Tottenham anthems ‘When The Spurs Go Marching In’ and ‘Glory Glory Tottenham Hotspur' were, to my mind, the obvious choices and no-one disagreed.
It wasn't thought appropriate for chairman Daniel Levy to make a speech so we made a short film in which he spoke quite informally, but with great conviction, about White Hart Lane’s past and the club’s future.
Three weeks prior to the big day I took Sky Sports’ head of football Gary Hughes through our plans in the Spurs boardroom and he decided immediately that Sky would take the whole show live and uninterrupted, making it available to scores of other international broadcasters including NBC in America.
The day itself was among the more nerve-racking of my career. When you make films for demanding clients you feel a great sense of responsibility. But when your client is your football club and the audience is your fellow supporters, the imperative is doubled.
We had staged a full dress rehearsal on the preceding Thursday but we hadn't factored in the full-scale pitch invasion that occurred after the game’s final whistle. After it had been repelled by our heroic MC Paul Coyte, state of the art speakers were hurriedly placed around the edge of the pitch and the huge 160 square-metre screen, installed specifically for the show, came alive with an earth-shaking organ chord and a film projector countdown. Kenneth Branagh was then revealed and he introduced the film with Shakespearean resonance: ‘this is the story… of White Hart Lane’. We were off and running.
I watched the whole thing unfurl in the Outside Broadcast truck with the television director and his team. It was hugely exciting and in spite of heavy rain, it all went according to plan. We even got a beautiful rainbow at the end to provide a poetic full stop for the cameras. But it was only when Tottenham’s head of marketing Emma Taylor and I had left the truck and returned to the main West Stand that we realised just how well it had been received. The congratulations were fulsome and heartfelt and the feelings of relief we shared were profound.
The next day the papers were also effusive and all the pressure and hard work seemed more than worthwhile. My first game at White Hart Lane as a wide eyed five-year-old in 1971 is etched in my memory. My last, the climax of the assignment of a lifetime, will doubtless prove equally unforgettable.