Over the years, Trevor Graham has become a familiar figure on the Balloon Festival circuit,
both as a commentator and a creative producer... we turn the tables and interview the interviewer!
Trevor, how did you first come into contact with the ballooning community?
Like many good things, pure luck really. My family business, Hampshire Sound had been supplying high quality sound and radio systems to the air show and aviation industry for some years so when Southampton City Council decided to change its old Southampton Show to the Southampton Balloon Festival, being based in the area we became interested in this other branch of aviation. We bid for and won the contract, which started our passion for balloons.
Is this when you first started as a commentator?
No, initially we brought in other airshow commentators and I continued in a production role, running the sound system, selecting music and generally acting as anchorman in the commentary box. It soon became apparent that a different approach was required, as ballooning is much more about the magic of the subject rather than a string of highly accurate statistics, as is often the case with air displays. I also felt strongly that the combination of music and balloons needed further exploration and expansion. It was often quite difficult to politely silence ones colleagues at times, when to me, the sight of thirty or so balloons rising majestically out of the arena, screamed out for carefully selected music rather than unnecessary waffle. It was at this stage that I resolved to play a more active role in the production of the festivals that we were involved with.
So when was your first balloon commentary?
Thrown in at the deep end really. Because of the success at Southampton, we were invited to the Bristol Fiesta and I found myself co-commentating with Blethyn Richards. After a little first night nerves, I had a great time, with Bleth working the field with a radio mic and talkback system and me based in the box commentating and producing. This allowed me to control the ‘show side’ of the commentary and insert the music at precisely the right times to create pockets of magic. I learned a lot about the ballooning scene from Bleth and we have remained good friends ever since.
Have you done any balloon flying?
Yes, you can’t really provide the public with a decent commentary without some hands on experience of the subject, even if that does involve landing in a blackthorn hedge at twenty knots. I suppose I have accumulated forty or fifty passenger hours in balloons. Through the season I get many kind invitations to fly and for some strange reason I am often offered a job on the crown line! (not much cop as a commentator but being of traditional build, damned good ballast!). It is sometimes difficult to accept all the invitations, as it takes me away from the event for too long. I am beginning to think this could be part of a plot. I have however, had some wonderful and extremely informative flights with many great pilots. The great pilots included Ian Ashpole, Colin Butter, Sue Cardon, Trish Watkins and Phil Hossack, with the not so great pilots remaining nameless! Ashpole taught me just enough to get a balloon off the ground and assures me that when I retire he will teach me how to land!
You mentioned the importance of music at balloon festivals?
Yes, I feel that music plays a tremendous part in creating the magic at a show. I have watched hundreds of lifts at many locations and each one is different. There are many variables to affect the atmosphere of the moment, the location, the weather, the light levels, the time of day, the take-off patterns, the type of balloons on the field and how they are flown, all combine to give a unique feel to each launch. It is for this reason that I only select a music programme for each lift as it is happening. What works at one lift is inappropriate for another, so in my humble opinion a pre recorded track of music will never have the immediacy and emotional power of a selection being made dependant on the constantly changing picture developing on the launch field. These are all very subtle differences but they are important aspects of making the experience memorable for the audience.
What then are your musical influences?
Well, in a previous life I was a professional musician and worked all over the world in various bands. This gave me a very broad outlook on music of all types. In one lift you may hear several opera classics followed by an Australian electronic piece, a song by Jeff Beck, a South African orchestra, the song of a humpback whale, a children’s choir and something straight from the current charts. The odd thing is, that set to the fantastic picture of the lift, this strange combination will work well in creating a unique atmosphere. These days I tend to unconsciously judge all music as to whether it can be used for balloons or not. In fact my quest for the unusual nearly left me stranded in Africa. I was in Capetown about to board a plane back to London, when I heard in the distance a haunting piece of African music. Not knowing what it was or where it came from, much to the amazement of my bemused family, I dropped everything and ran back into the departure lounge. After a frenzied five minutes I finally tracked down the source of the music, which belonged to a shop assistant in the gift shop. After a brief verbal struggle I managed to buy the CD from the girl and run back to the boarding gate to find that they had finished boarding and were considering going without me. That piece of music worked perfectly at the Friday morning lift at the 2002 Bristol Fiesta!!!
In your opinion, what are the vital elements of a good commentary?
You must start with a good team. If at all possible at least two commentators should be employed, both to share the extremely long hours of the average festival and to be able to keep the interest and entertainment fresh for the audience. In some cases we can be in the commentary box for nearly fourteen hours a day and it is just not possible for one person to remain entertaining for that length of time. A good sense of humour is essential. We are not commentating on Churchill’s funeral; its entertainment so good humored banter between the commentators and the balloonists is also vital. Question and answer interviews with knowledgeable pilots, crews and VIPs also help to present the technical aspects of the sport, without the audience feeling that they are being lectured to by an ‘expert’. Finally it is very important to watch and monitor audience reaction and if possible get out and talk to them.
What are the technical difficulties of sound & commentary at a balloon festival?
First and foremost you must have a very good sound system. It is the primary link with the audience. In the early years we tried all sorts of combinations of sound system, including rock concert stacks, multiple horns, etc; none of which really worked well for the balloon festival environment. We soon came to the conclusion that the only way to serve the vast arenas at balloon festivals, was to provide a music quality sound system which is distributed all around the perimeter facing out. The system that we developed specifically for balloon events provides for a high quality speaker to be situated no more than fifteen metres away from any member of the audience, all around the arena. This gives high quality, music grade sound at good volume levels to all of the audience, without rattling the windows in the nearest village! Although this provides excellent sound to the audience, the slight drawback is that in the very large arenas, it can be difficult for the balloonists to hear, because all of the sound is pointing out of the arena. Putting monitor speakers inside the arena can cause multiple echoes and destroy the audio quality for the audience. This is a particular problem during nightglows. In the past, pilots have had to listen to an Icom hand held air band VHF for the burn calls and try to pick up the music in the distance. We have overcome this problem by supplying a new radio monitor system, which mixes the music programme and the directors instructions and broadcasts this mix to a radio receiver and lightweight headset, which is supplied to each pilot. This has lead to some remarkably tight burning patterns at recent glows and will allow directors greater creative input in the future.
What are the best parts of balloon festivals for you?
Early morning lifts and creating nightglows. I love the magic that can happen on a misty morning lift. Watching the wonder and excitement of small children who may be seeing a balloon fly for the first time and knowing that those images will probably stay with them for many years. I also still get a great buzz working with a small team to create a nightglow. Finally, on reflection, the people. Balloonists are a unique and interesting bunch. They are generous, good humoured, have big hearts and make great friends.
What do you see for the future of Balloon Festivals?
Well, in some ways the big festivals are victims of their own success. There is no doubt that professionally marketed, balloon events continue to draw enormous crowds, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to live up to pubic expectation. We now live in an ‘immediate’ society and if the event is advertised solely as a balloon festival, the audience expect to see balloons the minute they arrive at the show site, irrespective of the time of day, weather or ATC restrictions. Additionally, the recent recession in commercial ballooning has seen a considerable reduction in the availability of crowd pleasing special shapes and a drastic drop in teams that are prepared or are able to provide hours of free tethering. Despite detailed and creative explanations from the commentary team, there seems to be an increasing core of disgruntled members of the public knocking on the organizers office door expecting to see balloons. I feel that the industry needs to review it’s strategy and go for a bi-polar branding approach, putting something else in the event title so as to relieve the pressure on the balloon element of the event. Southampton has done this quite successfully over the years with their annual Balloon and Flower festival. The flower and arena elements of the event becoming the focus when ballooning is not possible. In my view, it is vital that the quality of our big events must be protected. It is all too easy to rely on a ‘Karaoke Concert’ from the local commercial radio station to enliven the event but does this element of the audience have any interest in the rest of the festival and will they bring the hard-pressed organizer more problems than they are worth? There is a future for the big festivals but they will need to evolve and innovate. Fresh ideas will be needed and some unpalatable realities like paying for teams to tether may have to be re-considered.