ESC Events delivered The Sun’s Military Awards at the Imperial War Museum. Stand Out witnessed the action and chats to John Wickens, ESC’s managing director…

Sir David Jason, Dame Vera Lynn, Ross Kemp and the Spice Girls – never has a room had more varied occupants. But tonight sees a host of stars from stage and screen gather to honour an army of men and women far more deserving of praise and gratitude.

Stand Out is standing on the mezzanine of the Imperial War Museum (IWM), overlooking the hustle and bustle apparent on the floor below. The finishing touches for this evening’s award ceremony are being overseen, as guests are ushered, past a waiting pack of photographers, upstairs to a humble drinks reception, comprising Champagne and canapés.

For the second year, The Sun has conscripted the expertise of ESC Events to manage the prestigious occasion, which has over 300 guests – a who’s who of the television, sport, music and political worlds, Ministry of Defence staff and Princes William and Harry. All have come to honour and applaud a number of servicemen and women, and civilians, for their bravery, courage and extraordinary determination in the face of adversity.

Whilst the majority of guests sip Champagne, tonight’s winners and their families have been whisked away to enjoy a VIP reception with Prince William and Prince Harry. Images depicting the previous year’s awards adorn the VIP reception’s walls, yet given the museum’s contents very little in terms of theming has had to be arranged.

John Wickens, managing director of ESC Events and Ivor Middleton of CSC Security and head of security tonight, wander unobtrusively amongst the likes of David Cameron, Ray Winston and Martin Johnson. Working extremely closely alongside Royal security, the pair has ensured strict procedures are in place. In fact, Wickens and his team are so determined for this event to run smoothly that there are as many staff and crew as there are guests.

“We have a good rapport with Royal protection, the anti terrorist squad and MP security. We’ve liaised with the local police and they are happy too. We have collected all information from those working on the event and each crew member has to show photographic identification before they are given their work pass. Tonight, there is a sterile area surrounding the museum. We’ve had several meetings with Royal protection and three minutes before the Princes arrive the press pen will be moved back to give a clear route in case of an incident.”

On the move

The challenge for ESC has been to create an event as spectacular as 2008 with a very short build and load out period. The museum holds a premises license, which has a 1am restriction. Southwark Council has however wavered this to allow ESC to load out in under eight hours and hand back the venue at 9am tomorrow morning. The Imperial War Museum is open to the public all year round but thanks to the special nature of this event, the venue agreed to close for one day – the first time in the history of the museum this has happened – to allow ESC and its team to create the setting in just under 24 hours.

 

The team’s first challenge has been to work round the many exhibits. The largest of which being a 4.7-ton Schwerer Shell that has had to be moved, alongside four other military exhibits, to accommodate tables for dinner.

 

Says Wickens: “In 2008, the event was held at Hampton Court Palace, so in July we met with ITV but it felt that the awards would not work in a marquee. It requested a static venue. Banqueting House was another option for the evening but it was deemed not large enough. The building meant that the drinks reception would be restricted as there was only the Undercroft space. Load in and load out would also be difficult.

“We had discussed the erection of a clear marquee within the grounds of Hampton Court Palace but this would have given the TV cameras too many issues with light reflection. We also looked at placing an Orbital structure over the moat but no back to the system would have created an air gap and this would also have created too many issues also.”

All lit up

ESC’s brief has been to create an awards ceremony that looks good on TV but one that bears in mind the sensitive nature of the occasion.

Wickens and his team have adorned the museum’s entrance with light and colour. As guests arrive at 6pm, they walk past flambeauxs, storm lanterns and a light show. The surrounding trees are bathed in red and green, military images have been projected onto the building’s façade and search lights pierce the freezing December sky.

Tonight sees just over 300 people gather to witness the awards, which are to be followed by a four-course dinner and music from X Factor winner Joe McElderry and Britain’s Got Talent stars Escala. Hampton Court Palace would have accommodated more quests, explains Wickens, and while the IWM could have welcomed 350 for dinner it would have created issues with regard to wheelchair access.

Team player

Small changes have been made to this year’s event, in comparison to the 2008 ceremony, which was the awards first outing. Wickens continues: “We were concerned with the length of time that people were not eating. In 2008, we had a meze starter but no one ate because no one knew what to do so we scrapped that idea and went back to a more formal dining experience.”

Blue Strawberry is handling the catering requirements, providing extremely friendly waiting staff. During the build and event itself, and eventually the break down, some 617 staff and crew including 120 television staff and runners will have worked on the awards.

Wickens is overseeing the entire project with Sian Gray from ESC as event assistant. Dick Tee is tonight’s production director, Amy Harmsworth is production manager and Francesca Tee is production assistant. Five event managers are also ensuring that the evening is running smoothly – Sam Mitchell, Mark Watts, Clare Wickens, Simon Woodward and Karl Newell – while two front of house assistants are also at hand.

“Detail, detail, detail,” continues Wickens. “I’m quite anal. It’s all in the planning. I work on my budget first, planning and then the schedule and I don’t do anything until these three elements are in place. In terms of this event, I am the client-facing contact, but I don’t do the entire event myself. Imagine if I couldn’t be there to answer any questions, it would all fall apart. I don’t leave anything to chance but if you build a big enough team around you then you don’t have problems.”