I remember thinking last Christmas, well, we will never be able to top that.
Last year’s project started with a message from Swansea East MP Carolyn Harris, ’What are going to do to help with Everyone Deserves a Christmas?’.
The charity which specialises in preparing Christmas Hampers for those in our community who might otherwise not have a ‘proper’ Christmas started with a few friends packing hampers on Carolyn’s kitchen table. Over the years it has grown with support from lots of individuals, businesses and groups including Swansea City, The Ospreys, Swansea Council, Amazon, and the South Wales Evening Post.
For a number of years I have been part of the massive team of volunteers who pack the hampers. It really is a special day full of ‘Christmas Spirit’. It was strange her asking me so early. It was still only late summer 2021 but I was more than happy to say I’d be there to pack. ‘No’ said Carolyn. ‘What are YOU going to do…how about a record?’
Now ask anyone in the music business about charity records, in fact most records, and they will tell you its hard to make any money. It was then we got our thinking caps on. What if we recorded half a dozen Christmas songs, yes make a CD and put them on streaming but what if we tried to make a video or 2. We could then post them on social media and ask people to donate to the charities JustGiving page if they liked them. We would be raising awareness of the charity and we might make some money too.
It was then the monster got bigger than both of us. My friend Film Designer Ed Thomas was home for Christmas after spending a year working on a new Dracula movie for Steven Spielberg. I asked if he could help and within days The Murton Farm Christmas Tree Barn had been turned into a cross between Santa’s Grotto and the stable in Bethlehem.
Another old friend, Steve Balsamo, agreed to a duet on Little Town of Bethlehem. With the help of the Salvation Army Band and Harry’s Youth Theatre Choir and lots of sleigh bells we came up with 3 minutes of Christmas Joy. On the day of the recording of the video Nick Jones from The Plough and Harrow in Murton turned up with mulled wine and mince pies and soon the whole farm was buzzing with cameras, lights and snow machines. The only thing missing was Steve Balsamo.
A couple of days before Steve had started feeling unwell and with the risk of it being Covid we decided it was best if he isolated…but what about the video? It was then Steve asked his wife Tracy to film him singing in his house against a blue wall. With a little TV magic it looked as if he was right there with us at Murton Farm.
It was then Ed suggested we film a little intro section with people packing hampers and Carolyn putting them into my car before I set off to join the carollers. With famous faces James Hook and Lee Trundle amongst out choir members it really added some film values to our little video. That’s when it really got out of hand. Before you knew it Carolyn was on the phone to Michael Sheen asking him to do an introduction and by the end of the week we had contributions from Davina McCall, Bonnie Tyler, Max Boyce…even Catherine Zeta Jones.
That was when I remember thinking, well, we will never be able to top that…
What do you mean…what are we going to do this year?
So when I got a call from Carolyn Harris last summer asking me for lunch at the Kardomah I had an uneasy feeling. ‘What we were going to do this year?’. To be honest I almost laughed, and I also almost cried. What on earth were we going to do?
I’ve been a fan of Bronwen Lewis for many years. I’ve played her records on the radio and we even launched one of her albums with a special concert streamed live from the Hyst on Swansea High Street. In recent years she has really exploded with imaginative use of social media and taking English hit songs and performing them in Welsh.
Last year I had recorded a new version of ‘Away in a Manger’. I rang Bronwen and asked if she might do a duet with me on a newer version and that we might record it in English and Welsh. She said yes. It was back in September Bronwen popped down to the studio. I put some Christmas lights on the studio cactus and off we went.
With the vocals in the bag I wondered who else I could ask, cajole or blackmail into being on the recording.
If you’ve ever walked through Swansea City Centre at Christmas time you are almost certain to have heard the Fiddlestick String Orchestra. Whilst Fiddlesticks might not be just for Christmas they make a great sound and so I rang their MD Andrew Griffiths. The orchestra had only just returned from Summer break and had a lot of work to do to prepare for their own festive commitments but.. within 2 weeks I had been to their Saturday afternoon rehearsal and recorded them for the record.
To compete with last year, this year’s video would really need some glamour. It was back in July when I had walked onto the stage to sing a song form my musical Amazing Grace’. As the song reached the first chorus the curtains went up to reveal Valley Rock Voices, 200 ladies dressed in red.
They never stood a chance… Valley Rock Voices Cerys Bevan & Phil Orrin !
I suggested to Carolyn we approach them. Seeing that it had worked on me she invited choir leader Cerys Bevan and MD Phil Orrin for lunch at the Kardomah. Somewhere between the tea and fried bread they agreed, and we were off. The Choir has 2 locations for rehearsals, Neath and Mumbles.
I went to both to record the choirs singing in English and Welsh and they were fab.
Now where to film and how to film? I gave my old cameraman friend Craig Street a call. He is used to my outrageous ideas having filmed ‘Warm Wind’ with the Morriston Orpheus and the DVLA ladies choir back in 2019.
I thought New Siloh in Landore or the Liberty Church as its now known would be the ideal location. It had lots of family memories for me as my grandmother used to play the organ there. It was also the site of my first solo performance in the Brynhyfryd School Carol Service back in 1968. I rang the Pastor Mark Richie and he said yes straight away.
Filming day started quietly enough. First me…
(On Location photos courtesy of Sam Bevan)
Then me and Bronwen…
The orchestra arrived before the choir...
Now New Siloh is a big church but it seemed to be filling up quite quickly I was a little concerned. Then the buses and cars arrived with 200 ladies in red. I stood at the door to greet them and they just kept coming. The stage wasn’t big enough, so we wrapped the choir around the orchestra, started filming and it was wonderful.
Last year’s album had 7 songs and this year we wanted a whole album worth. When Nashville based Country star Alyssa Bonagura came to do a gig in Swansea in September I managed to get her and her guitarist Steve Shirley into the studio to record a couple of tunes too.
Alyssa Bonagura all the way from Nashville.
Add to that a stunning brass arrangement by another Andrew Griffiths of a new Christmas song ‘Left Behind’ and now we have 12 songs.
This is the video video for ‘Away in a Manger’
This is the video for ‘I Orwedd Mewn Preseb’
We launch this year’s appeal with a special performance at Swansea market on Saturday 3rd December with Valley Rock Voices and guest appearances from Bronwen and Steve Balsamo.
Oh…and I’ve put a note in my diary… if Carolyn Harris rings next summer…don’t answer it!!!