The Enchanted Orchestra - Concert:
In 1979, pre-production had begun on The Maiden Group of Companies $25,000,000 film version of The Enchanted Orchestra which, at the time would have made it the most expensive European film to date. Armstrong was to direct from his own screenplay, based upon Barry O'Keef's children's album due for release that Christmas.
As part of the publicity machine, the idea of staging a Royal Gala Charity Concert based upon the album had been discussed with the film's publicists, Urquhart Public Relations in December of 1979. As the album was a children's album, it was decided that proceeds should go to Save the Children and, with Hohner agreeing to come on board as the concert's sponsor, Armstrong was asked to write and direct the event.
It was decided that the first part of The Enchanted Orchestra Concert should represent the film and the second half be devoted to the album.
For the first half, Loris Tjeknavorian was approached to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra for three of the pieces featured in the film: Johann Strauss's Overture to Die Fledermaus; the 1st movement of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony; and the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Additionally, the Hungarian pianist, Janos Solyom agreed to perform selected pieces from Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition and this first half of the programme would end with the world premiere of 19 year old Max Early's Fantasy for piano and orchestra, based on his principle theme for The Enchanted Orchestra.
The second half of the evening was devoted to a cast of stars presenting a reading of O'Keef's script for The Enchanted Orchestra album, adapted and modified by Armstrong especially for the Concert audience, with Early conducting his original score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Once he had completed the script, Armstrong, already heavily involved in pre-production for the film version, turned his mind to casting the concert as well as the film.
The mammoth BBC Nationwide TV search to find the little boy who would play the young David Niven in the film had narrowed the choice down to a final six, so it seemed logical to use one of them for the concert. It was not an easy choice as it involved the boy not only having to act alongside a large cast of stars, but to simulate conducting the London Symphony Orchestra playing Max Early's original score. Eventually, Armstrong settled on 9-year-old James Gilbey.
For the rest: the star line-up headed by Sir John Mills quickly fell into place - all donating their services for the sake of the charity.
As rehearsals began and the performance date loomed, the charity revealed they had mishandled protocol for a Royal invitation, which meant that despite Royal interest to attend, it would now have to be a private rather than official appearance. The knock on effect of this was that Urquhart Public Relations failed to gain the intended TV coverage of the event and, despite the charity's mammoth ticket allocation, they had barely sold any seats.
To make matters worse, the Hohner representative in charge, eager to recoup his company's sponsorship money, reduced the paid advertising budget to a minimum and insisted on Hohner's name being so prominent on all the newspaper ads as to render details of the actual concert virtually non existent. Worse, with the charity's approval, he had completely over-priced the majority of tickets, under the impression that a televised Royal performance would result in the same kind of instant sell-out from the wealthy and elite as there would be for a televised Royal Gala at the Royal Opera House.
A week before the event, while rehearsals were continuing smoothly, chaos and panic reigned in the organisation's offices as they faced the terrible prospect of the concert not only playing to a virtually empty Royal Albert Hall but also losing its sponsor every penny. Additionally. the film's escalating funding problems had now erupted into fierce legal arguments at an international level concerning possible fraudulent misrepresentation and a feud over ownership of copyrights. [See Film Archive: The Enchanted Orchestra]
To add insult to injury, the sponsor's representative - now frantically trying to minimise impending losses - cancelled the after-show reception intended as a means of thanking the artistes and ground workers for donating their services.
Angry that the performers and crew should be penalised for the shortcomings of the organisers, Armstrong took it upon himself to re-instate the reception with the generous assistance of a West End restaurant, The Trota Blu, at which he was a regular patron.
Then, as a last minute effort to sell tickets was having an effect, the film's increasingly unpleasant battles spilled over into the concert with the film investors' international lawyers applying for an injunction to stop the performance taking place.
With the injunction to be considered by the courts the very morning of the concert and with the full dress rehearsal due at noon, a furious Armstrong - although not directly involved in the film's conflicts - stormed into The Temple law courts and threatened to expose the whole scandal regarding the film to the press, naming everyone concerned for preventing a Royal star-packed one-off charity show for Save the Children taking place. At the request of their clients, the lawyers instantly withdrew the application for an injunction and Armstrong hastened back to his dress rehearsal.
After all the nightmares, the actual concert, itself, proved to be an overwhelming success at every level, received a standing ovation from a star-studded black tie audience. It was also noted, privately, that certain members of both British and European royal households had attended unofficially.
The evening's after-show reception, donated by The Trota Blu restaurant, also proved to be a huge success, despite an overflow of uninvited guests brought along by the sponsor's representative.
In the aftermath, Save the Children received less money than had been estimated, Hohner fired its representative for his incompetent handling of the whole project and the concert did nothing to instigate album sales or prevent the ultimate crash and demise of The Enchanted Orchestra film project.
As Armstrong recalls, "The show itself was difficult because of combining and cueing in the orchestra with the actors. We'd only managed to have a couple of very short rehearsals with everyone and yet, on the night, everything worked just perfectly. The cast were on top form and James was - well - wonderful. When he stood on the podium, at the end, ‘conducting' the entire London Symphony Orchestra and shouting out his lines over the music - it just set your whole spine tingling - and, of course, the audience loved it. For those of us who'd been creatively involved with The Enchanted Orchestra project as album, film and concert - from the very beginning, that night was - to quote Lerner and Loewe's Camelot - our ‘one brief shining moment' before King Arthur's glorious castle turned into Poe's doomed House Of Usher and sank into ‘the deep and dark tarn'."
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