A night in at the Royal Variety Performance Blackpool 2020 - a 'once in a lifetime' gig how it felt to be part of a live virtual audience for historic performance

All dressed up and nowhere to go but joining a virtual audience (how very 2020) no one wants to be caught on web cam in their pyjamas, from the waist up at least anyway.

Monday, 30th November 2020, 4:33 pm
Updated Monday, 30th November 2020, 4:38 pm

And for some reason donning our best dress for this historic occasion, it just felt right.

A night out 'at the theatre' had been long overdue but on Sunday November 29, 2020, the Royal Variety Show returned to Blackpool, the Winter Gardens for the third time in its 108-year history.

The Opera House, in fact the entire venue played its part in hosting this iconic event and bringing together a wealth of British talent together live on an actual stage and a real audience, albeit on state of the art screens placed in the stalls and balcony of the world famous theatre.

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Chairman of the RVS Giles Cooper had told me in our pre-show conversations, even amidst the challenges of lockdown and Covid restrictions, the charity team along with ITV, had been determined to make it happen and make of it the best they could.

A behind the scenes sneak peek of the stage last Friday, with the orchestra rehearsing in full flow had given me goosebumps.

It was an extraordinary and strange experience being inside this familiar venue, with the production team working tirelessly around us in difficult circumstances with the limitations of Covid rules. But it felt busy, as it should.

The last time I had witnessed such a hive of activity and a live performance in the Opera House was back in February with the touring show of The Sound of Music.

Joining in from home entertainments reporter Nicola Jaques gives an insight on a very different but historic Royal Variety Performance in Blackpool.

That production featured Andrew Lancel, who last night returned to accompany theatre great Sheridan Smith as she gave a spine tingling rendition of the legendary “Liverpool Sound” from the musical Cilla.

It was one amazing act from a spectacular and heartwarming show reel of performances, which also included a very special exclusive from Samantha Barks, who is to play Elsa in the Frozen Musical, which opens in the West End for the very first time next year.

This was magical in every sense of the word but also tinged a little in sadness for all involved for the way this year's show had, had to go ahead.

A virtual audience was 'unique' a first, 'once in a lifetime' said host, comedian Jason Manford but he was not for pretending it is what he or anyone else would have wanted.

Award winning Sheridan Smith performs as Cilla at the Royal Variety Performance Blackpool 2020 Pictures: ITV Matt Frost

"Lets hope it's the first and the last time," he said and meant it.

Even still, we laughed, we danced, we sang, there was a real togetherness as the essence of theatre beamed directly into my front room.

The importance of variety and what it brings to people was very much at the heart of this special Royal Variety Performance and every act without doubt ensured they brought the extra energy required to pull it off, which was no mean feat.

And it was quite the programme Gary Barlow, Melanie C, Celeste, Michael Ball, Steps, magic from Stephen Mulhearn, Jo Caulfield, BGT winner Jon Courtenay and Deliso Chaponda.

The Royal Variety Performance Blackpool virtual audience in the Opera House

For one night, three full hours, this audience was able to escape from a dreary day and 'a world gone mad' into fun and joy wrapped up in classic Blackpool charm.

It was a little dreamlike.

Being on stage isn't just a job, it's a labour of love, a way of life. There perhaps has never been a year where the work of the Royal Variety Charity in its long history has ever been more needed. The fact this year's show came from the Fylde coast was even more fitting. This was by coincidence not design.

A great PR boost said Michael Williams, general manager of the Winter Gardens, the show had finally arrived and been able to go ahead as planned, when the town most needed it but just to imagine the buzz had the resort been able to use the occasion to its full potential....

Surreal but a moment in history those of us privileged to be 'in the stalls' in the Opera House, on the stage and just as important those off it too will never forget.

Blackpool, the undisputed home of showbiz, once again delivered and has certainly cemented its unique bond with the Royal Variety Performance. Until next time.

Samantha Barks' mesmerising performance as Elsa from the Frozen Musical which will debut in the West End in 2021.

"We will be back," said Mr Cooper, "And next time we hope it won't be as long."

Royal Variety Performance airs on ITV, Tuesday December 8 at 8pm.

For more on the Royal Variety Charity, to donate or apply for help visit https://www.royalvarietycharity.org/royal-variety-charity/

Royal Variety Performance 2020 at Blackpool Winter Gardens Opera House Pictures ITV Matt Frost