Groupe F: Interview with artistic director ahead of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band’ Liverpool display
Liverpool will celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ with 13 specially commissioned events taking place across the city – each a reimagining of a different track from the 1967 masterpiece.
Exactly five decades on from the release of the ground breaking album on 1 June, French production company Groupe F – famous worldwide for its stunning firework and pyrotechnics shows – will present a new work inspired by ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’.
We catch up with artistic director and CEO, Christophe Berthonneau as he puts the finishing touches to the ‘part performance, part storytelling and part pyro display’.
Interview by Lawrence Saunders
When did you first become interested in fireworks and pyrotechnics?
The first time I was really touched by fire was when I was a teenager. I was working in a metal foundry where I discovered the fusion of the metals, the light on the workers and the spark when the fire touched things. That was the beginning for me.
Remember, fire is not an element but rather the time in between – a short time of energy which is very impressive and one that you remember.
I began to consider how people had never used fire in a theoretical way, so I started to rethink about what fire conceptually means to us. I started with the sun, how it was created by a massive nuclear explosion and provides us with our light, and then how the sun revealed the cosmos.
The opposite of this is the time of destruction, the time of something disappearing. What you see today in the sky may have already disappeared because by the time it arrives to you it is possibly already finished. This kind of subversion runs throughout all of my work.
For me, it’s about how you can show something and feel it inside you and what kind of poetry you can develop in the contradiction between the two.
“The influence of The Beatles has been huge right across the world. I think they chose me because they understand my point of view about global poetry.”
Where did the idea for Groupe F come from?
The idea for the group originally came from street theatre.
A lot of the members of Groupe F came from working outside traditional theatres in the 1980s and trying to express something out in the public domain.
We had also spent a long time playing with fire and fireworks, so we had been creating a structure to reinvent the way to use the beautiful light of pyrotechnics and flame.
You’ve created spectacular shows for high profile events throughout your career, including the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, but which has been your favourite?
Sometimes you do a job where you unify a lot of people around an abstract fact and it makes you feel happy, so to tell you which show is the best is very difficult.
I remember a job we did in Brixton in the mid-1990s with 160 local kids which was a very modest production but an incredibly moving one. I’m not sure if it was the best thing I’ve done artistically, but in terms of the human story it was probably the most moving.
Of course, I will always remember the fireworks we did on the Eiffel Tower for the millennium celebrations. The production was a simple idea, 100% abstract – but the show inspired people with a lot of hope.
And the most difficult to execute?
A recent one in Seoul, South Korea to mark the opening of the Lotte World Tower – the world’s fifth tallest skyscraper. We had to deal with 500 points of display and understand the Korean culture and the country’s different regulations.
Luckily the show went fantastically well and everyone was very touched by the elegance of it all.
Are you a fan of The Beatles? How happy are you to be involved with the Sgt. Pepper’s celebrations?
When they called me I said ‘Are you sure? This French guy?!’
The influence of The Beatles has been huge right across the world. I think they chose me because they understand my point of view about global poetry.
I picked up a little bit of English as I started to work around the world, but I never had lessons at school, so I didn’t understand the words of The Beatles. This means when I was a teenager, I couldn’t understand the lyrics of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ – I just remembered the poetry of the words.
So, for me, ‘Lucy in The Sky’ or anything else from The Beatles was just sound and reason – I projected my own imagination onto it.
The Beatles are a monument, a huge thing that means different things to different people around the world. Every person has his/her own Beatles.
Has it been difficult to come up with a show based around just one song?
As we speak I’m designing the show, trying to strike a balance between ideas and efficiency.
If you work with something which is absolutely virgin, it’s simple because you’re not going to insult people.
In this case there are billions of people who have their own idea of Lucy, but I have my own vision for her and it’s only mine.
People are waiting for a beautiful firework show with Lucy so what do I do?
I still haven’t decided. My idea for Lucy is for you to close your eyes and to feel that beautiful music and at the same time celebrate it with some kind of interpretation but who am I to decide what Lucy is?
What should people expect from the show?
I want to do the opposite of a normal fireworks show. Camp Hill is a very quiet area where hopefully the audience can be seated.
We are celebrating 50 years since ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ but there is also a line that runs from ‘Lucy’ in 1967 right up until today. We are trying to think about what has happened in that intervening half a century.
Scott Gibbons, who will create a new sound score for this event inspired by ‘Lucy in the Sky’ and other songs from ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’, has been very closely involved with the planning.
People think this is going to be big, enormous, but no, it’s just a little bit of art with pyro!