A galaxy of theatre and TV stars have lent their support once again for Oxford’s traditional Christmas concert in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.
Follow the Stars: A Celebration of Christmas features Stephen Fry, Sinead Cusack, Jeremy Irons, Max Irons, Greg Wise, Joanna Lumley and Toby Jones, as well as poet Benjamin Zephaniah.
The event also features baritones Roderick Williams and Christopher Purves, singer and radio/television presenter Alexander Armstrong and his son, New College chorister Paddy Armstrong, and the Oxford Bach Soloists, with conductor Tom Hammond-Davies and organist Steven Grahl.
Now in its 24th year, the Macmillan Christmas concert normally takes place at Christ Church Cathedral and is one of the highlights of Oxford’s festive season.
This year, the concert will be livestreamed for the first time, but most of it was filmed at Christ Church – so it will, says committee chair Sandra Devaney still look “very beautiful and Christmassy”.
“I felt quite strongly that I didn’t want to do a Zoom-type movie where you’ve got lots of different boxes with people looking out at you,” she adds.
“If we were going to do this, we wanted to try to recreate the warmth and atmosphere of the cathedral, and to do something really good quality and a bit different from the other streamed things people have been doing.
“The people at the cathedral have been fantastic, really helpful. There was quite a long period when we couldn’t get in there because of Covid restrictions, but once that was a possibility we got the choir and film crew organized, and the solo singers, and it was all socially distanced.
“Everyone was so happy to be together again, and the atmosphere was really gorgeous.
“It was summer, everyone was boiling hot and trying to recreate a Christmas atmosphere, but it all worked out!”
Audiences can enjoy some traditional seasonal fare from the guest soloists, including The Three Kings (Roderick Williams and Christopher Purves), Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (Alexander Armstrong) and In the Bleak Midwinter (Paddy Armstrong), as well as a selection of Christmas choral music from the Oxford Bach Choir.
The concert is interspersed with readings and talks by the celebrities, filmed at their homes.
One of the more poignant contributions comes from actor and producer Greg Wise (Sense and Sensibility, The Crown, Military Wives), who talks about his sister, film executive Clare Wise, who sadly lost her battle with cancer in 2016, aged 51.
“He’s done an amazing piece about his experience of his sister having cancer, and how the Macmillan nurses helped him,” says Sandra. “He says he doesn’t know how they’d have coped without them.
“So that’s a brilliant little piece, which was filmed in August by his fireside in Scotland with his Christmas jumper on!”
At just 50 minutes the concert is shorter than usual, but it packs a lot in and Sandra feels this is a more suitable length for livestreaming.
“People’s attention spans when they’re watching something streamed is not the same as when they’re in an incredible cathedral with everything else that’s going on,” she says. “We felt we needed to keep things short, not have long readings, and give people their favourite things.
“So we’ve chosen the nation’s favourite carols, and we’ve got all our beautiful readings. We’ve also got the Bishop of Oxford giving a blessing, which is wonderful.”
The Macmillan concert will feel rather different this year, but by retaining its traditional format it will still manage to feel cosily familiar.
“It’s Christmassy, it’s traditional, it’s all being done to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, and it’s really enjoyable as well,” says Sandra.
“We’ve kept everything really upbeat and positive. It’s a great event and we’re all here to have a fantastic time, but anything people can do to help would be great.”
Follow the Stars: A Celebration of Christmas premieres on Friday December 11 at 8pm and will remain available until December 31. The concert is free to view, but you need to register. For details, and to donate, visit www.Macmillan.org.uk/followthestars