Shaun Evans and Sinead Cusack at the Macmillan concert last year

Tickets are selling fast for one of Oxford’s most popular annual Christmas events, which is coming up at Christ Church Cathedral this Friday. 

‘A Celebration of Christmas’ was founded in 1997 by Petronella Seccombe to raise vital funds for Macmillan Cancer Support, and this candlelit re-telling of the Christmas story through traditional carols, seasonal music and readings by celebrity guests is always popular, attracting audiences from around the country. 

Endeavour fans will be delighted that leading man Shaun Evans, who wowed last year’s audiences at Christ Church, is back for what he described after the 2018 concert as a “wonderful mixture of laughter and music” and “a joyous event, beautiful location, great readings and really nice start to the Christmas season”.

Tom Hammond-Davis conductor

He is joined by Patricia Hodge (A Very English Scandal, Miranda, Downton Abbey), Sally Phillips (Bridget Jones, Miranda, Smack the Pony) and Roger Allam (Rutherford and Sons at the National Theatre, Endeavour). 

The support of the celebrity readers is a key to the success of the concert.

“It’s very kind of them all to give up their time,” says Phillipa Rooney, one of the committee members. 

“I think Shaun really enjoyed the concert last year and said he’d be very happy to come back, so it’s lovely that he’s decided to help us out again.

“We’ve got a fabulous line-up of some really great actors, and we’ve got some excellent readings. As always it will be a range of some light-hearted and some more serious, beautiful readings, and I think that’s going to provide a good mix with the music.”

The concert will start in the traditional way, with a soloist from Christ Church Cathedral Choir singing that spine-tingling opening verse to Once in Royal David’s City, and there will be plenty of opportunities for the audience to join in with the traditional carols.

The Bishop Of Oxford

There are a few surprises, too, with some less well-known seasonal offerings from this year’s guest choir, the Oxford Bach Soloists, conducted by Tom Hammond-Davis.

“The choir are doing quite an interesting range of things, from the very religious Christmas music to light-hearted, jazzy-type things,” Phillipa says. 

“What’s also nice about the choir is that they sing some numbers in different parts of the cathedral. I think that makes it nice for people who are sitting at the back or the sides because they’re still very much involved in the action.”

One of the choir’s pieces will be a new carol, Questions, A Lullaby Carol, with music by former Christ Church sub-organist David Goode and words by Dr Francis Warner, Emeritus Fellow of St Peter’s College, who has the distinction of being one of the last pupils of C.S. Lewis. 

“Francis is coming to the concert to read his poem, and then the choir will sing the poem set to music,” explains Phillipa. “He obviously has this great connection with Oxford, so it’s rather lovely that he’s going to read his own poem.”

The audience enjoying the evening

As in previous years, the Magdalen College School Brass Ensemble will provide the entertainment as the audience arrives.

“I think it’s going to be fantastic,” says Phillipa. “It was a big success last year, and it’s looking like it’s set to be just as good this year, if not better.”

The ultimate purpose of the concert, of course, is to raise as much money as possible for a very worthy cause, and organisers are hoping to beat last year’s total of £40,000.

“That was really great,” says Phillipa. “People were very generous in the retiring collection. You never quite know what that’s going to bring in, so that helped.

“We also had a few people who made donations, but the vast majority is made on the ticket sales, so selling all the tickets is obviously really important. I think we’re very close to that. We always hope we’ll sell out.”

Is there a target organisers hope to reach?

“We have this magic number of £53,000, which is the annual cost of a Macmillan nurse, and we always think if we could be funding a nurse for the Oxfordshire area that would be fantastic. So I think that would be our jackpot target, but I think we’ll build towards it over time. If we made that this year that would be incredible!”

‘A Celebration of Christmas’ is at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, on Friday December 6 at 8pm. Tickets: 01865 305305 or www.ticketsoxford.com

NICOLA LISLE 

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