The business that makes the greatest shows on earth
PUBLISHED: 09:08 02 November 2020
Hidden away in a North Yorkshire village, you’ll find a business making huge stage sets for global audiences, from TV’s The Voice, to the Olympics, to Trafalgar Square’s plinths
If you have ever wondered how a giant fluorescent red lion appeared overnight in Trafalgar Square or the Olympic Rings on Tower Bridge, look no further than the tiny village of Tockwith, near York.
Behind the vast doors of three huge industrial hangars on the outskirts of the village is a world of extraordinary creativity, in which ground-breaking concepts are transformed into remarkable feats of design and engineering destined for prestigious events across the world.
Occupying more than 14,000 square metres of open space, these vast buildings house a team of some of the finest crafts people and innovators in the UK, who spend months – sometimes years – developing jaw-dropping constructions for the entertainment, marketing and sports industries.
Yet Stage One is probably one of the county’s best-kept secrets.
How many viewers of the TV series The Voice, for example, know that the spectacular stage set was built and engineered right here in Yorkshire; that Stormzy’s ‘Rain Deck’ at the Brit Awards was a Tockwith innovation, or that the 2012 Olympic cauldron – designed by Thomas Heatherwick - was engineered and constructed by the team that cultivates the seed of an idea into a forest of mechanical structures?
It would take an entire book to do justice to the wealth of projects and the extraordinary individuals behind them, as Stage One CEO Mark Johnson is quick to point out.
‘They are the people who make it happen,’ he says. ‘The success of each and every project is down to the people whose skills are second to none.’
The team is divided into sub-teams specialising in research and development, design, joinery, mechanical engineering, sculpture, lighting, special effects, upholstery, rigging, electronics, electrical engineering, automation, project management and installation. They have bases in Abu Dhabi and the State of Qatar and a bank of support teams across the globe who help with the complexities of massive on-site installations.
It was Mark, along with three other original owners, MD Simon Whitaker, Sales Director Simon Wood and Technical Director Jim Tinsley - who developed the business into a leading force in its highly specialised field. Over the years the founding directors have retired leaving Mark at the helm of an ever evolving, innovating and developing company which has taken him all over the world.
Born in Headingly, Leeds, Mark started working life as an apprentice turner-fitter for a company in Seacroft. Following a couple of setbacks – including redundancy – he set up his own business before teaming up with his old school friend, electrical engineer Jim Tinsley as a stage technician, working primarily for the West Yorkshire Playhouse. One thing led to another and by the time he was in his mid-twenties Mark and Jim had joined forces with ex-Opera North employees Eddie de Pledge and Mike Roberts to launch Hangar Services in Tockwith. At first they focused on UK ballet and opera companies alongside large arena touring events, but as they started moving into corporate circles they merged with systems-driven Stage One, based in Shipley. It was the mid 1990s and their combined skill-sets created a force to be reckoned with in the world of stage sets, live events and ceremonies.
Over time, and as the structure of the business evolved, Mark took on the role of MD, closed the Shipley site, moved all production to Tockwith, and steered the company towards ever-more challenging projects.
‘There are certain milestones throughout the 30-year history of Stage One which were defining moments in the way it evolved,’ says Mark. ‘One such project was the 2004 Athens Olympics when we had the unique opportunity to supply the arial engineering, main stage and the iconic Cycladic head sculpture for the opening and closing ceremonies. No-one else was doing what we were doing at the time and we put everything on the line for a 30-second section of the show.’ Everything was engineered, sculpted and prototyped out of our facility in Tockwith, all of which was then delivered, installed and operated by us on site.
‘We had never done anything on that scale before and anything could have gone wrong at any stage of the process, so it was nail-biting stuff. Fortunately, it was a success and opened up all kinds of doors for us. Our USP is to deliver on time, on budget and to specification and expectations. There is no room for failure and if we hit a problem, we have to find a way round it. The show must go on.’
Some of the biggest challenges are created by the cutting-edge technology employed by Stage One, the human factors that come with a large cast of volunteers, actors and props – which can let them down at the eleventh hour - and the weather, which can be extreme.
But over the years the team has prepared itself for all eventualities as well as building up a stock of kit for repeat jobs, and developing methods for modifying and customising prototypes to cater for individual projects.
Stage One now deals with as many as 200 projects a year – on average three to four a week – and is focusing on quality rather than quantity in the years ahead. To help facilitate this, Mark launched a 3D printing business called FluxAxis under the Stage One umbrella three years ago, enabling them to custom machine print anything from microscale components to gigantic stadium-scale sculptures.
Naturally the global pandemic had affected the business. First disruption was in mid-February when Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was cancelled. Six months of planning and production was put into storage rather than on to trucks bound for Spain.
This was soon followed by cancellation or postponement of many other gigs. Cannes Lions, Venice Biennale, Serpentine Pavilion, EXPO2020 are just a few of the many opportunities that have been snatched from the grasp of the business.
‘We are in the business of crowds and so it’s no surprise that we are particularly impacted in this way’, says Mark.
‘We’ve been fortunate that not all of our activity has been curtailed. We have several permanent install projects underway that have simply been delayed rather than cancelled.
‘We want to focus on innovation, forward thinking technology, engineering and fabrication,’ says Mark. ‘We would particularly like to be involved in more specialist pieces involving architecture, furniture and kinetic sculpture. Alongside the really big international projects we would like to develop smaller budget ideas which really push our skills and innovation to the limit.’
Ideas which will sit side by side with spectacular stage sets worthy of an Olympic opening ceremony or a City of Culture launch, major film industry exhibitions and television spectaculars.
‘We have spent the early part of the year developing ideas which will steer the business in new directions, such as a scheme for the Johnny Walker Whisky Experience, and we would like to do more with other Yorkshire-based organisations alongside the global sector,’ says Mark. ‘My job is to steer and facilitate, but the true success of Stage One lies in the amazing people who work here.