Edinburgh Festival Fireworks set for launch

Keith Webb sets up fireworks for Sunday night's display. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Keith Webb sets up fireworks for Sunday night's display. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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It’s the ultimate big bang, a dazzling display of light and sound, perfectly choreographed to stirring music, all played out on one of the most stunning of stages.

Now the Festival performers have packed up and headed off for another year, it’s time for the real star of the biggest show in town to put on her spectacular annual display.

Of course, Edinburgh Castle has nothing to do other than stand back and look pretty, as above, below and all around her famous rock disappears ­behind an explosion of a brilliant display of stunning ­colours.

Around 250,000 people will gather to watch Sunday’s ­Virgin Money Fireworks ­Concert, the traditional closing act in the city’s busy Festival calendar and when thousands of pounds worth of sky-high rockets, powerful Roman candles and thrilling pyrotechnics – around four tonnes in all – explode over the Castle.

As if each blast isn’t spectacular enough, it will all be meticulously timed to coincide with the stirring sounds of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, led by conductor Garry Walker, performing familiar classical sounds specially chosen to ­reflect the theme of war and conciliation in honour of this year’s centenary of the outbreak of World War One.

Sunday’s light show will kick off at 9pm, when Cramond lad and internationally acclaimed pyrotechnics expert Keith Webb sets off the first firework from his control room bunker within the Castle – and begins a chain reaction which will last for 45 amazing minutes.

Even though this is his 30th year of making the Festival Fireworks go with a dramatic bang, Keith, 50, whose parents met while his father, Alfred, was serving in the army and posted to Edinburgh Castle, admits it’s still a tense moment as his finger hovers over the switch and the seconds count down to the opening ­sequence.

“I like the pressure of the live event,” he says.

“There’s no rehearsal, so when I start pushing buttons, that’s it, there’s nothing I can do to stop what’s going to ­happen.

“We are firing four tonnes of fireworks off in a relatively short period of time. If you get it wrong, it’s pretty 
bloody obvious.”

Years of experience, however, means Keith and his Pyrovision team – including fire watchers whose job it is to ensure there are no smouldering fireworks creating a danger between ­sequences – rarely, if ever, get it wrong.

Indeed under his watchful eye, the Festival Fireworks have brought the city centre to a standstill for three decades without major incident, with all eyes on its stunning cacophony of booms, bangs and brilliant colours which seem to dance perfectly in time to the music.

Yet while the crowds – from those with the best seats in the house at the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens to those perched on Calton Hill or Inverleith Park – soak up the spectacular view, Keith, who now lives in Lincolnshire, rarely sees the full event, he’s too busy making it all happen from his cubby hole 
within the Castle.

From there, head designer Keith and his team communicate with the orchestra leader on ground level below, ensuring each sequence corresponds precisely in time to the music.

This year he’s been set a fresh challenge, to make one of the world’s best known classical tunes – Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – come alive in a new and 
fresh way.

“We are telling a bit of story,” he explains, “The 1812 is about the Russian defeat of the French, it’s regularly used for firework displays but very rarely in its entirety of around 15 minutes. We’ve never done a piece that long before.

“It’s exciting. We’ll pick out the French theme in parts and the Castle will be a fiery red to represent Moscow 
under attack.”

Around 400,000 fireworks will be used, lighting up the night sky in what is the largest annual fireworks concert in 
the world. Along with Tchaikovsky’s famous overture, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra will perform Wagner’s stirring Ride of the Valkyries, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Mendelssohn’s War March of the Priests from Athalie and Debussy’s 
Marche Ecossaise.

The first Festival Fireworks Concert was held in 1982. It was the brain-child of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and then Edinburgh International Festival director Sir John Drummond, the idea being to widen the appeal of the Festival to local audiences and increase the festive atmosphere 
in the city. Keith has worked on every event since 1984, and says laying the cables for the fireworks means he’s seen parts of the Castle that visitors 
rarely see.

Over the week leading up to the event, 15 pyrotechnicians set fireworks on 17 different levels of Edinburgh Castle, from the ramparts to along the top of the Castle rock.

In addition to the four tonnes of explosives and hundreds of thousands of fireworks used during the 45-minute concert, 12 tonnes of kit are also deployed, including cables, mortar racks and 
plywood frames.

The hugely popular fireworks ‘Waterfall’ is laid out over 118ft and descends 131ft in just one minute.

Its elements alone take two days to make in the manufacturer’s factory, two days additional work at Pyrovision’s headquarters in Lincolnshire, and half a day to lay out at the Castle.

It consists of 70 firing units laid out across the Castle. Coarse aluminium flakes cause the fireworks to descend, and fine aluminium flakes give the display its beautiful 
silver/whiteness.

Last year’s display featured two Waterfalls for the first time, a longer secondary waterfall outlining the edge of the Castle ramparts alongside the 
traditional one.

Keith, whose mum, Wilma, came from Musselburgh and who spent a short time at Cramond Primary School before moving south, says the cost of the whole shebang is kept under wraps.

He adds: “There’s always some party poopers who say it’s money up in smoke, but this event entertains 250,000 people every time.

“All ages, family, friends, adults and children come along and come home together having had a great evening and saying ‘wasn’t that good?’

“If you have done that, 
then it’s worth every penny.”

• Visit www.eif.co.uk/virginmoneyfireworks for advice on how to make the best of the Virgin Money 
Fireworks Concert. Tickets to watch the event from Princes Street Gardens are still available via Hub Tickets, by calling 0131-473 2000, or online at www.eif.co.uk. The family viewing area at Inverleith Park is free to enter from 7pm and features a live big-screen relay of the concert from Princes Street Gardens.

Fireworks facts

• 250,000 approximate audience

• 400,000 fireworks choreographed to music

• Orchestra has 55 players – 14 violins, five horns, four cellos, three flutes, two bassoons, and one harp.

• 15 pyrotechnicians take seven days to set-up the display

• Four tonnes of explosives and five miles of cable is used

• The famous Waterfall is laid out over 36 metres across the Castle walls, lasts 60 second and descends 40 metres down Castle Rock

• The fireworks concert has been running for 32 years

WIN 50 PAIRS OF TICKETS TO GARDENS

We have teamed up with the organisers of the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert to give away 50 pairs of Gardens tickets for readers. The gardens is strictly ticketed allowing people to go along and enjoy the spectacular with a picnic. If you would like to win a pair of tickets, simply answer this question:

How many years has the fireworks concert been running?

Email your answer, name and contact number to contact@eif.co.uk by 5pm tomorrow using the subject heading ‘Evening News Fireworks Competition’. Tickets can be collected from the Hub box office on Sunday, 1pm-8pm.