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Brave new world: James Breward on Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds’ final outing

No one would have believed in the first years of the 21st century that The War of the Worlds would be undertaking its last ever arena tour...

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds – the concept-album adaptation of HG Wells’s science-fiction classic by the titular composer, producer and conductor – has, since its release in 1978, spawned a slew of spin-offs, including remix albums, video games, an animated movie and a series of live concerts.

Wayne first took The War of the Worlds on the road in 2006, and recently completed the show’s seventh and final tour. The 17 dates in the UK and continental Europe saw Wayne, the performers (which included Jason Donovan as Parson Nathaniel, Westlife’s Brian McFadden as ‘the sung thoughts of the Journalist’ and The X Factor winner Shayne Ward as the Artilleryman), the 36-piece ULLAdubULLA Strings and the nine-piece Black Smoke Band mixed live in surround sound, and a host of groundbreaking special effects – including a 35’-tall Martian ‘fighting-machine’ shooting real flames into the arena.

From a technical standpoint, the tour marked the first time War of the Worlds production sound engineer James ‘Brew’ Breward has made use of Clear-Com’s new FreeSpeak II wireless intercom system. On 14 December, PSNEurope jumped aboard the Thunder Child (RIP) and set a course for the south coast of England to catch up with Brew at that night’s show in Brighton…

PSN: Tell us a bit about your history with this project…
JB: My original remit was to do the keyboard tech and look after the playback. Having come from a theatre background, where we did comms in a more involved way than in the rock and roll environment, it became apparent that there was a need to tie all the different departments together. When we were first here [in 2006], the production manager started the show by flashing his Maglite at me! Things have moved on somewhat now: we’ve got a full comms matrix, a load of people on in-ears, a load of RF radio talkback stuff and a load of in-place Motorolas – and we now click on FreeSpeak II as the full duplex solution. So far, it’s been the best digital system we’ve had on any incarnation of the tour.

Did everything get ripped out of The O2 last night and put in today?
Yes, it’s fairly involved – there are 60-odd people working on the show. We did two shows at The O2 yesterday, so the first taxis out of the hotel were at 2am […] the PA guys went in at 4am, backline was in at 7am, two shows a day, then all away by 2am, so it makes it an absolute roast of a day… not to be encouraged by any stretch!

But normally, when it’s a rolling tour, the riggers will be off at seven, 7.30ish, first truck tips at eight, backline’s tipped by 10… the stage is built in the middle of the arena and then rolls downwards – all the lights and projection are complete at the stage end – so you can only do it in an arena where you can clear all the floor out. Sound check at two, by which point all the guys that were in first thing are back in the bus, getting another couple of hours’ kip – and then the show.

It’s a big show, an involved show – much more so than other, simpler rock and roll, band-orientated tours [I’ve worked on]… it’s a spectacle.

What are the vital statistics of the system?
We’re running six FreeSpeak beltpacks connected to three transceivers – it’s the standalone system that’s on the market now. In Glasgow, I was lucky enough to have a trial of the fully blown matrix incarnation of it, and we had 16 beltpacks in that environment with 13 transceivers. Again, that worked very well there. For a rock and roll touring show, it’s a fairly involved experience.

Is there a point in the show where the Clear-Com kit is tested to the max?
There’s no pivotal moment – but, basically, the guys working round the stage couldn’t do what they have to do if they were tethered: it has to be a wireless solution.

Historically, that would be Telex BTR kit – obviously that sounds great, but you get the problem that it’s frequency-intensive for eight users, so there’s a cost associated with that. [Also,] virtually any hire company that owns the Telex BTRs now, they’re tired: you’ve nearly got to tour 50 per cent spares, and on a daily touring show you just don’t have the time to be fixing those faults daily, so you’ve got to turn to more modern solutions.

There are a lot of really poor digital solutions on the market, but the FreeSpeak II is the latest offering into that space and it’s fantastic – the fidelity of it, the feature set of it and, for the most part, the RF coverage of it: I mean, it’s difficult to take something on a daily touring basis into a completely different environment and only really have the time to take it out of the box, quickly check it, and then on it goes. There’s not a lot of time for finessing antenna positions or any of that kind of nonsense.

The Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds 2014 UK and Europe tour ran from 27 November to 15 December, culminating with two shows at the Brighton Centre on the 14th and 15th. (Although if Wayne does change his mind and decide to return for tour number eight, he’ll surely only need a handful of men to start all over agaiiiiiiiin…)

Main photo: Roy Smiljanic/Roy Smiljanic Photography (