History of Hymns and Arias in Sporting Arenas

1993-02-06-LWMVC-at-National-Ground-CardMore memories from Joe

For the third of my lock-down projects, and with the help of Gethin Williams, Keith Warren,Jeremy Wood and Dr Haydn James, I take a look at all the sporting arena performances that the London Welsh Male Voice Choir has been involved in.

The Arenas

 The rehearsals are over. You walk out in your red jackets, heart-thumping, into a half empty stadium and stand on the pitch, pre-match, looking at the vast space of the arena that will, in a short time, be packed to the rafters with fervent supporters. You are performing to a captive audience whose hearts and souls are perfectly in tune with yours and who give you their undivided attention as the atmosphere is ramped up minutes before kick-off. You are privileged to be here, walking on hallowed turf.

 You feel the excitement and pride of appearing before an expectant nation. You smell the newly cut and watered grass. You hear the roar and stand in unison with your heroes as they walk on to the pitch. There is a moment’s silence as the crowd rises and all eyes are on you, and your eyes are on the conductor, as his baton brings in the band accompaniment before experiencing the spine-tingling emotion of singing your national anthem to an arena packed with rugby fans and a live television audience of millions.

You are part of extraordinary matches and you witness legends being made and folklore created in song. You are on the field with The London Welsh Male Voice Choir and you will be part of some of Wales’s most iconic rugby matches in modern times.


Cardiff Arms Park 1993

It is the 6th of February 1993, the day of the Wales v England 5 Nations International at Cardiff Arms Park, and Welsh rugby is going through a mediocre patch. England had won the Grand Slam the season before, demolishing Wales 24 - 0 at Twickenham in the process, so not even the most fervent Welsh supporter gave Wales much chance. The London Welsh Male Voice Choir had been asked by the Welsh Rugby Union to sing at the game and try and build the pre-match atmosphere.

This was the first time that the choir had appeared at an international game and what a game it was, played in the company of Diana, Princess of Wales.

England seemed to be in control and looked dangerous in attack when “just before half-time Welsh wing Ieuan Evans, chasing a loose kick from back-row forward Emyr Lewis, took his opposite number, the highly rated Rory Underwood, completely by surprise and kicked ahead to the England line. He easily beat Underwood and England full back Jonathan Webb to the touch down and a legend was born as Wales dug deep in the second half and went on to win 10-9.

Classic Encounters: Five Nations Wales V England Cardiff Arms Park 1993

Ieuan Scores

We sang after the game in the many hospitality bars in the Arms Park and an extra verse of ‘When the Coal Comes from The Rhondda’ was added to include the words ‘When Ieuan Rounded Rory, I was There!”

What a wonderful introduction to the world of international rugby.

Wembley Stadium 1998-99

At the end of 1995, it was announced that the 1999 Rugby World Cup had been awarded to Wales and that a brand-new, state of the art rugby stadium with a sliding roof would be built on the current site of Cardiff Arms Park. We are excited at the prospect and proud to be Welsh. The Welsh Rugby Union also announces that, while the new stadium is under construction, all Welsh home rugby internationals will be played at Wembley Stadium. Opportunity knocks and the choir contacts the Welsh Rugby Union to ask if it is possible that, as a London based choir, we can be considered as the pre-match choir for all home internationals played at Wembley. The WRU agree and it is the start of yet another remarkable, media-rich era for the choir.

Wales didn’t do too well in the two years they played their games at Wembley, and their 7-42 defeat to New Zealand in their first game at the famous football stadium didn’t bode well for the remaining games, and after suffering a humiliating 0-51 defeat to France in 1998 and losing 96–13 to South Africa on its summer tour, the Welsh Rugby Union appointed New Zealander Graham Henry as national coach to replace Kevin Bowring who, as a player had captained London Welsh in its centenary season.

Henry led Wales to a 11 match winning streak and earned him the nickname ‘The Great Redeemer’ after the line in the hymn Cwm Rhondda.

Wales v England. A Perfect Day. April 1999

 The date 11th April 1999 will forever be part of the folklore of Welsh Rugby. Wales hosted England at Wembley in the final game of the 5 Nations and England were going for the Grand Slam. We knew that this was going to be a big game but were unprepared for the media interest that it evoked. It was the final game that Wales were to play at their ‘borrowed’ home before returning to the brand-new Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in time for the Rugby World Cup.

We were fortunate that we had in the choir at that time a chorister named Jeremy Wood. Jeremy was energetic, confident, full of ideas and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, also a little unorthodox. Jeremy could see a massive media coup for the choir and went to work.

I will let Jeremy tell the next step in his own words

“I knew Max Boyce a little, so I called him in late 1998 to ask him if he’d join us at Wembley for the big game in 1999 against England. He initially said that he couldn’t because he’d been asked to caddy for Ian Woosnam in a practice round at Augusta for the Masters’ Championship.

 In March 1999, I was in Rome with some choristers to see Wales play Italy in a “friendly” prior to them joining the Six Nations in 2000. (The game was moved to Treviso but we still travelled to Rome and saw the match in a Sports Bar!). Later I was with a few other choristers and we decided to call Max to try and persuade him and sang down the phone to appeal to his Welsh nationalism, if not his love of Welsh music. The suggestion was that there would be no better chance to write a new ending to “Hymns and Arias”. Eventually he agreed and asked how much he’d be paid. I told him that he would have to sing for nothing! In fact, less than nothing, since I poached one of his debentures! Part of the persuasion was letting him know that he needed a bit more exposure on TV, since his career wasn’t exactly booming.

Nothing much then happened except for the new ending, which he wrote on a serviette, which I still have somewhere*.

Also in 1998, I heard that Tom Jones was due to be in London for the Linda McCartney memorial concert. I called his son, Mark Woodward, and asked him if Tom would sing Delilah at Wembley and was met with a curt refusal.

 Subsequently, the sell-out game became surrounded by much publicity, with England having the chance to win a Grand Slam, the last played in Wembley before the millennium and the last before the Italians joined and the last before the new stadium became ready in Cardiff. So, Haydn and I went to talk to Max down in Cardiff and on the return journey I spoke to Mark again about Tom Jones appearing and agreed a fee in tickets. They wanted 20. I trawled around and managed to pull together 8 and the deal was done. 

 I thought, Job Done, but little did I realize what problems would still be in store!!

When I met Tom, I found out that he was very nervous about appearing - he had never appeared before such a large crowd (his previous biggest at Las Vegas was 16,000); he had never been to a rugby match and he was unsure of the words of the Welsh National Anthem. I reassured him by saying I would speak to the BBC producer in charge of the game, which I subsequently did, and he agreed to keep the cameras off Tom during the Anthem (he didn’t). He was also puzzled as to why we wanted him to sing Delilah, which had never been a traditional Welsh favorite and when I asked him if he’d like the choir to laugh after he sang “She stood there laughing” he was even more puzzled!

He asked about the facilities at Wembley and whether I could get an additional 12 tickets, plus a half time Welsh party hosted by the WRU, who declined. The facilities at Wembley were awful - they gave him an office to change in and there were no facilities for him to get on to the pitch from his “dressing room” without passing through the crowd. But we eventually got our 20 tickets and half-time party when I explained to the WRU what a cool event it would be and how it was the first time Tom had been to a match.

The news about Max and Tom was now traveling at the speed of light and on the Thursday before the game, Tom and entourage came to our weekly rehearsal with our conductor Dr Haydn James, who was conducting all our games at Wembley, at the London Welsh Centre on Gray’s Inn Road and enjoyed a “loosen-er” at the Calthorp's pub over the road. His voice absolutely floored everybody!

Tom’s “dressing room” at Wembley was very poor and, about an hour before kick-off, I had to take him down to the opposite end of the ground for an interview with Bob Humphreys. The crowd didn’t know that he was due to appear and went crazy when they realised who was walking down the pitch with me! When we reached the posts, Bob was busy with another interview and, after 5 minutes or so, I handed him over. While they were chatting, a girl came over and asked me if he was really Tom Jones! She was working for S4C and made a live commentary on the game. I said that he was and that he was very nervous. I told her I would bring Tom to her when he’d finished with Bob and suggested that she would make him feel more at home if she threw her knickers at him as he approached. She looked shocked, thought for a moment and then said, very apologetically, “I would, but I’m not wearing any today!.”

And then there was the match. Wales were losing by 6 points in injury time but who will ever forget Scott Gibbs taking the ball from a Scott Quinnell pass and weaving his way to the try line to score. There was of course the small matter of the conversion to come but we had Neil Jenkins, top points scorer in the world taking the kick and the rest is legend as Wales won 32-31, handing the 5 Nations Championship to Scotland who had beaten France the day before in Paris.

 On Monday, Max called me to say that he’d already given 3 interviews to Scottish radio/TV stations to explain how he’d won the Championship for Scotland. He called me the following week to say that he’d been offered a new series by the BBC!”

 * This is the extra verse that Max Boyce wrote on the napkin which Jeremy’s still cherishes in his home in Patagonia.

And so farewell to England, and to this foreign clime.

Next time we’re back in Cardiff, if they finish it on time!

They say it has a sliding roof that you can move away -

They’ll slide it back when Wales attack - so God can watch us play.

And He’ll be singing ....

Bread of Heaven: April 11th 1999. Sung at Wembley before Wales vs England

Five Nations 1999: Wales vs England at Wembley. The Second Half

Jeremy Wood, Tom Jones, Dr Haydn James and Max Boyce on the pitch at Wembley