Atheist Thriller on the Plinth – Part 2

On the way to the plinthIt was a gorgeous afternoon – as sunny and warm as the One and Other team had seen it – and Trafalgar Square was full. This was great. Anything that wasn’t rain was just fine with me, and I found myself pretty excited by all the people. Hopefully we’d get a crowd, at least. The cherry picker moved slowly towards the plinth, the security guard shooing passers-by out of the way, and I started to spot familiar faces. I was, by this point, grinning like an idiot.

I was lifted high above the plinth, and I took the opportunity to appreciate the view. It’s not often you get a vantage point like that! Then the cherry picker lowered me down to meet Margaret, the charming lady representing Scotland, and we quickly swapped places. I was more exhilarated than nervous at this point, but nonetheless pleased to see a pigeon was keeping me company. Sadly it flew off as soon as I stepped out. Hopefully this wasn’t a sign of things to come.

Now stop worrying, by SkudsThe plinth is bigger than it looks. I was carrying a lot, but there was plenty of space, and the ‘There’s probably no God…’ sign, which had seemed way too large in the BHA offices, was obviously going to fit perfectly. There’d still be room for the amplifier and me at one end, too. I quickly set up the radio mic and amplifier, and one of the biggest worries fell away as the LEDs lit up. I then looked down, and the second worry disappeared: about 30 people had RSVP’d ‘yes’ on Facebook, and they seemed to all be there! I saw many friendly faces, which was very nice indeed. But there was a crowd surrounding them, and they all cheered when I announced the plan to teach the moves from Thriller. This was a real confidence boost. I set up the sign, and we were away.

The dancers were brilliant. Extremely enthusiastic, not at all self-conscious about pretending to be zombies in public, and everyone seemed to be smiling. I heard afterwards there was a lot of inter-group teaching and generally making sure everyone knew what they were doing, which is great. I had to move pretty fast to cram it all in, but everyone picked up the steps remarkably quickly, and we were able to race through the song.

Thrillers, by aphexleeIt was working! And time just passed. I was enjoying myself tremendously, and relaxed completely after a few minutes. I found myself oddly comfortable in front of a large crowd – all those years of magic shows apparently paid off. We’d go through a group of steps, then repeat, then put it to music, and I was very surprised when I glanced at my phone and saw half an hour had gone by.

The technology worked, too. The amplifier, at 1/3 power, was easily loud enough to drown out the steel bands; the microphone, despite a few difficulties, carried my voice well; and the iPhone performed perfectly, with its new low-speed-scrubbing feature letting me skip to the exact second I wanted. It’s nice when things work like they should.

The surrounding crowd was great – they were really into it. Every time the dancers finished dancing to music, they’d get a round of applause. And as the dance wore on, the crowd started to join in. We started off with about 15 people, and by the end there were ~30, including a group of children in union flag hats, and a particularly endearing kid in green at the front. Not everybody had seen the initial steps, but that didn’t matter.

Me on Plinth - Ed PhotoI had two hecklers (that I noticed). The first, grey-haired and very drunk, shouted for attention then rubbed his nipples at me. This was actually pretty funny, and he hung around for a while. The second was more of a grump, yelling something about god. I suggested I wasn’t going to debate with him from high atop the thing, and he left. I later found out he was religious and thought the ‘probably’ indicated something important. I possibly got off lightly here.

The sound was fascinating, too. I was concentrating on the dance moves, and watching how the dancers were doing, but a few things broke through. Buses and cars honked, and we all waved at one. I had to do an large number of pelvic thrusts, and these would often cause a burst of laughter / screams from somewhere below. There were a few reactions like this, and you never quite knew whether it was related to you or not. It’s a curious experience, being in your own little world and not quite knowing who’s watching you or what they’re doing.

We finished the chorus with ten minutes to go. I really wanted to finish the song, so we zoomed through the final section. This was a big ask, as it’s not the easiest section, and it didn’t help that I had to correct a slight mistake. But the dancers were awesome, and did incredibly well. With three minutes to go, and the cherry picker making its way across the square, I quickly went for one whole run-through. 90 seconds long, we just made it. The crowd applauded loudly, and it was a great way to finish – it would have been so disappointing not to make it all the way through!

Sky Arts Screengrab

I was pretty happy on the way down, but I didn’t anticipate the reaction. The response was amazing. Tweets flooded in during the hour itself, and I’ve since had many lovely emails, texts and comments. These are set against a whole two negative comments, both drive-by abusive and not worth fretting over. Even the cynical #oneandother followers on Twitter1 were positive, albeit after complaining I was too slow getting started (I wasn’t doing anything without my sign!). Particular kudos goes to @nickjbarlow, for “there’s probably no God, but there’s definitely no Michael Jackson”. The One and Other staff seemed to enjoy it, too – the guy who took me up on the cherry picker hung around for the whole thing, saying we ‘rocked the square’, and inside the green box everyone said how much they enjoyed it, and that they hadn’t seen such a large crowd before. Yay!

My view from the plinth

I was on a high for most of the week. On Thursday Sky Arts called me to say #plinthriller would be featured on their One and Other highlights show, which was pretty exciting. They needed musical permissions, so asked me for the the exact version of Thriller I’d used. They also said Kathy Lette had chosen us as her #1 plinth highlight of the week, so it was quite a disappointment when on Friday she didn’t mention us at all! There was a very brief clip of the crowd during a dancing montage, but that was it -I assume they couldn’t get the music rights2. Shame!

The full video is still up on the oneandother site. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get a copy.

A couple of things I’ll know for next time:

  • Use a headset mic! The lapel mic attached to my t-shirt wasn’t directional enough to pick up my voice properly, so I had to actively lift it to speak, which made some dance moves a little tricky. No big problem, although I realised afterwards that I had a headset in my bag the whole time.
  • Do not name-check people, or you risk forgetting a) some of your oldest and best friends and b) your siblings. Sorry about that.

I’ve used up all the superlatives, but you get the picture: I’m really happy about the whole thing. I need to say a few thank yous, because it was a huge team effort. Firstly, many thanks to the two lovely friends who got me over my nerves in the middle of the week before – I may very well have done something deeply boring if it weren’t for you. Also to Mr Skuds, who came into town specially, very kindly documented the whole event, and gave it a charming write-up – it was nice to see him again. The BHA were very enthusiastic, sorting out a sign and appropriate stands for me, and they and many people helped spread the word on Twitter and Facebook. Special mention in this regard must go to Ariane, who gave the whole event a massive boost. Thanks also to Ed for carrying that amplifier around London afterwards!

But mostly thank you to everyone who came along and danced. It wouldn’t have worked without you. I hope it helped you enjoy your life. It certainly did me: it’s not every Sunday I stand on a plinth and dance, sing, and, well, thrust. I’m glad I did.

  1. ‘Twecklers’, apparently []
  2. I read a few of Kathy Lette’s books when I was 17. It is very weird to think she knows who I am. []