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Access talks to Simon Fell, Director of operations at London’s historic Alexandra Palace, about staging events for tens of thousands of people over the summer and his plans to continue making the most of its many spaces once lockdown is lifted.

Dubbed the People’s Palace, the Alexandra Palace usually hosts millions of visitors a year across hundreds of events in the building and its surrounding 200 acres of parkland.

While Covid-19 has played havoc with the Grade II listed venue’s events schedule this year, its team, led by operations director Simon Fell, has pulled out all the stops to keep its doors open and grounds in use.

“We have not been able to stage 10,000-capacity concerts, or exhibitions, in our Great Hall since the first lockdown but cumulatively we have had 60,000 people come to events. Along the way we have gained knowledge and experience of how to run Covid-safe events and that is invaluable,” says Fell.

Among the array of physical events to take place at the venue in recent months has been drive-in cinema shows and even a drive-in opera (pictured). Staged by the English National Opera, the event series featured Covid-secure performances of Puccini’s La Bohème, with ADI managing key elements of the production including staging, structures, LED screens, lighting, broadcast and cameras.

Operational before the second lockdown, a Covid-safe ice rink experience at Alexandra Palace is due to reopen on the 5 December. Over the summer, the venue hosted alfresco food, drink and comedy event series The Terrace while indoors its 3,000-capacity West Hall was kept busy with reduced-capacity shows, at around 25%, including the Live at Ally Pally series.

The venue has also been actively hosting online shows including Nick Cave’s streamed Idiot Prayer performance and a digital edition of Festival Republic’s Wireless Festival, rebranded Wireless Connect.

Says Fell, “We are geared up for the Christmas period and in an ideal world we will be doing darts with an audience, films, theatre and comedy in the East Court while also running our ice rink – there will be lot going on, if we can make it happen.

“One thing we do have at Ally Pally is space, we have 200 acres of parkland and the building is vast, so with Covid-19 it is easy to create additional space and enable social distancing.”

“One thing we do have at Ally Pally is space, we have 200 acres of parkland and the building is vast, so with Covid-19 it is easy to create additional space and enable social distancing.”

As with other venues that have bravely continued to host shows with reduced capacities since the virus hit, the income generated at Alexandra Palace is nowhere near enough to cover the operating costs of the 140-year-old building.

“We think it’s really important that we continue to do as much as we can because we are keeping people in the supply chain active and employed,” says Fell.

Covid-19 safety measures have included the use of QR codes, digital tickets, apps for food and beverage ordering, rigorous cleaning regimes and social distancing.

A measure Fell thinks will endure is table service: “People seem to have got used to it and really enjoy not having to queue for drinks,” he says.

Naturally the team continually monitor Covid-safe events guidance and Fell keeps an eye on new tech and service developments, but he says there needs to be more clarity from government and British Standards as to what is effective: “There’s a lot out there at the moment, there has been a land grab for Covid-safe event solutions, but it is not always clear if they are safe to use.”

The venue’s team is still waiting to hear the outcome of its near £3 million grant application to the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, and Fell says aside from financial assistance its team needs hope: “We need an exit strategy, people need to know there is light at end of tunnel because it is turning into a very long tunnel.”