Tripping the Christmas light fantastic

More than ever, people have needed the UK’s retail Christmas lights to bring cheer in uncertain times. Noella Pio Kivlehan spoke to James Glancy, the man, and company, behind the country’s most famous festival retail sparkle about how the year went, and why it was important to continue shining brightly.

Tripping the Christmas light fantastic
Central London's Seven Dials all lit up for Christmas this year.

Behind a gold door on a dilapidated south London industrial estate, sits a magical year-round Christmas workshop creating the UK’s most beloved high street and shopping centre festive decorations.

For the last two decades, James Glancy Design (JGD) in London’s Bermondsey has added the sparkle and light to Regent Street, Carnaby Street and Seven Dials, as well as Meadowhall in Sheffield, St David’s Centre in Cardiff, Festival Place in Basingstoke, Bluewater in Kent, Leeds City Centre, and a slew of others around the UK and internationally.

Around 80 per cent of JGD’s work centres around festive displays and plans usually stretch up to a minimum of a year to two to three years ahead. And Christmas 2020, on the drawing board from at least November 2019, was set to be no different from others.

Until Covid-19.

READ MORE: The best Christmas window & light displays this year

On March 23, Prime Minster Boris Johnson announced the UK, with increasing infections and rising deaths, would go into national lockdown. For three months, shutters were firmly pulled down on high street shops, and shopping centre doors slammed shut.

“The year began as business as usual and then lockdown put the mockers on everything meaning everyone asked, ‘what is going to happen now?’, JGD founder James Glancy said.

“Closures meant no retailers paying into service charge. No consumers going to shops.

“Most of our clients are shopping centres spread throughout the UK. [When lockdown came] clients came to us and immediately wanted to cut the budgets.

“Where we could we reduced the figures for this year, and in return we extended the contracts by a year. We did our best.”

JGD’s journey into Christmas lights started when the firm was founded after Glancy and business partner Paul Dart, a set and opera designer, collaborated on an arts-based project for the 1991 Dublin City of Culture.

“Paul dressed an element of [Dublin’s] River Liffey between the Halfpenny Bridge, and O’Connell Bridge. It looked amazing,” Glancy recalled.

From that came the idea of commercialising dressing.

“Christmas was the best opportunity,” added Glancy, whose background is business studies but credits Dart as the artistic driving force.

“It’s not my business acumen – it’s his designing… it is absolutely outstanding, phenomenal”.

Tripping the Christmas light fantastic

JGD has gone on to win some of retail’s most lucrative contracts with the likes of the Crown Estate, Shaftesbury, Bluewater, and Leeds city centre.

However, 2020 tested the company’s Christmas spirit as more than ever, its lights and design were needed for a beleaguered retail sector – and shoppers.

Figures for this year from the Centre for Retail Research in its 2007-2020 Review show 52 retailers failed in the 12 months to November 30 – the highest since 2012 – with 4726 stores and almost 100,000 employees affected. It is grim times: 2020’s retail Winter of Discontent.

“While the beginning of the year was negotiation-led [about budgets], as the year progressed it became more apparent that Christmas was going to be a big one this year,” Glancy said.

“Even though there was the possibility of budget cuts, ninety-five percent of the people we worked with held their nerve and have gone for it.”

Working online, Glancy said: “We produced designs for new clients like Leeds city centre, worked with current clients, and in all cases managed to design, fabricate and install the designs which I think are definitely as good as I hoped, even if we had been in ‘normal times.

“Design-wise, I have been really happy with it [all].”

From all JGD’s clients, Glancy said Shaftesbury was the most aware and sensitive about Covid-19, and its impact on the retail sector and the public. Shaftesbury design the concepts for their individual villages Christmas lights with JGD producing them.

“Shaftesbury had its fingers on the pulse of what it felt was appropriate, sailing a clever line between looking great, and saying Christmas, while recognising all that was happening in the sector,” Glancy said of the 2020 decorations, which change annually.

“There was empathy with the words being used, ‘wish’, ‘hero’, ‘hope’ which are significant to what’s happened this year. They are poignant.”

The lights strung across the famous Carnaby Street are centred on the collaboration with Shaftesbury’s charity partner Choose Love.

“This was reflected in the main themes around love and unity and pays tribute to the strength and courage of Londoners, and the whole of the UK,” said Karen Baines, Shaftesbury’s head of marketing.

Tripping the Christmas light fantastic
(Image: Dave Parry/PA Wires)

Glancy said: “People had a clear view that the Christmas decorations were so important for this year and realised that ‘hold on a minute, here’s a juncture at the end of the year that we can all get behind’.”

It is a sentiment shared by other JGD clients. The Crown Estate’s central London director James Cooksey that “even though the festive season will feel very different for many of us this year, we wanted to play a small part in bringing some Christmas cheer to the West End with our much-loved Spirit of Christmas lights display”.

Illustrating how important the lights were to Bluewater, senior centre director Robert Goodman said that once installation of the lights was complete, the centre did not wait to officially switch them on: “We flicked the switch early to bring some much-needed cheer to the Bluewater community.”

Never at any point in the year was it thought the centre would not be doing its display.

“Despite the challenges Covid has brought, Christmas is still coming and it’s important for us to acknowledge and celebrate it – for our guests, but also the thousands who work in the centre,” Goodman added.

Baines admitted that not doing any Christmas lights was something Shaftsbury “naturally discussed”.

However, she said “it was unanimous that we all felt everyone would want and need the festive magic which we know our visitors and community get from the festive installations across the West End”.

As for next year, the build-up to Christmas has already begun for JGD. It is hoped it would be the year life will get back to the “old normal”.

“If budgets are cut then it will be a smaller statement, but nevertheless still be important, and it’s doing the job,” Glancy reflected.

“That is as much as we can do… it is even more important on whatever budget to tell a clear Christmas story.

“It is about community interaction, putting a smile on people’s faces if we can. Why not! This is the moment. You have got to hope that you can take things out of what has happened this year.

“Hopefully, we will come out of it stronger in some ways.”

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Tripping the Christmas light fantastic

Leeds BID

This year, for the first time, James Glancy Design worked with Leeds BID in producing it is Christmas city centre lights. Karen Butler, head of place management, and delivery explains how the two came together to produce the city’s “Dear Leeds,” lights.

While Leeds city council have their own manufacturing base for Christmas lights, this year we wanted something different and to go in a new direction, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and we agreed with the council last year we would collaborate.

I had literally sent the first brief to James and had the first chat with them when Covid took us all by surprise and both companies had to regroup and understand our own financial positions. We also had to understand where we were with supply chains, production lines, what we could do practically.

But there was never any question we would not do anything.

All our small business had been taking a battering meaning there is the “can we / can’t we but if we can, we should” conversation – and we were able to by May when we did commission JGD after a couple of presentations and really got the ball rolling.

In terms of the practical stuff, which Covid made you aware of, we had to think what we could do physically. So, we went with a system we knew would work because JGD have done similar in Carnaby Street, so they knew what, and how to do it.

We needed something that would absolutely work, but it also had to be stunning.

The decorations, described as eye-catching lyrical messaging spell out brief sentences, “marching on together”, “where tomorrow is ours”, from a poem by a local artist commissioned by the Leeds BID.

Unlike putting these things up in shopping centres, you have more than one owner.  In this case, we were working with seven potential fixing points. We needed five out of those. Each of those buildings has a tenant, an owner, and a legal team – so three lots of conversation for ever point. As you can imagine, it is not really at the top of people’s list, particularly if you are not a resident landlord.

However, this year more than ever, people need something to look forward too. And it happened.

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LED by the light

This year and the Covid-19 pandemic showed how important lights, including Christmas lights, is for people’s mental wellbeing.

“Whether it’s your immediate mood, it affects us much deeper than people realise”

“There’s the element of people soul searching for that positivity that’s brought about by lights, particularly during the festive period,” said Andy Piepenstock, who heads up the interiors team at architecture firm Benoy’s London and has a background designing stores for Primark and Lululemon.

“This year more than ever I’ve been taken by the reflective messaging that’s been included in the lights of Harvey Nichols talking about ‘bring on 2021’. Certainly, it’s a year of lights like no other.”

Incorporating light as part of design into city centres, and its public buildings has become integral to modern city centre place making, and in new buildings. And it has been revolutionised by LED.

“In terms of health and wellbeing, we have seen ground-breaking progress in the last decade with to the invention and progress of the LED. This simple element has meant suddenly lighting is much more sustainable,” Piepenstock said.

“We’re lighting Regent Street with the fraction of the energy consumption we used to. We’re able to create much more complex, interesting solutions because of these break through’s in technologies.”

“But city centres could go farther with programable LEDs, which are low energy that could be used to highlight events, mark routes, tell stories.”

Tim Gledstone, partner with architect Squire + Partners, says light deprivation, particularly in winter, shows how important the up lifting feeling of having light is, and the need to keep displays going all through darker months.

“Whether it’s your immediate mood, it affects us much deeper than people realise,” he said.

“And [keeping lights on] we are not just looking at lighting around Christmas, you have the Jewish Festival of Light, the Diwali Festival of Light – all around the world, cultures celebrating light against the dark is important.

“Here, we are seeing are other festivals, like those in Canary Wharf, that tap into a wider festival of light that happens in January and February.

“This is slowly become a global thing and I would like to see the people pulled together even more and see a festival of light that goes from mid-November to early March across the whole of the UK.”

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