Trinity’s May Ball: behind the scenes

On Friday 26 February the provisional programme of the 2018 Trinity May Ball was sent to Cambridge City Council. Over the next four months, a myriad fire precautions, electrical tests, risk assessments, security measures, staff briefings, noise controls, food safety certificates, and grass protection were implemented, checked and re-checked. 

The May Ball is highlight of May Week for many students after exams and fondly remembered by alumni, some of whom return for the occasion. When the clock strikes nine on 18 June and brass ensembles atop the Clock Tower and Queen’s Gate mark the start of the 152nd First & Third Trinity Boat Club May Ball, very few guests will know what has gone on to make possible this spectacular night of glamorous revelry.

150th May Ball Fireworks
150th May Ball fireworks © JET

As guests fan out through the glorious surrounds, Trinity will have been transformed: immaculate lawns with carpeted walkways and clever lighting; grand marquees, giant bell tents, and a quaint wooden pavilion; a cornucopia of foods from around the world; fairground rides and wandering entertainers; class acts of dance music, jazz and classical; chauffeured punts and the charming Willow Bar beside the Cam; and the flower-decked champagne bar in Nevile’s Court cloister.

There’ll be bellinis, martinis, beer, wine, water and mocktails…and then there’s the firework extravaganza. Plus, says Co-President, Neil Cunningham, ‘This year we’ve got some exciting firsts for the May Ball which will add to the allure and aesthetics of the event.’

But behind the scenes, there’s no glamour and a lot of work by the 12-strong May Ball Committee, a legion of student workers and contingent of Trinity staff, plus numerous specialist contractors and service providers (for the marquees, stalls, food and drinks, fridge vans, bins, glassware, technical production and sound systems…) and security personnel.

In addition, there are six paramedics on site. Each student worker, who is paid the national minimum wage, receives training in fire safety, alcohol licensing, and a personalised timetable for their shift.

The Committee began planning more than a year ago – shadowing the 2017 Committee at last year’s Ball, who stepped down, passing on a 50-page handover document to incoming Co-Presidents, Isabel Vallina Garcia and Neil Cunningham.

Neil agrees it’s not an extra-curricular pursuit for the faint-hearted.

We’re all students juggling our studies and our commitment to organising the best May Ball. That takes a lot of time, planning, negotiation and set up – and a very long night on 18 June.

As hundreds of guests enjoy all the May Ball has to offer, key committee members will direct operations from ‘the Control Room,’ in Nevile’s Court, equipped with computers and shortwave radios, managing 10 different channels, each allocated to a different aspect of the event.

The 2018 Committee hard at it.  © Graham CopeKoga

It might sound a bit Big Brother, but says Neil, it’s less Orwellian and more about nipping any issues in the bud to ensure guests have the best possible experience and workers can deliver excellent service.

‘Each of our workers has a designated role and works in a specific location – the Ball is divided up into different sectors. Workers are managed by a team leader who reports any issues to us in the Control Room,’ explains Neil.

We then have ‘Hit Squads’ allocated to each sector, which can respond quickly, whether that’s replenishing stocks of glasses, providing fresh towels in the toilets, refuelling ‘grab and go’ punts with smoothies and water, or helping out in areas of the Ball that suddenly become particularly busy.

Like all May Balls at Cambridge Colleges, Trinity’s event must follow the regulations laid down by Cambridge City Council. Whether frying dosas and steaming gyozas, erecting marquees and installing fairground rides, setting up fireworks and rigging lighting, the relevant regulations and laws are rigorously adhered to – and the May Ball Committee, key staff at Trinity and officers at the Council work closely together to ensure that’s the case.

During the evening, an officer from Cambridge City Council will come to Trinity to check on sound levels, which are monitored throughout the night by sound technicians and a May Ball Committee member using a hand-held sound meter at various locations.

Sound regulations also apply to the fireworks – these must start by 10.40pm otherwise there won’t be enough time for the spectacular 15-minute show, which is a highlight of the May Ball for many.

Not for the faint-hearted. Pyro-musical extravaganza at the 2017 May Ball.  © Titanium Fireworks

This pyro-musical is complex, requiring intricate planning, precise installation of thousands of fireworks, and computer-controlled ignition. The dazzling display is breathtaking – and unsurprising given that Titanium Fireworks organise some of the largest displays in the UK, including London’s New Year’s Eve and Hogmanay in Edinburgh, Adele at Wembley, the London 2012 Olympics, the Rugby World Cup and Commonwealth Games. Titanium’s Toby Alloway said:

We don’t treat this as simply a fireworks display – we want to put on a multimedia show to remember and this year will be our biggest yet with a tightly choreographed performance of dancing flames, moving lights and of course fireworks.  The Trinity May Ball is always a highlight of our summer season so we’re really excited to be back once again.

Co-Presidents, Neil Cunningham and Isabel Vallina Garcia, enjoying a light-hearted moment while they can.  © Graham CopeKoga

Even if they are unaware of the detailed planning and careful implementation of the event, guests are appreciative says Neil, which is just one of the reasons for being on the organising Committee. Another is the skills you learn during the year-long process.

Neil, in his fifth year of Medicine, is only half joking when he says, ‘After the May Ball and having prioritized and dealt efficiently with the multitude of very varied problems on the night – small issues in their own right but important to tackle ASAP – I’ll be more than prepared for anything in A&E.’

Co-President, Isabel, in the second year of a PhD in Engineering, agrees. ‘We get a lot out of it in terms of organisational skills and team work. It’s such an anticipated event and it’s very rewarding to be a part of it.’

Let’s hope they feel the same after breakfast and the Survivors’ photo, when guests drift away to sleep. There’s no let up for the May Ball Committee who must get on with the serious business of litter picking.


Recent News

Fellows, students and alumni pay tribute to Dr Neil Hopkinson, 1957-2021

Fellows, students and alumni have paid fulsome tribute to Dr Neil Hopkinson, Director of S ...

Read More

Trinity Fellows receive New Year Honours

Trinity Fellows have been honoured in the Queen’s New Year Honours: Professor Simon Baro ...

Read More