Wakefield MD Ben Brooks talks to one of the original Brilliant Stages founders, Tony Bowern, about how Brilliant started and how it has evolved over the years, and looks ahead to what the future holds.
Founded in 1983, Brilliant Stages has grown from a two-man operation in a small workshop to a global player that’s helped the likes of U2, Beyoncé, The Rolling Stones, Cirque Du Soleil, and the Olympic Games create epic structures, advanced stages, and spectacular motion.
“It all came about with a guy called Charlie Kail,” explains Tony. “He was working in his spare time for a company called Meteorlites who worked out of an old bakery in Baldock in the UK. They wanted to build an aluminum drum riser for Iron Maiden, but when the truck came to pick it up, they realized they couldn’t get it out of the door. That was a really good lesson to learn – it needs to be able to fit in the truck!
“I was working for a PA hire company in Luton and knew Charlie quite well. He was looking for somewhere to set up his own business, so he rented a little bit of space in our warehouse. My background was in engineering, working as a precision fitter machinist, and I thought, ‘this might be an opportunity to get off the road,’ so I hooked up with Charlie and we rented a small unit in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. It was about 800 square feet, but there was little work around at that time. I’d recently built a studio for Herbie Flowers, the bass player for Sky, in West Hampstead, and Sky were about to go on the road. So our first project was building the risers for them out of aluminum – that was unusual because most risers were made out of steel or wood – we were probably the first to do aluminum in the UK.”
From those humble beginnings, the business took off. “As time went on, we made a bit of a name for ourselves, but there was no plan to rule the world at that point.” The Letchworth setup was basic; the team worked from sketch pads – they had no drawing boards and they had very little machinery. “We had one cut-off saw, one Marshall TIG plant. I would do the cutting and fitting, and Charlie would do the welding,” recalls Tony.
Between Tony and Charlie and their black book of contacts, the work kept coming in. The concept was simple: please the crew and the message would filter back to the production managers and designers who would use you again and again, on bigger and better projects.
And, as the projects grew in scale, the challenges were amplified, but Tony assures us he was never concerned that the fledgling business might be unable to deliver.
“Once you’re into a project, you know you just have to get it done. We always had a philosophy that any man-made problem has a man-made solution. That’s the way we approached everything – with that never-say-die attitude. We’d always find a way, which generally meant just putting in more hours until we got the job out the door.”
The relationship with TAIT began in the early ’80s with a call from Michael Tait. He was looking for some help on a Diana Ross set that was being delivered into the UK. Tony and Charlie obliged and that was followed up with another TAIT job for Paul McCartney. The relationship was reciprocal, with Brilliant making use of TAIT’s Lititz team when they had a US-bound AC/DC set that needed assembly.
“I went out to help get it sorted using a couple of TAIT’s welders and I thought, ‘these guys are really good,’” says Tony.
The two companies aligned perfectly from a cultural perspective and also had similar visions for evolving their product offerings.
“We started out with folding gate risers, but you couldn’t really build the larger stage sets that way, so I designed a hook and channel decking system. It goes back to pleasing the crew if you can. We created systems that fitted in regular size dollies, on any trucks, on any containers, and could be put together quickly and easily with minimal tools. It was similar to what Michael was doing and has done with Mag Deck, with the idea that you could build as big a stage as you wanted to very quickly.”
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Brilliant worked on some of the most iconic shows of the period, including what was possibly the world’s first ‘in the round’ show for Def Leppard, the epic ‘falling pylons’ from Metallica’s Load tour (with TAIT providing staging), and the technically and visually groundbreaking Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon tour.
“Bridges to Babylon was one of those moments in rock and roll history,” says Ben. “Before I was part of Brilliant, I always looked back at that and thought, ‘you guys are geniuses.’”
During the 2000s, Brilliant collaborated on numerous projects with Litestructures, a company owned by the Brooks family. The family ultimately acquired Brilliant Stages in 2013 and Ben began to build the company we know today, creating spectacular shows for the likes of Take That, Shawn Mendes, Hugh Jackman, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
Since that first collaboration in the ’80s, Brilliant’s relationship with TAIT has remained as solid as ever and, in 2019, many years after those first pan-Atlantic projects took shape, the Wakefield team formally became part of the TAIT family.
“When we entered the TAIT group, pre-pandemic in November 2019, we knew we wanted the businesses to become more closely aligned,” explains Ben. “We’d already established how we wanted to do this, and the pandemic gave us a moment while we were paused to change and align our processes. So many things have changed at our Wakefield site since becoming part of the TAIT group, despite the fact that you walk in and everything looks identical. But in the way we operate, so many elements have evolved over the last two years.”
Looking forward to 2022 and beyond, Ben’s excited about the Wakefield site becoming a fully fledged part of TAIT and the prospect of sharing those decades of knowledge the team has built up.
“The big thing for 2022 is to take all the things that we’ve learned over the years, and all the things that TAIT can teach us, and welcome that knowledge with open arms. We’re looking forward to moving ahead with the resurgence of concert touring and the return of the markets that we have been so productive in over the years, to make sure that we’re delivering on time, on budget, and we’re keeping our clients happy.
“It’s been such an amazing journey. I’ve been part of it for the past 10 years, and I’ve been around Brilliant in the 10 years prior to that. We’ve worked hard to evolve the reputation and the offer here in Wakefield, and as we’ve become part of the TAIT group over the last two years, it’s been wonderful to see the alignment and culture come together.
“Working at Brilliant has been a constant evolution,” reflects Ben. “It’s been a team of people who are really willing to push the boundaries and to walk into completely uncharted territories totally unfazed, knowing that we will deliver something amazing at the end of it. That’s what our team in Wakefield is all about for me.”