We went to the Marillion weekender and this is what happened

A shot of Steve Hogarth on stage
(Image credit: Will Ireland)

It’s the third and final night of Marillion’s sell-out weekend at Center Parcs in Port Zélande, a holiday resort near the southern Holland coastal town of Ouddorp. It’s a glorious finale to what has been a remarkable few days, Marillion ending their final show by playing their 1999 album marillion.com in its entirety. The In Praise Of Folly string quartet, dressed as four eerie Miss Havershams, open the show, there are guest appearances by sax and trumpet players (Phil Todd and Neil Yates) and sometime Marillion lyricist John Helmer, and the audience could not be more in thrall.

And then, during Built-in Bastard Radar, singer Steve Hogarth steps behind a rack of lights, stumbles through the video screen and disappears out of sight. He’s fallen six feet into a lattice of scaffolding pipes, onto a concrete floor. Gamely, he sings a few bars, but then it’s silence as an increasingly perplexed-looking band play on before stuttering to a halt. As the lights go up, the crew run toward the stage and try to fish him out. Hogarth, flat on his back, mic still in his hand, is badly winded but ever ebullient. Marillion’s manager Lucy Jordache sticks her head through a gap next to the screen. Hogarth looks up at her.

“I can move my arms and legs”, he says, managing a smile. Fifteen minutes later he’s standing back on stage. “The nurses gave me tea, no one had morphine, sadly,” he announces. “I don’t think we’re going to do that song again – it reminds me of a bad time in my life.”

Throughout this weekend in Port Zélande you hear the words ‘soundtrack to my life’ a lot. Surrounded by water, with a river running through its heart, it’s strangely idyllic for a holiday camp. Ducks, swans and hens amble around the chalets. From the edge of the site you look out at the North Sea, a flat expanse of greys and blues with the sunshine glinting off its surface. The Marillion fans on the sandy beach seem surprised by this display of beauty. In the distance a row of small yachts tethered loosely to the boardwalk bob gently, their masts swaying in unison.

Steve Rothery: fans find him touching – literally

Steve Rothery: fans find him touching – literally (Image credit: Will Ireland)

Take the path through the chalets that hug the cove and work inland and you come to the on-site supermarket, bars, swimming pool and the giant marquee erected in the car park for the event. Almost every chalet window and door is open, from every doorway comes the sound of one Marillion track or another, and just about everyone is wearing a perfectly preserved Marillion T-shirt. Before the camp was refurbished this year there was even a TV channel you could tune in to that played only Marillion videos. As Steve Hogarth will later comment: “It’s a mini-festival for the like-minded, so there’s an atmosphere of international bonhomie which pervades everything and just makes me happy to be at the centre of it.”

The Adventure Factory doubles as the event’s second stage and a cavernous merchandise hall, and on Saturday hosts the achingly tough Marillion Quiz. From a distance, the giant white tent in which Marillion will play three shows looks like it has fallen out of the sky and landed there.

Lucy Jordache is seated on her personal golf buggy at the rear of the venue. Like the rest of band, she can be seen drifting through the park the entire weekend, although the band tend to favour the Parc’s bicycles as their mode of transport. Steve Hogarth takes the criss-crossing paths at a leisurely pace, while keyboard player Mark Kelly looks like he could give Bradley Wiggins a run for his money. Kelly enjoys dismounting and mingling. “That’s the highlight for me,” he says, “wandering around the village and seeing all these people hanging around talking, saying hello, Marillion music playing everywhere. It’s like some other dimension where Marillion is universally known and liked. I’m not sure I would like to live in such a universe, but it’s great to visit for the weekend.”

Two thousand six hundred fans show up for the Marillion weekend in Port Zélande, and all those tickets sold out within 12 hours of going on sale. This is the sixth time at this venue and the first time they’ve opened up the place on the Thursday night. They use that evening to welcome everyone with a Marillion-themed fancy dress party, competitors dressing up as the band’s songs. There were more than a few jesters, but the winners came dressed as the song White Paper.

Pete Trewavas: Marillion’s man with the bottom

Pete Trewavas: Marillion’s man with the bottom (Image credit: Will Ireland)

Lest we forget, Marillion – the band who were never meant to transcend their neo-prog roots with Fish on vocals, who reinvented themselves with album giveaways, commandeered the digital era, helped pioneer pledge campaigns, and became self-sufficient and a cottage industry that positively bloomed – are now the very essence of what it means to be a rock band in the modern age. Musically, too, they’ve matured and grown – it’s arguable that there hasn’t been a more considered and adroit album by a British band than FEAR in the last 12 months. Little wonder that they’ve made these kind of events their own.

The Marillion weekends began in 2002, at Pontins in the West Country, to which fans would fly in from the USA, Mexico, Venezuela… From there it moved a bit upmarket to Butlins, and then on to the continent and Center Parcs. Port Zélande 2019 is already booked. There are also weekend shows planned over the next few months in the UK, Poland and Chile, and they’re sold out too.

“I remember we did Butlins once and we had to share one weekend with a Country & Western convention,” says Jordache. “There were all these people walking around in cowboy hats, and Marillion fans, and it just felt off. And the accommodation was not that good. So we knew we needed to go up. We did toy with the idea of a Center Parc in the UK, but it was so expensive. They suggested Europe to us, so H [Steve Hogarth] and I came on a field trip, and it was such a welcoming experience. It’s got to the point now where the staff here have to put their names in a hat and enter a draw in order to work this weekend. They all want to be on shift for the conventions. It’s amazing.”

So if you can manage to get a ticket to a Port Zélande Marillion Weekend, what do you get for the basic £330 ticket? Some very decent accommodation (CR had its own sauna in the VIP chalet – you don’t get that at the Reading Festival), three exclusive Marillion shows, a quiz, rock karaoke with a live band, prog disco, 80s rock disco, afternoon shows from the various support bands, merchandise hangar, signings, your chance to play with the band, photo opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, the band themselves. It’s not unusual to be seated in the main square and have bassist Pete Trewavas idle by. They stop to chat, too – they mingle and ask how things are. You can even go running through the park’s wooded trails and out to the coastal path with Mark Kelly. You can spot the first-timers: they’re the ones with a stupefied look on their face when guitarist Steve Rothery places a hand on their arm and asks genially if they enjoyed the show. “We really do have the best fans in the world,” Kelly says, “most of whom I’d be happy to go out for a beer with. They’re very respectful.”

As beguiling as the band-related ephemera is, as engrossing as the feeling of family and community is (case in point: once word had got out that a couple of people from Classic Rock were here, we couldn’t turn around without people offering to buy us a drink and expressing their joy that the magazine and its sister title Prog were back on the shelves), it’s the music Marillion make that’s at the heart of these weekends.

“We’ve had moments doing these,” says Trewavas, “where after one of the songs everyone just went crazy and applauded us and gave us a standing ovation – in the middle of the show, and it went on for what seemed like a very long time. I was dumbstruck. We just looked at each other and tried to soak up as much of the love being given back as possible.”

With three shows, three completely different productions, three different sets, upwards of seven hours of Marillion music, it’s little wonder that the band work so hard, and begin rehearsing months before.

Friday is a mixed bag of surprises revealed from behind blood-red theatre drapes, the video screens dancing into life as the band thrill with songs including Gazpacho and the mesmerising production utilised for the reflective The Only Unforgiveable Thing: a church interior melting away as Hogarth stands centre-stage looking as though he’s burning up in the beams of white light. It’s an arena-sized show for just under 3,000 people; to say it’s overwhelming would be to understate things.

Sunday’s marillion.com show is a revelatory thrill too, even with the enforced interval due to Hogarth’s tumble, not least in the delicate version of House with just piano and muted trumpet drifting slowly up towards the high ceiling.

As astounding as Sunday might have been, however, it’s the previous night’s show that causes most of the audience to unravel. While it was something of an open secret that the band would perform their FEAR album in full for the first time, it’s doubtful that anyone expected to hear Clutching At Straws in its entirety as the first half of the show. That it’s followed by Mylo from Misplaced Childhood and a boisterous Market Square Heroes causes something akin to delirium in the audience. Almost every song is sung back at the band, and seeing one fan close by crying during Sugar Mice (he wasn’t the only one) and the dancing during Incommunicado is like watching the tail end of a boisterous wedding.

The first half of the show is a glorious high that only the sublime, creeping FEAR could surpass. If the first half, with its pyros and belches of fire, is the 80s reimagined, then the second half, with its burnished golds and rusty browns, is the introspection of a generation staring into the abyss. People look punch-drunk at the end. As Marillion shows go, it’s doubtful you’ll see a better one.

Marillion’s Lighting Designer, Yenz Nyholm, is sitting outside the back of the venue, sunning himself on a grass verge in a brief respite on this balmy Sunday afternoon. Dressed in a kilt, which he reckons is perfect dress for working in, he’s the man who has spent the weekend startling the audience with washes of colour, explosions and flames. At one point he held Hogarth in an extraordinary cage of green lasers with hard yellow beams set at each corner. It takes him almost three months to program the lights for these shows.

(Image credit: Will Ireland)

“Working with this music, it’s fun, it’s theatrical, you can do so much with it, and they let you more or less get away with anything,” he says. “The goal for Saturday was to capture that eighties vibe, so no video, but lots of explosions, dry ice, colours. And then you go into the FEAR, which is all about the videos, all about the lasers, the technology. The music helps, and it’s changed so much. It’s a completely different band. They were telling stories back then, but they were more of a rock band. It’s fun trying to recreate their thoughts and lyrics.”

In the Adventure Factory, the hard-as-hell Marillion Quiz is winding down (full disclosure: CR got one answer right). The winning team (deep breath), the Hot Hard Turds On A Big Fact Hunt, are, like most of the audience, from all corners of the globe. Their de facto spokesman, Nathan Page, is a fresh faced twenty-four-year-old from Nottingham. As winners they get their photo taken with the band tomorrow, a trophy and credits for the Marillion web store. At previous Weekends, the winning team used to take on the band in a quiz about Marillion. But as Steve Rothery recalls: “We never won, they always beat us.”

“The first time I saw the band was here when I was thirteen,” says Page. “My mum and stepdad had their honeymoon here and dragged me along and I was hooked. I’m pretty pleased with the win. There was a question about the backing singer from Straws I didn’t get. That was obscure. The picture round was particularly difficult. The one I was most pleased about getting was the question about You Don’t Need Anyone. It was: which song did the band perform live but never released on an album?”

Groups of fans are never short of a photo opportunity.

Groups of fans are never short of a photo opportunity. (Image credit: Will Ireland)

It’s 3pm on Sunday afternoon, and not only is the main arena open, it’s also packed out. The band are doing photos and conducting an on-stage Q&A with questions that have been sent to their website. It’s goofy and charming, and the usually considered drummer Ian Mosley proves to have better comic timing than most stand-ups.

What’s most remarkable is what follows when Marillion pick up their instruments for an event called Swap The Band. Fans send MP3s of themselves playing along to Marillion, and the band vet them and invite the best ones to play with them at the convention. Over the next half-hour, the chosen fans take turns to perform as one of Marillion, while the band member they’ve subbed for looks on. No pressure, then. We get Incommunicado, Hooks In You, The Release, Sugar Mice, and a striking version of Power with one Derek Kelly on drums, while Ian Mosley stands off to one side watching.

Moments later, Kelly is at the back of the venue, blinking into the sunshine. He looks completely dazed. “How was it?” He asks me. “Was I alright?” More than alright.

“Playing Power was an absolute, unbelievable feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it. I tried to look up, but I found it very hard to do that. I got the email about it a month ago. I was shocked, stunned, bricking it. I feel elated now. I really can’t believe it. It was a real thrill, honestly.”

Stephanie Bradley is sitting in the makeshift production office at the back of the Adventure Factory. She’s the Marillion fan and former research scientist who now works for the band. In a blue cape, she also ran the prog disco on Friday night. Fans stop and chat to her on site almost as much as they do the band.

“I organise this weekend, Lucy oversees everything,” she says. “But because this is residential, I take all the bookings for everyone who comes, payments, sort out who goes where, match people up in the cottages. A bit like a dating service, but not.

“The first one we did here, the check-in was the big issue for me, as I’d underestimated how long it would take to prepare all the welcome packs. I was still doing the envelopes at four am. before the check-in opened the next day. I had some cold bug, too. By the time I got home I’d ended up with pneumonia. It was a total success though.”

It’s the last moments of Sunday night, and the band have reprised a section of FEAR’s The Leavers. The venue is cloudy with confetti from the cannons that signal the end of the performance, and the weekend, as the lights come up on an audience reeling and still singing the song’s ‘We come together’ refrain.

Someone opens a door to the cold night outside, and a few heads swivel round but quickly turn back again. Everyone is trying to hold on to the moment that little bit longer. No one is leaving, or wants to leave just yet.

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Philip Wilding

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion.