Masters of ceremonies
The magnificent Old Marylebone Town Hall reopened in 2018 after a lengthy refurbishment. The Journal spends the day behind the scenes at one of London’s most famous civil wedding venues
Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Christopher L Proctor
Here comes the bride—only not strictly the one we’re waiting for. The Journal has been invited to the wedding of Clare Prince and Jason Moran this afternoon at the Old Marylebone Town Hall, which after a four-year hiatus for restoration reopened in January as an approved wedding venue. But I’m too early and so watch a different bride-to-be and her escort ascend the famous front steps. Weddings are an emotional business, which is why the tissues I’ve brought are extra absorbent.
The bride is met just inside the majestic stone entrance by a wide-smiling usher and her clipboard. After being warmly greeted, she is escorted off to her ceremony room where her guests and groom await her grand entrance. Only now, in an impressive piece of choreography, does another usher lead the previous wedding party down the interior staircase. With a total of nine weddings taking place here today, ensuring that two brides don’t literally bump heads requires meticulous planning and attention to detail. Everything must run like clockwork.
Superintendent registrar Alison Cathcart is upstairs in the Westminster Room where she’s just finished conducting a ceremony. “That was a lovely wedding,” she grins. “It had everything really—the nervous bride, the throng of bridesmaids, the little ones and all the family and friends. There were wonderful readings and an interesting music selection. It had such a fantastic sense of occasion, which gives me a real buzz. People are often very pleasantly surprised if they’ve never been to a civil wedding before, that actually we can make it such a nice occasion, because their expectation is that it’s five minutes, in and out, no fuss.”
For each wedding, it’s the superintendent registrar who conducts the ceremony while the registrar registers the event onto the marriage certificate and into the Register of Marriages, which must be checked and signed by the two witnesses as well as the bride and groom. But with so many weddings happening across Westminster on any given day, a full team of deputy superintendent registrars and deputy registrars is also required.
Happy at work
Alison introduces me to her colleague Ellen Hughes, who performed the role of deputy registrar and is also smiling broadly. Ellen, too, seems to be incredibly happy in her work. “How could you not be?” she beams. “This is a happy job, and I’d never had one of those before. I spent 38 years working in the public sector dealing with things like housing and homelessness. But this is a pleasure—the absolute pleasure of changing people’s lives and seeing all that happiness. And I still get emotional.”
Westminster has the highest concentration of licensed wedding venues of any London borough, and many of the finest, including Home House, RIBA, Somerset House, Claridge’s and The Ritz, but even in this exalted company the iconic Old Marylebone Town Hall stands out. A who’s who of the rich and famous have tied the knot here over the years including rock stars, royalty, fashion designers, Hollywood A-listers and British stars of stage and screen. Paul McCartney and Liam Gallagher like it so much they have both been married here twice.
The recent refurbishment has seen Old Marylebone Town Hall’s interiors transformed, with the 1920s features complemented by contemporary furnishings. The exterior, including the famous stone lions, has been restored to its former glory. Seven stunning reception rooms each offer something different in scale, decor and ambience and are named after different parts of the borough: Westminster, Knightsbridge, Paddington, Marylebone, Soho, Pimlico and Mayfair. “The interior designer was great at having dialogue about fabrics and colour schemes and so on, because it was really important to get our feedback on what couples like,” explains Alison. “We offer choices for everyone and want to be modern and accommodating. We are a dog friendly venue, for example.” As attendees, presumably.
A sense of fun
The Old Marylebone Town Hall is back in high demand since reopening in January. “We’ve just taken our 2,000th booking since we opened the diary,” reveals Alison. “Today is actually quiet as Fridays go, but we could have over 20 weddings on a Saturday.” The challenge, given those volumes, in to ensure that the venue feels like more than a constantly rolling, Grade II listed conveyor belt. “We have made a supreme effort to dispel that feeling,” insists Alison. “Obviously because this venue is so popular, we want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to get married here, but we are very careful in how we organise the diary, so that as far as possible people don’t clash and aren’t conscious of other weddings happening. If delays happen, for example, then possibly you will see another bride. But with just how welcoming the team are, I think there’s a real atmosphere here on a Saturday, and people join in with each other’s celebrations. It adds a real sense of fun to the proceedings.”
Deputy superintendent registrar Neil Paknadel-Glensman and deputy registrar John Coffey are conducting and registering six of today’s weddings. They’ve just worked through their lunch hour in order to fit in the wedding of a couple who arrived late. “We try not to send people home single if we can possibly help it,” jokes Neil.
In a few minutes’ time he and John will head off to interview and brief Clare and Jason, the couple who’ve been kind and foolhardy enough to let us witness their special moment. “They need to be formally interviewed to make sure that our registration is accurate,” explains Neil. “This will be the second time they’ve been asked these formal questions about themselves and it’s their chance to correct any mistakes or give any updates. In between giving notice of their intention to marry—which is when they have to produce all the necessary documentation—and the actual ceremony, people have birthdays, change jobs, move addresses or suddenly remember their dad’s middle name, things like that.”
When not conducting weddings, Neil could be performing any number of duties, such as registering births and deaths, producing copies of certificates, checking the applications of people applying to become British citizens or conducting citizenship ceremonies in the presence of the lord mayor.
All a front
It takes a certain type of person to stand in front of 100 or more guests, let alone the nervous bride and groom, and officiate at such a life-changing event. “You just have to like people,” explains Neil. But you must also need to be extremely confident and outgoing. “It’s all a front,” he grins. “The main skill you’re employing is the ability to read a script and bring it to life. After that, you have to be able to cope with the untoward and react to circumstances.” So, has anything untoward ever happened on Neil’s watch? “Yes, all the time. But nothing that’s thrown off a ceremony.”
Neil has been at Westminster Register Office for six years, with one personal highlight being the opportunity to conduct the wedding of Anish Kapoor and Sophie Walker in 2016. And a few months back he spotted Prince William among the guests at a ceremony at The Savoy. For the past 20 years, Neil has been gainfully employed by Westminster City Council, working in libraries before becoming a registrar. “Before that I was a teacher of English for speakers of other languages, including 12 years living in Turkey. During that time, I did voiceovers for documentary or promotional films where they needed an English version. I was their best English-speaking voice in Ankara, but obviously if it had been over here they’d have found a real actor.”
Neil’s colleague John, who today is performing the role of deputy registrar, is responsible for ensuring that the legal paperwork is in order. John joined the team in April, but was already familiar with the work of the Westminster Register Office. “I came here about five years ago to make a documentary for ITV called Births, Deaths and Marriages,” he reveals. “I was one of the producer-directors, and while we were filming I decided that this is the job I want to do when I leave television. I left television last September and an opportunity came up here. So, it was kind of organic for me.”
Though John spends most of his time registering births, he performs wedding duties at weekends and occasionally during the week. And he also loves his work. “With my producing background, for me this is like a fabulous, ongoing documentary and I find it endlessly fascinating. You never know who you’re going to meet or what tomorrow’s going to be like. It’s amazing, it really is.”
We find our groom, Jason, sitting alone in the Knightsbridge Room—in about 30 minutes he will wed in front of some 60 guests in the seriously swanky Westminster Room, but he’s doing a good job of controlling those pre-match nerves. Jason and Clare, who are both pub managers in Hertfordshire, got together seven years ago. It was on 29th February 2012 that Clare who took full advantage of the leap year tradition and popped the question at a pub quiz. She had the staff dress up in t-shirts, which between them bore the words ‘will you marry me, Moran?’ Jason’s response was apparently the only correct answer he managed all night.
So why did they choose to get married here at the Old Marylebone Town Hall? “Clare has always wanted to,” says Jason. “And as far as I’m concerned what Clare wants, she gets. The Old Marylebone Town Hall is famous for rock star weddings and the front steps are iconic. Clare’s brother-in-law is a big Paul McCartney fan, so I think he’s also pleased we’re getting married here. This venue is so beautiful.”
After their ceremony the happy couple and their guests will head to Islington for a proper shindig in the function room above The Angelic pub. “So there’s no formal reception with a sit down meal,” says Jason. “None of that dried chicken breast with sauce chucked over the top of it, sat round a table with people you don’t know and don’t really like.”
John conducts the formal interview with the groom, taking his time to ensure that every detail is correct, then Neil steps forward to brief Jason on exactly what to expect during the ceremony. Neil and John then head to a room at the far end of the corridor to repeat this process with the bride, while Jason and I make for the Westminster Room to find the guests already seated and bubbling with anticipation.
Please be upstanding
Bang on cue, Neil and John enter the room. John takes his seat behind the large wooden desk and neatly places his pen and the register out in front of him. In centuries to come, historians and genealogists may very well pore over the legal document that records this afternoon’s marriage of Clare Margaret Prince to Jason Ian Moran. Neil takes his position in front of the desk holding his ceremonies folder open. He pauses for a moment before addressing the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, would you now please be upstanding to welcome the bride?”
One detail that won’t appear in the official register is that our bride enters the room to the Wonder Woman theme, gliding elegantly down the centre aisle in her vintage wedding dress, while clipped into her hair is a heart-shaped adornment bearing the word ‘LOVE’. And there’s a bucket load of that in here today.
Neil invites the guests to take their seats, welcomes everybody and begins the ceremony. Although a lovely, light atmosphere pervades the proceedings there’s also a heightening sense of emotion as two clearly very popular people profess their commitment to one another in front of their nearest and dearest. There’s barely a dry eye in the house when Neil leads Clare and Jason through their solemn declarations and vows. The same is true when Clare’s daughter and brother-in-law perform Brighter Than Sunshine by Aqualung as the bride and groom cling onto each other.
Neil then asks the couple to declare their marriage contract. This is a particularly important part of the ceremony, because by uttering these words they legally become husband and wife. After the rings have been exchanged and the bride duly kissed, John waits for the room to quieten before calling forward the two witnesses, followed by the bride and groom, to check and sign the register. The room erupts when Clare asks if anybody can lend her a pair of specs.
Neil finally hands over the marriage certificate to the head of the household, Clare naturally, and concludes the ceremony. “Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for our newlyweds, Jason and Clare.” Deafening applause turns to rhythmic clapping as our dynamic duo exit the room to the strains of Batman. Minutes later Neil and John are still up in the Westminster Room when an eruption of cheering outside threatens to drown out the traffic on Marylebone Road. Clare and Jason have just walked out onto the steps of Old Marylebone Town Hall where their guests have been waiting with cameras and confetti.
“I love it,” says Neil, grinning. “I just love the togetherness. I always want it to be a beautiful day for the bride and groom. It doesn’t matter if they forget me, as long as they remember that it was a really lovely wedding day.”