Building a reputation

Friday, 16 September 2011

From blockbuster launch parties to glitzy fashion shows, Karen Haigh has seen it all as Head of Events at Freemasons’ Hall. She talks about meeting Matt Damon, Antony Gormley statues on the rooftop and building a giant bathroom outside the Grand Temple

How did you find yourself working for the Freemasons?
My father was a Freemason and we saw this newsletter advertising the position, so I wrote in. The Deputy Grand Secretary Michael Higham invited me to an interview and I got the job. There were only five women when I joined in 1979 and the building wasn’t open to the public. Where I’m sitting now used to be like a Dickensian office, with 24 desks and men sitting behind them with big ledgers. On a Monday, the housekeeper to the Grand Secretary would give us our hand towel for the week and a carafe of water. Twice a day we’d have tea breaks. I remember after six weeks I was allowed to type a letter on the new electric typewriter.

What does Freemasonry mean to you?
It’s never been a big mystery to me because of my dad. I’ve gone to ladies’ nights from a young age and haven’t had any preconceptions. People I called ‘Uncle’ were from my dad’s lodge, so it didn’t seem weird and wonderful.

When did you start the events business?
I started as a Girl Friday [aide] in 1982, and when I was 21, I became the Deputy Grand Secretary’s secretary and began doing masonic events. I did that until 1999, then went into admin, doing things like purchase ordering, and in 2005 I started the events business. We’re averaging between 30,000 and 50,000 non-masons visiting every year now. The day I don’t enjoy it is the day I should leave.

Why host events at Freemasons’ Hall?
There’s the commercial contribution that the events make, which pays for the upkeep of the building, but the main reason is to get as many people as possible coming into the building.

The openness is so important and has made such a difference. In the 1980s, the TV series Poirot could only film in two or three areas within the building, so you’d see the same area being rebuilt as a sweet shop or a hotel lobby. The first time we were allowed to shoot in the Grand Temple was in 2003 for a Westlife video.

Who else comes through your doors?
Last Monday, we had a graduation for the Istituto Marangoni fashion school. Before that we had De Montfort University doing a student fashion show for lingerie. Next week we’ve got the Good Egg Awards, celebrating companies who only use cage-free eggs or egg products. The events have changed with the times. A couple of years ago, every American movie would have a big premiere followed by a major party. These days they don’t want to be seen to be throwing money around in a recession, so it tends to only be the really big Harry Potter-type films that get such launches.

What kind of event wouldn't you host?
We avoid contentious events – anything too political. Guy Ritchie wanted to shoot the film Revolver here, but when we looked at the plot we saw it was about drugs and gangs. This Hall is a peace memorial, built to commemorate the masons who died in World War I, and if members saw it in a gangland film they’d be upset.

Do you get nervous when celebrities walk in?
If you don’t have nerves you’re missing something. The very first event we did was for the film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was standing there wondering what I’d done when 1,200 people arrived. I thought, ‘You’ve got to go with it.’  When we did Spamalot we’d get Eric Idle visiting and I loved that. We had nine weeks of filming for and I loved that. We had nine weeks of filming for Green Zone with Matt Damon, and after a while we just got used to him walking around the building.

Are you a Freemasons' Hall fanatic?
I love the building but I don’t talk to it! ! There are others who probably know it a lot better than I do. Many of the building’s nooks and crannies are still a mystery to me so I have a lot more exploring to do. My favourite area is the vestibule, as I think it sums up the majestic feel of the building perfectly. ! ere’s so much tradition here.

What's the strangest request you've had?
The weirdest thing was when the director of Kevin & Perry Go Large asked us to make the area outside the Grand Temple into a bathroom. Then we were one of the locations for the Antony Gormley project, Event Horizon. When the statue arrived in the front hall, I didn’t realise that it was going to be so anatomically true to life, and I’ll never forget an old lady walking into the lodge and staring at it. When they approached us, I think they expected us to refuse – but it did us good taking part in the project, helping change perceptions of what Freemasonry is all about.

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