Drugs and naked dancing: Capturing Glastonbury for TV

The last Glastonbury Festival in 2017 was watched by almost 21 million people on the BBC. This year, BBC Two and BBC Four will broadcast more than 30 hours of footage from the five main stages, with 100 performances available via iPlayer.

It’s all a long way from the first TV coverage of the festival back in 1971, when a pre-Newsround John Craven, reporting for Somerset’s Points West programme, bemoaned “the free lovemaking, the fertility rites, the naked dancing and, most of all, the drug-taking”.

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“He didn’t get it at all,” says Michael Eavis (83), who began the festival the previous year. “He thought we were a load of wasters and that the farm was rubbish; lots of people thought that in 1971, so I can’t blame it all on John Craven really.”

Various filmmakers attempted to capture the event during its first two decades, but it was a 1992 Channel 4 documentary, Show Down At Glastonbury, and, more particularly, a review in The Daily Telegraph by Max Davidson, that Eavis credits with securing the festival’s future. A concerted attempt was being made by local residents to close it down for good and the programme observed the battle from both sides. Davidson came down firmly on Eavis’s side. He took on board Eavis’s Methodism (both his father and brother were preachers) and the fact that part of the Methodist Church’s mission was to connect working men with Christianity, often through outdoor gatherings.

“It was so good,” remembers Eavis. “My mother disapproved of the festival, but that fellow turned her right around. She was on the phone to me at 8 o’clock in the morning when I was in the middle of milking: ‘Have you seen this article?’ All the local councillors were Telegraph readers and they came round as well.”

Prior to this, Eavis had not been interested in the televisual possibilities of the festival. Channel 4 started broadcasting the festival from 1994, but their commentary just made the coverage seem like another slice of wacky pop TV. “Their humour wasn’t fitting; it didn’t suit at all,” says Eavis. In 1997, however, the BBC took over. A partnership of sorts began to gel.

“It seemed quite left field for the BBC when we began,” says Mark Cooper, BBC Studios’ Head of Music, who has overseen every Glastonbury since. “It wasn’t very well funded; we had enough budget to do two stages. The weather was so awful that first year, but we covered Radiohead live on Saturday night. They were so in their moment. OK Computer had just come out and our cameras joined them going into ‘Paranoid Android’, a band at its absolute peak.”

It was a great start. Radiohead’s 1997 set is still regarded as one of Glastonbury’s greatest, but the bad weather that bedevilled the coverage was to become a running theme. The festival’s infamous mud restricted the movement of camera teams in 2007 and 2016; high winds in 1998 shut one position down; in 2010, a heatwave caked everything in dust; in 2014, electrical storms forced organisers to turn off the power on the main stage; but worst of all was a flash flood on the Thursday night of the 2005 festival, which washed away the entire presentation area.

Presenting live interviews with bands swept up in Glastonbury’s hedonism can also be fraught with difficulty. In 2005, presenters Edith Bowman and Colin Murray had a pre-watershed chat with a very lively and ‘refreshed’ Bobby Gillespie and Mani from Primal Scream.

“Bobby was asked about Basement Jaxx, the headliners, and gave an expletive-filled response. We had to straight-up apologise for that. You want to laugh, but have to find a professional standpoint without being a prude or too corporate. There are broadcasting rules to follow, but it was funny,” says Bowman.

The BBC’s on-site operation now encompasses miles of underground fibre optic cables, linking the stages and presentation areas to editing suites backstage in the BBC compound. The team there continues putting together the day’s highlights until 3am, long after the headliners have finished.

Highlights are one thing, but there is also the need to make sure that the TV viewer is not short-changed.

“There’s this idea that the public demand short bursts of music,” adds Bowman, “but actually, people like a full set – they enjoy longer coverage rather than one song, they want to be immersed, to feel like they’re there.”

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