'Glastonbury belongs with the BBC': Broadcast team look ahead to festival's return

Paul Harries

On a warm June evening, Jo Whiley is walking happily across the grass to a garden shed dubbed Miniscule Of Sound, where a DJ is spinning records to an assortment of revellers.

Where else would you expect the BBC radio legend to be at the end of June but listening to music in a field? Whiley, after all, has been presenting the BBC’s TV coverage of Glastonbury since the ’90s, when she perched on hay bales alongside the late John Peel.

Only, the warm June evening in question was in 2018, when Glastonbury Festival had a year off. Wiley’s withdrawal symptoms were real.

“We didn’t know what to do with ourselves last year,” she tells Music Week. “So we had GlastonWhiley at home! It was really fun, loads of friends came and camped in the garden. We’ve got a tiny shed that we called the Miniscule Of Sound, so we had a club in there, it was more about DJing than bands.”

Twelve months on, Whiley will be back on site at Worthy Farm, where the BBC is set to stage its biggest ever Glastonbury package, with new look staging, over 30 hours of TV coverage and more than 100 sets on the iPlayer.

In 2017, 20.9 million viewers set a new record, and the Beeb hopes to beat that.

New for 2019 is BBC Radio Glastonbury, which will house all audio Glastonbury content from Radio 1, 1Xtra, 2, 6Music and 5 Live on BBC Sounds from June 26-July 1. Annie Mac, Clara Amfo, DJ Target, Edith Bowman, Gemma Cairney, Huw Stephens, Jack Saunders, James Ballardie, Laura Whitmore, Lauren Laverne, Mark Radcliffe, Sir Spyro, Steve Lamacq, Yasser and Zoe Ball will be joining Whiley on the presenting team.

It’s nothing short of an extravaganza, and Whiley, bounding into our photo shoot alongside Amfo and Lamacq, couldn’t be more excited.

The trio are in high spirits, laughing as Whiley inspects Lamacq’s muddy wellies, holding one at arm’s length for our camera.

“I don’t know if it’s just me, but there’s something about the line-up this year that’s got me particularly excited,” says Radio 1’s Amfo, grinning ear to ear.

“When it comes to diversity across genre and genders, it feels different this time. I like the meeting of new icons and the elder statesmen and women. I’m just as excited to see Kylie as I am to see Stormzy and Janelle Monae and Janet Jackson.”

Lamacq wades in, breaking off from telling us about his yearly goodbye ritual for his latest knackered pair of cherry red Doc Martens at the end of every Glastonbury.

“The festival is a representation of what people get out of pop music in a lot of ways,” says the 6 Music DJ, who’s been going since 1995.

“There’s the moment you discover a record that you really like and find out you can hide in your bedroom with a favourite band,” he continues. “From that point on, you find that pop music is all about escape and Glastonbury provides an escape for a huge amount of people who would rather they lived in Glastonbury and the world it creates than the world that currently exists.”

Lamacq’s clearly a big fan, and although he laments a lack of “hanging out”, he sets aside a three-hour window every year to explore and says the BBC team “probably get less sleep than the people on their way to bed as we arrive in the morning”.

Pulling the strings for the BBC in Pilton are Mark Cooper – who’s due to step down as head of music, BBC Studios after the festival – and James Stirling, head of BBC Music & BBC Music Introducing. They’re just as buoyant as the presenters.

“We want to mirror what the festival does, which is surprise you as well as reward you,” Cooper says.

“It’s one of the few events in the calendar that’s a real appointment to view as a music fan. And if you haven’t got a ticket, it’s live across the UK. That’s really exciting. Glastonbury is a unique television and music event anywhere in the world.”

Cooper is looking forward to the short films his team are making this year, to telling the stories of the Langa Methodist Choir and rave experts’ Arcadia’s new Pangea installation.

“Glastonbury’s importance grows every year because of the [lack] of music performance on television and because it’s very obvious what its effect is in the retail sector,” he says.

There’s pride in Cooper’s voice as he reflects on 22 years of helming Glastonbury’s television coverage. He was there in the days when stages would sink in the mud.

“There’s something driving Glastonbury that’s larger than profit or beer, bands and burgers. It has a moral and a cultural purpose,” he says.

“As Glastonbury has evolved, so has the BBC offering. Glastonbury is at the cutting edge of all the different developments in digital and streaming and in the sense that television is a communal, live thing. Television can deliver the sense of a collective experience. There will be a lot of people watching Stormzy or Kylie knowing other people are watching it, too.”

Cooper also promises, “a broader view of the festival and its place in British life, the kind of window to the world that Glastonbury offers for voices that you maybe don’t hear too often elsewhere.”

Clearly, the BBC takes its time on the farm very seriously, and James Stirling is all too aware that its coverage can dramatically change the fortunes of those on the bill. Stormzy, Dua Lipa, Sigrid and Royal Blood were among those to benefit from increased streams, downloads and social media interactions in 2017.

“The fact that it reaches mainstream culture can only help the business and that’s a really good thing,” says Stirling.

“Artists often raise their game and the audiences respond in equal measure and that makes for really amazing viewing moments. Last time we reached a record number of people, so it’s no wonder there’s a significant effect. We know that a good moment can change everything, it’s about an artist seizing the moment.”

Stirling’s team aims to maximise its chance too, and he’s keen to roll out classic moments from the BBC’s archive, interviews and more via Glastonbury Radio. The breadth of coverage, he says, will stretch wider than ever in 2019.

“It just touches people who don’t necessarily have a relationship with music festivals, it’s so famous,” he says.

“We really bring it to life for TV by going deeper than just the main stages. Our presenters are so passionate, they immerse you in it for the weekend and you really feel part of it if you’re not there.”

It’s time to find out just how passionate the presenters really are, as we ask how Whiley, Amfo and Lamacq will bring Glastonbury into the hearts of millions this weekend…

What does it mean to work for the BBC at Glastonbury?

Clara Amfo: “I couldn’t imagine it being with anyone else [again], it just belongs with the BBC, it’s our duty to be there. I still get a bit starstruck and think, ‘OK, this is really happening’, Obviously it’s my job and I’m used to it, but without sounding like a total creep, I get to work with Jo! [Laughs] Last time I got to do some TV with Mark Radcliffe and it was such a joy. We’d never worked together and we had such a great time watching The Jackson 5. You wouldn’t necessarily put us together, but we just had a laugh and enjoyed music and that’s the whole point. You’ve got people at home who can share the communal experience of watching something on TV they’re not going to get the chance to see live.”

Jo Whiley: “I’ve seen the evolution of Glastonbury and its relationship with the BBC. When it first began, it was me and John Peel sitting on a bit of straw, doing links to camera and showing what was happening on the main stage. Now there is so much choice. For all those people who are desperate to get tickets and are very disappointed that they can’t, we give such comprehensive coverage that you don’t miss anything. They’re dry, they can provide their own alcohol and have a ringside seat.”

Steve Lamacq: “The festival is just like a massive group hug for some people. It’s a way of finding a different way of doing things. The BBC coverage shows how important the fabric of the culture of the festival is. Every show at some point wants to do Glastonbury, even The Archers. For 6 Music, it’s a bit of music and culture. For Radio 1 it’s that rite of passage moment for teenagers going for the first time. Despite the fact that I’ve been going since 1995, we’ll still be able to find new things.”

What are the aims when you’re presenting?

CA: “Capturing the excitement. We’re there to do a job, but we’re all fans of music and that’s the reason we say yes every year, we want to be there. I remember walking in at my first one in 2016 and I was overwhelmed. I went on a trapeze that year, just because I could.”

JW: “That’s the intention of the coverage, to show every aspect of what’s going on, the cabaret, the circus performers, the kids... Everyone there is a performing artist of some sort, whether music or otherwise and we really make a point to cover it all. The history, too. It’s an amazing myriad of characters. We capture the beauty of the place, it’s such an amazing spectacle. When that headline act walks out onto the main stage on a Saturday night and the lights are twinkling, some kind of magic descends and the TV screen crackles.”

Do the artists on the bill share your opinion on the enormity of the festival?

JW: “I interviewed Lionel Richie and Dolly Parton after they came off stage and I treasure those moments so much. Lionel was blown away, he could not believe the reaction he got from the crowd. He could barely articulate himself for a few moments, you see this raw energy and love.”

CA: “Lest we forget you on stage with Chic [Whiley danced on stage with the band and audience members in 2017]…”

JW: “Oh fuck let’s forget that! Let’s never speak of that again [laughs]. Barry Gibb too, he didn’t know what to make of it at all initially, he was a little bit uptight seeing all these people dressed as him. You could see he was thinking, ‘Are they taking the piss?’ But then he got it and he embraced it. Artists feel celebrated and understand the enormity of how big and important Glastonbury is.”

Let’s talk about those famous ‘Glastonbury moments’. Just how big a deal is this for the artists who play?

SL: “One thing I still really enjoy after all these years is a band having their moment at Glastonbury, whatever it is. Whether it’s the sunset moment, Coldplay or Doves… In 2017, Loyle Carner played mid-Saturday afternoon on the John Peel stage and his mum came on and it was just everything… The record was out and [you could see] people liked it. Artists have been vindicated in what they’ve been trying to achieve, I don’t think there are better endorsements for some musicians than ramming a tent at Glastonbury on the way up. This year, I think Idles will have theirs.”

CA: “The great thing about Glastonbury is that it doesn’t wait for people to become cool to book them. There’s space for everyone. I’m sure there are people on the bill who may have only done one, two or three gigs before and they’re being given a chance to have their Glastonbury moment. And that’s really important, rather than waiting until someone has sold a few million albums.”

Is the opportunity still as huge as ever, then?

JW: “It’s massive exposure! It turned Liam Gallagher around last time, Rag‘N’Bone Man had his moment. You see artists completely overcome with emotion when they have that moment of the crowd singing back to them. I don’t think any artist underestimates the importance of having that Glastonbury moment or trying to make it theirs. Foo Fighters did it, that was one of the greatest gigs they’ve done. Coldplay, Beyoncé, they all take to that stage and know this is their opportunity to shine.”

CA: “There are various awards people can get and I’m sure album sales are lovely, but to say you’ve performed at Glastonbury, especially for the artists on the Pyramid Stage… I’ve seen Stormzy in passing and he’s like, ‘Bruv, I’m coming, get ready…’ He’s so excited. He understands the opportunity that he has.”

SL: “It’s something that you’re always going to look back at on your CV. Just looking through some of the bills over the years and some of the little bands who shone brightly for 18 months or something but they were second on the John Peel stage. For them just being at Glastonbury will be one of their career highlights. If you have been handpicked to do it then it suggests that you’re doing something right.”

How does this year’s bill stand up?

SL: “There is such a big crowd in front of that main stage, and there are a lot of crowd-pleasers this time around. But to a certain extent there always are, they’ve always had a populist touch. It’s for a big and ever-changing crowd. People are getting to understand that it represents lots of different sorts of music and it’s not just where it was at the end of the ’80s or the start of the ’90s and during the Britpop years.”

CA: “Billie Eilish is a firecracker, Janelle Monae is going to be fantastic, and Miley Cyrus. Every year, you get what I call ‘real music Twitter’ asking, ‘Why are they getting so and so at Glastonbury?’ Live performance is a challenge and there’s a confidence with someone who knows they can command a stage and be fantastic.”

JW: “I’ve always loved Vampire Weekend and I love the new album. They’ve played quite a few times, in their real infancy when they blew up. Ezra Koening was saying that he came and did Glastonbury as a punter and that he was in the Stone Circle when sun was rising and he said, ‘Now I get Glastonbury, now I understand it.’ He’s coming with a renewed appreciation of what Glastonbury’s all about so I think they’re really going to give it some. The Cure too, I’ve never seen them live, they were the soundtrack to my adolescence so I’m very excited.”

How has the festival changed over the years?

CA: “Glastonbury’s been really good at embracing people’s changing tastes and the breadth of music that’s out there. I appreciate there isn’t that snobbery there. The open mindedness is showing itself off in a really positive way this year.”

JW: “Emily Eavis has been key. She’s been very conscious about who she books and broadening it out, helping with diversity, putting lots of women on the bill. You cannot underestimate the impact she’s had. She’s really important, she’s progressed it. I remember the first time she had a hand in it and The Park area suddenly appeared. I was walking around going, ‘Oh my God’. It had a feminine touch, a creative touch, this awareness, and that’s just evolved ever since.”

Glastonbury turns 50 next year. Can it sustain itself into the future?

JW: “It’s pivotal. Pivotal in people’s lives and musicians’ lives. It’s going from strength to strength. It’s not resting on its laurels going, ‘Oh, this is Glastonbury, this is what we do,’ it’s saying, ‘What can we do in future? How can we make it better, bigger and more relevant and exciting?’ There are very few moments like it.”

CA: “I can’t see it becoming irrelevant. I’ve seen so many festivals come and go. They’re hard things to do, to put on a live music event of that scale is an incredibly hard job. For it to still be here coming up to 50 years is incredible.”

JW: “Can you imagine how many people are clamouring to play the 50th year? There must be a lot of artists who’ve turned down this year because they want to be there next year, I’m sure the megastars are lined up for next year.”

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