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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Folk by the Oak 2014: this time with beer

I love this festival. I love the idea of it, of naming a folk festival after a tree under which something important happened: in this instance Elizabeth Tudor discovering that she would be Queen while living at Hatfield House.


I also love the location, the fact that it is only about half an hour out of central London by train and that therefore every folky in the capital could, theoretically attend. And that it was on the same weekend as Lovebox, a fairly horrific hip-hoppy celebration of public drunkeness, vomiting and urination that happens pretty much next to my home - the eponymous (and ironically named) Glamour Cave - in Bethnal Green. While I was enjoying Richard Thompson and Seth Lakeman, other people on my Facebook timeline were already complaining about the mess that Lovebox makes.

I didn't care. I was feeling smug and discerning at Folk by the Oak. And I don't get to feel smug or discerning very often so this was a bit like a holiday for me.

I love this festival. And this year it didn't even run out of beer, which was good because it was as warm in Hertfordshire as it was everywhere else last weekend and running out of beer would have constituted folky armageddon: the festival equivalent of fate giving us a big ding over the head with a banjo.

I missed Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, for which I basically have no one to blame but myself. But obviously this won't prevent me trying. Part of my brain was convinced, as I lazed in bed for an extra half an hour, that there was no way the schedulers would put them on first – not while there were other, less self-evidently brilliant, acts to choose from – and I didn't get much of a clue from the website. I should have asked for more information but... didn't. You know how it is. I'm looking forward to their new album a lot though, string arrangements and all.

So the first thing I saw that made a big impression was The Elizabethan Session, which was arresting mainly for the voices. There was Nancy Kerr, who is in my considered opinion a genius, singing the word "Gloriana", her flattened vowels making it unique to the place and the occasion forever now in my mind. And there was John Smith, who had me Googling him before two verses had escaped his lips, only to remember receiving a suggestion a while back from Phil at Folk Cast that I should do a follow up to my much-beloved post (judging by the number of hits it still gets, anyway), Gallery of folk musicians lying in foliage, with a new gallery of damp folk musicians, inspired by this.


For the avoidance of doubt: it's John Smith. In fact, please contact me by email here or on Twitter @emma1hartley with other pictures of damp folkies. This would be good.

It turns out John Smith has a great voice, so standing up to your waist in water is obviously honey for the vocal cords, if not necessarily your other body parts – it's more likely to be trench foot, mould or fungi for those – or your musical instruments, come to that. Having Bella Hardy, Jim Moray, Martin Simpson, Hannah James and Emily Askew as backing couldn't have hurt either.

The second stage then played host to Salt House, a Scottish four-piece with some new takes on old tunes – She's like the swallow, for one – while one among their number played a beautiful, cherry-coloured double bass that had been buffed to a high shine. Somebody clearly loves that instrument very much.



While they were doing this, I sat on a bale of hay and reflected that the crowd was clearly adoring the combination of old songs and young musicians and that the rest of the music industry, with its incessant re-releases of songs from the 1980s is becoming more like the folk scene all the time.

Speaking of which, Beth Orton clearly had a few fans in the crowd.



And it wasn't hard to see why, although her between-song banter sounded a little as if she were attempting it for the first time after having awoken from a 10-year snooze. It centred around how she was feeling old... but she looked fabulous and was talking to a field full of folkies who had an average of 15 years on her, I'd say, and who were also being rained on at the time, just to make them feel even more glamorous. Not me though. I had an ugly rain-deflecting garment taking care of the water (no, I don't have a picture, sorry) and word has it that Beth and I were in the same class at the Hewett school in Norwich for a while: one day I hope to be able to ask her about that and some other things for the blog.

Keston Cobblers Club, at the Acorn stage, made a big splash with their oompah, brass-bandy brand of folk that would sound comfy on a bank ad. I say that with love and I hope they make their fortune eventually: they had us wondering why they weren't on the main stage?



But then the Richard Thompson and the Seth Lakeman finale kind of supplied the answer: folk festival programmers play to the essentially conservative nature of their audiences and it is both why folk festivals do better than average and a bit of a drag sometimes to those of us who consciously enjoy novelty.



I mean, I love Vincent Black Lightning as much as the next person and also that Seth Lakeman sings songs about mainstream male experiences like being in the army and being a lifeboatman. But... *sigh* No actually, it was fine. Especially as Seth came with fireworks, allowing the male, heterosexual portion of the audience to experience first hand that for which the rest of us did not need fireworks. (I'm just fighting with myself, don't watch.)

In fact, it was more than fine. Did I mention that I actually love Folk by the Oak?

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Friday, 11 July 2014

Folkies! The Shirley Collins movie needs your help on Kickstarter before 22 July

Film-makers Tim Plester and Rob Curry shot a frankly brilliant morris dancing documentary, Way of the Morris, and if you haven't seen it, it's not too late. It's available to stream, for instance, on Blinkbox


But there is something else of theirs vying for your attention. They're hoping to make another folk-related movie: this time about Shirley Collins, who was absolutely central to the folk revivial of the 50s and 60s. And they're raising funds for it on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site. It's become quite the thing recently – especially in tech circles and for film – and some people have raised unbelievably large amounts of money on it.

However, Tim and Rob are only trying to raise £25,000 and they are already more than half way there.

Watch this for a flavour of the film they would like to make.


There is also a series of interviews about Shirley Collins with people including the super-sharp comedian Stewart Lee and Graham Coxon of Blur, available to watch here.

I'm interested in a couple of things in particular about this story. First of all, Collins's music-collecting trip to the US with her lover Alan Lomax sounds like an epic tale, full of subterfuge, that needs to be told. It's as if Maude Karpeles were still alive to give us the low-down on Cecil Sharp – and correctly apportion the credit for the work that took place – but with a spot of George Clooney thrown in. 


The soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou, which is sometimes credited with having given impetus to the present pick-up in interest in folk music on both sides of the Atlantic, would not exist in the form that it does were it not for that trip across America by Collins and Lomax, for the simple reason that they collected some of the music.


And then there is the somewhat thorny issue of Collins having misplaced her voice for 35 years, which is something that I've heard Curry talk about in impassioned terms as a wrong that was done to her as a woman – and something that she has in common with Linda Thompson. Both of them, Curry contends with a feminist anger, were "chewed up and spat out" by the men of the folk rock scene. And perhaps that, too, would bear some examination.

"I'm not sure how much Shirley wants to talk about it," said Plester. "What is interesting is that she stopped doing what she was doing 35 years ago for personal reasons, private reasons. There is a medical term – dysphonia – for what happened, but neither Shirley nor Linda use it to describe what they've been through. And that is maybe part of what's been so paralysing about it. It happened to both of them: the two most important leading ladies of their day. Both were struck down in the same way: they literally found themselves voiceless.

"If nothing else, making this film is allowing Shirley to come back and embrace the limelight a bit. She played earlier this year at Union Chapel, which we filmed. And there is talk about recording again. Many people have come forward to express their love for Shirley and she's thriving on it.

"But I'm always wary of talking too much at the start of the film-making process about what's going to be in it, because things that seem like a great idea at the outset have also to be filmic in order to work. And there's no knowing how some things are going to turn out."

The thing about Kickstarter is that is they don't raise the full £25,000 by 22 July then they don't get any of the money. The target has to be hit before any of the funds are released. So think about making a contribution – and check out the rewards for doing so here – as well as forwarding this to anyone you know who might take an interest.

* Help crowdfund the Shirley Collins film here.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley


Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rodney Branigan: the high plains drifter who came from LA to Somerset, via Nashville


"The idea in my head was that if I could do this thing it would attract a lot of attention initially and what I did with that attention would be the true test of my entertaining ability."

Maybe I watched too much Aerosmith on MTV in the 1980s but I can’t shake the sensation that there is a kind of one-upmanship involved in playing two guitars simultaneously that goes way beyond the usual. Calling Doctor Freud?


Rodney Branigan, 37, was at the BBC in Portland Place a couple of years ago, taking part in a showcase. He had a blues voice, was passionately involved in what he was doing and could definitely play guitar, plus he had a kind of rude health about him that, combined with the American accent, made me think of something my nana had said about American GIs during the second world war seeming “corn fed”. Then he pulled out a second guitar - whoaaah! - and started playing it alongside the first. One was a kind of rhythm section and he was managing each with one hand.  Nifty… and slightly disconcerting. Certainly memorable. He was already extremely good, you see, when he was only playing the one guitar: why bother?

Poking around on the web I could find very little about him, which seemed odd as he’d clearly been around for a while somewhere and had the serious demeanor of a pro. He reminded me a little of Chris Whitley, minus the drugs, or Lindsey Buckingham, for the guitar energy. But there was something wilfully non-standard about him: perhaps it was just that he seemed to have a rough idea what he was doing at a time when the music industry was in disarray. How?

Fast forward a couple of years and he played the Half Moon in Putney. We had a brief conversation during which he mentioned a sponsorship deal with Yamaha that made me think someone was probably marketing him, and that he'd recently moved to Frome in Somerset. So I tried again with the Googling. This time there was more: I could see evidence of a dalliance with Show of Hands, six records and – eh? -  a DVD of him playing in India, as well as an audio interview with a Parisian who wanted to know an awful lot about guitar tuning. 

“I get a lot of very guitar-orientated stuff,” he said on the phone later.


So tell me about yourself?

“OK. I’m from Amarillo, Texas, originally. I grew up on the high plains and left home when I turned 20. I moved around a lot, playing any place that would let me, and in those days I used to do a lot more folk-orientated stuff. Bob Dylan, that kind of thing…

“So I’ve been playing music professionally for 16 years and in my adult life I haven’t had another job. I lived on the road for years… opened for The Toadies and The Nixons, did several tours. Then I moved to LA in 2005 and had been there for about six months when I met a manager and moved again, to Nashville. I signed with a manager called Eddie Wenrick and he got me a gig writing for EMI.”

So you were like one of those young musicians in the brilliantly bling TV series Nashville? They did that job.

“Yes. That was me, kind of. So I had a day job while I was writing my album and I lived in Nashville for two years, had a couple of song-writing coaches, including a guy called Dave Loggins.”

Like Kenny Loggins? The tune from the opening sequence of Top Gun was suddenly going around my head.

“Yeah. I think he’s his cousin or something. So I was writing country music in Nashville and it was all right. I didn’t get any final cuts on albums and it wasn’t massively lucrative but it was a day job.”

There was a slightly guilty pause.

“I prefer not to write country music if I’m quite honest about it. It’s a very specific type of thing you write about and I don’t like to write songs about drinking beer and failed relationships. Most of it is about failed relationships.”

Suddenly he seemed immensely likeable. So you’ve been right to the heart of the US music industry?

“Yeah. I guess you could say that. But one of the reasons I moved to London in 2007 was that my record label – Little Wooden Boy Music - went bankrupt and my manager got out of the business.”

Oh dear. Was this connected with the rise of the internet in the music industry?

“It all seemed to start slightly before then. When I was in LA in 2002-03 I dealt with a lot of record labels and a lot of the A&R guys lost their jobs around that time. By 2005-06 it was taking a massive downturn.  There’s more money in independent music these days.”

Really?

“I mean as a whole there is. But on an individual level there isn’t.”

OK. So why London?

“There seemed to be a lot of opportunities for me in London. I signed with a record label based out of Paris called Bad Reputation Records and they re-released an album of mine from the States. It was a kind of rebranding. I’m still signed with them: in the UK I can release my own stuff but in France - because I don't speak the language - it's useful to have someone doing my groundwork. There's a booking agent and someone who does PR. But in this country I don't have a record label. I have an agent who does bookings in India and one who does tours in Germany. And I went to China once and did a tour of conservatoires, a lecture series on composing music."

So what's going on with Yamaha?

"Right. Yes. I'm on the Yamaha tour right now."

When I'd first tried his number he was breaking up a bit but I could just about hear that he was in a car on his way to a guitar workshop in Derby with Tim Snider.



"It's for the release of the LL series. That's a type of guitar they make: they just redesigned it and we're going into music shops and performing there."

So when I saw you at the Half Moon that was also part of the Yamaha tour?

"They took the dates we were already playing and filled in the rest, put us in music shops on the dates we weren't playing. I've been working with Yamaha for six years. I do clinical work for the guitar manufacturers and they fly me around the world to demo the guitars. Basically I sell the guitars to the people who sell the guitars."

Suddenly, the pieces fell into place for me. Branigan does a business-to-business thing a lot of the time. Yes, he's a pro but it also accounts for the lack of footage on the web of him giving concerts, which you'd usually expect for someone who was making a good living from music. Eureka.

"Yeah. I get loads of free guitars. I haven't had to pay for a guitar in about 12 years."

And I guess that's just as well, considering your website is called Brokenguitars.com?

"Ha! I started that website in 2001. When I started playing percussive guitar I wasn't sure how hard you could hit them and I broke six in a year. But I've figured out how not to break them now. I pretty much know the exact tensile strength of my guitars."

And do you ever worry that the "two guitars" thing gets in the way of the music? That your gimmick overshadows your reputation as a serious musician?

"Yes. I do feel that it gets in the way. It gets a lot of attention, so I reserve it now for the last track of every set I play. But it's where all the guitar endorsements come from. Initially I did it because I was trying to make as much sound as possible. The idea in my head was that if I could do this thing it would attract a lot of attention initially and what I did with that attention would be the true test of my entertaining ability. I do get some criticism for it - mainly from other guitarists, who say 'What's the point of playing two when you could play one and make more of it.' But I get some pretty rare endorsements. I make a comfortable living."



So you moved to Frome? You said you have a five-year-old daughter now with your partner, whom you met in London? Is she from Somerset?


"No, she's from London. But she was more up for the move than I was: she just wanted to get out of town. I grew up in a bit more a of a country environment myself, where there was more space to run around and I want that for my daughter. We looked at Trowbridge but decided on Frome when we heard that there would be a Steiner school opening there. It's a kind of alternative education where they focus on the creative arts more than they do in the state system. And one of the ways they do that is by slowing up the academic side of things before the age of seven, then they speed it up again. From the age of seven to 16 she will learn Chinese and Spanish and most of the kids that come out of Steiner schools are pretty fluent in both. I met some people on the road who had their kids in Steiner schools and one of them had a 16-year-old who was fluent in French."

Useful stuff.

"Frome has a creative community and a farming community, and I'm fine with both. My family farmed wheat, maize and cane for animal feed, and I can appreciate both mindsets."

And how are you settling in? Have you met the neighbours? I went to the folk festival in Frome a couple of years ago - coincidentally I ended up writing a piece about musicians who had mildly dysfunctional relationships with instruments - and remember that Sam Lakeman and Cara Dillon live there.

"Yes. I've met them in passing. And I met Seth before, through Steve Knightley. He invited me to play one year, to help stand in for Phil Beer when he was away, and it took two of us: me and Seth. In fact I saw Seth two days ago at the Acoustic Festival of Britain: I was trying to see if he'd be at Glastonbury this year. My partner and I are both involved in a project in the kids' field: we take guitars and violins along with us, as well as teachers, and give free lessons to children. My partner is a luthier and she recycles musical instruments from music schools. I'll always be at Glastonbury doing this, even if I'm not on the bill."

He explained that this was how he also met Billy Bragg: he donated some recycled guitars to Bragg's Jail Guitar Doors charity after being invited to play the Left Field stage at Glastonbury one year and even went with him to HMP Wandsworth to play back in 2007.



* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Friday, 2 May 2014

Saul Rose: 'Firing the War Horse band was shit. They shouldn't have done it'

Saul Rose knows a thing or two about War Horse. He played Songman in the West End show for a year starting in 2011, which was the year it came out as a movie. But more than that... As a folk musician he's known and much loved as one-third of Faustus, for Whapweasel, as Eliza Carthy's musical foil in the Kings of Calicutt and now as James Delarre's other half, kind of.


For ages I thought he was in Bellowhead because the first time I saw them live he was depping for John Spiers.

"He was off being a daddy," nods Rose, referring to Spiers' paternity leave.

It's a Tube-stricken evening in Camden and Rose & Delarre are playing at The Green Note to a handful of delighted diehards who are blase about their chances of getting home. What I want to know is what Rose thinks about events at the National Theatre, whose management recently, somewhat thuggishly, sacked the entire band from War Horse

"I think the problem ultimately was that they were musicians, rather than actors," said Rose. "They have the Musicians Union and their pay scale is different. When War Horse was originally commissioned it was only supposed to run for a short while. But then it went to the West End and is still running six or seven years later.


"The cast's deal was worked out on the basis that it was a three month run. But the same five musicians are still there after all that time later and their wages... It's why I'm a member of the Musicians' Union and not Equity."

When Rose was in War Horse he was a member of the cast who played music, rather than a member of the band. Do you have any idea how the musicians are, I ask?

"I should think they are feeling ever so slightly relieved," he said thoughtfully. "I'm just saying it's possible... because to play the same thing eight times a week for seven years takes some doing. I couldn't do it.

"What really appalls me, though, is that" whatever that judge said "those musicians are an integral part of the play. I sometimes worry about the idea of authenticity, but they had been in the show from the beginning and there was an authenticity to that. Audiences that see it with recorded music are being short changed and I think the play will suffer as a result...

"I'm not expecting to go back into War Horse," he grinned.

Probably just as well...

"I did a year and that's fine for me, that's plenty. It's not because I wouldn't do theatre again. I might. But I really had to put everything on hold as a musician for that year and it was hard.

"Maybe the audience numbers are dwindling now, finally?" he suggested

Well, it doesn't really matter, does it? War Horse has been the biggest financial success the National Theatre has ever had. There can't be any excuse for this kind of behaviour over money, can there? So what was it like, being in that show?

"It was amazing. One of the best years of my life. You know when you get a group of ten people there is always likely to be someone who is idiot?"

OK.

"Well, we had a cast of 35 and everyone was amazing. No idiots. They were all so generous to me, as someone who didn't really know anything about acting. I got to dress up as a colonel in one of the roles they had me play, and bark orders. And there was one scene"...

There may have been some ordnance going off like nostalgia at the back of Rose's mind...

"... where every time I did a back flip Malcolm, one of the other guys in the cast, would give me a fiver. I tell you what I missed though... There are certain parts of that show when the Songman is allowed to interact with the audience. And in that role you get to do it more than anyone else. But even so... it wasn't much. It was like there was a wall up between the actors and audience most of the time."


And I guess having recorded music can only exacerbate that. What about John Tams (who wrote the original music for War Horse)? I tried to get in touch with him about this business with the band and the union but he appears, uncharacteristically and despite his apparent political views, to have gone to ground on the subject. He didn't return my messages.

"Ah, Tams... Being the Songman in War Horse was a little bit like depping for him on a permanent basis. Ordinarily I like to mould a song to my way of speaking but Tams came in one day to the theatre and told me 'They've been through enough sieves already'."

That made me laugh because it reminded me very much of the story Tams tells about Richard Curtis on the set of War Horse. It's true, then, that what goes around comes around...

There was a bit more chatter. Rose and Delarre's CD wasn't out in time for their tour, which is a shame though you can pre-order one here. As well as the Tube strike they were also in competition that evening with an album launch at Cecil Sharp House, although judging by the tide of people sweeping down Parkway at 9.25pm (the strike was due to start at 9.30) they weren't quite so blase about getting home. Rose and Delarre had the cooler audience. Just saying... The gig was fantastic. And apparently they haven't got much lined up festival-wise this summer, so are open to suggestions.


At the end of the evening Rose had had a good long time to think about the subject under discussion, and summed it up thus: "Firing the War Horse band was shit. They shouldn't have done it."

There is a Musicians Union petition here that you can sign if you agree with him, asking for the musicians to be reinstated. There are about 6,500 signatures so far.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your interests. This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Friday, 11 April 2014

Composer Harry Escott talks about Channel 4's New Worlds

Some people have a gaydar, that goes ping! under certain circumstances. Me, I have a folkdar and it went off watching the first episode of New Worlds on Channel 4 the other day. Episode two of four was on this Tuesday, available to catch up with on 4OD.


I'd been looking forward to this series. My undergraduate degree was a lot about comparative US and British democratic theory and Last of the Mohicans, of which New Worlds reminds me a little, came out while I was working in Washington DC for a US senator, a formative period. This part of our history with its religious zealotry and high stakes seeking-after-freedom still, it seems to me, echoes in news bulletins every time a US gun nut shoots a load of people or Mitt Romney fails to be sufficiently religiously normal - ha! - to satisfy the Republican mainstream... to say nothing of the countless tiny ways in which the British remain to this day less "free" than their American cousins. (Try telling an American that they're not allowed to know how their tax dollars are spent.) I love this period of history: it contains the seeds of everything the US and Britain are today, but with proper, pioneering adventure and the danger of dying from a horrible disease at every turn (especially, unfortunately, if you are native American).

New Worlds is set in the 1680s, 20 years after the English restoration and its plot takes place on both sides of the Atlantic. There are two love stories but the dynamic of the tale is religious and political freedom, and many of the most sympathetic characters are unhappy with Charles II's monarchy. Balefully, the king's influence extends across the Atlantic, defeating the attempts of some non-conformists to start a new life - something that would eventually lead to the war of American independence.

It is visually lavish and there were intriguing musical flurries all the way through: a slightly dramatically implausible drinking song for the wig-wearing Earl of Monmouth, nice incidental music and then this, brilliantly, over the credits at the end.



The series' composer is Harry Escott, 37, whose previous work included Shame starring Michael Fassbender, by Twelve Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, the man who won all the oscars this year. And this is not something to be sniffed at given the who-you-know nature of the film industry. I asked Escott whether he'd been in the running to do the music for Twelve Years a Slave? "I wish!" he said. "No, I'm not big enough, I'm afraid. I hope to work with him again though - I think he's doing some TV stuff next, so I may get a look in."


So what did working on New Worlds involve? "I've worked with the director, Charles Martin, once before, on a mini-series called Run for Channel 4, which had Olivia Coleman in it, and this time there was a lot of involvement for me while the shooting was going on. There were a couple of scenes where there was music taking place in the action and I had to devise bits and bobs.

"There was a drinking song for the Earl of Monmouth, which was in the first episode, and then later on there is a Native American death song. The director asked me whether I could come up with something that would have been sung in the 17th century by the Abernaki people. So I set about doing some research, but there wasn't much to go on because death songs were improvised on a riff and it looked for a while as if there was no record of this riff because it was a sacred thing.

"But god bless the internet. I managed to find the tribal leader of the Abernaki people and he was very generous with his time. His name is Paul Puliot, he is Sag8mo and speaker for the Cowasuck band of the Pennacook-Abenaki people: the '8' in the name is a long, nasal oo sound. He said that the native Americans were nearly entirely wiped out on the eastern seaboard but that down in the south and west of the United States there was a lot more in the way of cultural heritage to go on.

"Puliot is an ethnomusicologist and he was able to track down a death song that dated from the late 19th century that had been recorded on a wax cylinder - and then he sang it to me down the telephone. He had rattles on his wall that he took down and played, and he gave me a lot of background. As a result I was able to go down to the set and teach the song to some extras."

Cecil Sharp eat your heart out.

"For the incidental music, the director didn't want anything particularly traditional. His main concern was that the story should emotionally connect with the viewers and he thought there was enough of a barrier with all the wigs and the the other costume drama-y stuff. So he wanted to emphasise the universal themes - the love stories and the fear of living under tyranny - and make the music a bit more current."

So what's the song over the credits?

"I wrote it... partly. In an early version of the show there were lots of shots of ravens, which were symbolic of things about to go wrong: a harbinger of doom. There were also these two big love stories and a fair bit of god involved. And I thought it might be nice to have something a bit lighter at the end, just to lift things. So I thought it would be good to find something that was originally 17th century and make it more modern.


"I was going through a book of Broadside Ballads and there was this song called Three Ravens, whose words really struck me. It was a story about three ravens sitting in a tree, asking each other 'Where should we take our breakfast?' And there's this dead knight in a field nearby, and they're considering flapping over. But he has a horse and some loyal dogs that are nearby to prevent it, and then his lover comes by and buries him, only to die herself immediately afterwards. The ravens are enormously impressed by this and so was I.

"The melody was sad, though, and kind of depressing, so I wrote a different one and added a clappy version of a hip-hop beat. It was recorded with singers from St Thomas on the Bourne church. The director really liked it but there are a lot of people involved in making TV and some of the others weren't so sure. The children of one of the executive producers said that they thought it was cool, though, so it stayed in."

This feels like a salutory tale. So how long did it take?

"The shooting was in the summer last year. And then I started to do the proper score early in January this year and went in to lockdown mode. I find it difficult to work on more than one thing at a time because I get very emotionally engaged and become immersed in these things. I was seeing the dailies as they came out and it's my job to get engaged with the characters and their concerns.

"Musically there were two separate worlds: the English world, which was more harmonically complex and poshly orchestrated. And then when the drama moves to America there are more drones and tones and I tried to incorporate a kind of Appalachian folky sound. But the Englishness did seep across the Atlantic - that's a big part of the story - and Abe, the English outlaw, (below, played by Jamie Dornan who is shortly to star in the movie of Mumsnet's favourite book, 50 Shades of Grey) has a rock and roll thing going on with electric guitar sounds because, well, he's rock and roll."


So how did you get into this line of work?

"I went to the Royal College of Music for a year and studied music at Oxford. Then I spent many years doing lots of strange things, which is probably par for the course. My big break was meeting a girl called Molly Nyman, who is the daughter of a composer called Michael Nyman. In 2004 he was offered a film called Hard Candy to score and he couldn't take the work, so he offered it to his daughter. Molly wasn't comfortable doing it on her own, so she asked me to help. I'd done some music for TV and documentaries by that stage, so I had a little experience."



Escott is also, it turns out, a cellist in band beloved of Ben Eshmade at Daylight Music, called the North Sea Radio Orchestra and the next film he's working on is called Face of an Angel for Michael Winterbottom.

* New Worlds is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays at 9pm and available here on catch up.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Friday, 28 March 2014

BBC bigwig Bob Shennan argues that secrecy shields the BBC from corruption

So where have I got to, seeking the names of the judges of the BBC Radio 2 folk awards? A quick recap... 


Back in 2011, wondering why so many folkies seemed to find the folk awards so hard to like - though not me at the time - I asked who ran the awards? Specifically, I asked who the judges were and it turned out that their names  were a secret.

Partly because my undergraduate degree was in politics (at Leeds) and a large part of that four-year course was spent on democratic theory, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was not the way an organisation funded by public money in a parliamentary democracy was supposed to conduct itself. Moreover, someone helpfully sent me a link to the page on the BBC's website where it makes a commitment to transparency for its award ceremonies.

So I put in a Freedom of Information request

That was a waste of time.

The Information Commissioner denied my request because anything the BBC does, including an awards ceremony, is "journalism" as far as he is rather lazily concerned. I found this particularly irritating as I've been a journalist at UK national newspapers for over 15 years and the Information Commissioner had basically picked a large publicly funded but essentially inanimate body over me as the more significant "journalist" in this situation. That mechanism is broken and everyone involved in it should be ashamed of themselves.

In October 2012 something that looked like a breakthrough happened. I got a call from a BBC employee called Fergus Dudley, who I can say from experience only answers his phone calls and emails when his bosses tell him to, saying that the BBC Radio 2 folk awards would be flinging open the windows and allowing a little light in to proceedings. A little of the voting would be done by the public that year and there would be a special panel of people who would choose the winners of a couple of the awards, whose names would be known. He also hinted that there might very possibly be bigger changes on the horizon.

But that turned out to be untrue. Like a previous attempt to co-opt me by inviting me to join the 190-strong judging panel - all of whom are financially involved in the UK folk industry, it has emerged since 2011 - it was a ruse, spun in the hope that I would shut up. 

That's not really me though.

Early last year I wrote a piece for the Spectator  about why having a properly run folk awards is important. It's political: UK plc markets itself internationally as Downton Abbey, The King's Speech and Hugh floppy-haired Grant. But there is more to us than our ruling class.

There is a folk revival taking place on an unprecedented scale internationally, but the BBC folk awards is still apparently most interested in the one that took place in the 1970s and its definition of folk has not really moved on. Hence the ever-growing number of lifetime achievement awards it gives away.

But there is an entire industry of singer-songwriters playing traditional instruments, knowing some of the older songs, touring assiduously and yet struggling to make a living because the biggest marketing platform they have is used primarily as a force for promoting those who took part in the last folk revival and those who resemble them, rather than those working in its most recent incarnation. In these days in which television encourages the young to believe that musical success is handed out like sweeties by Simon Cowell and Tom Jones, the UK should instead be treasuring its hardworking, touring musicians who are keeping music live. Aren't the values involved in that important?



So towards the end of 2013 I wrote to John Whittingdale MP, chairman of the government's Culture, Media and Sport committee, asking whether it would be possible to look behind the curtain of secrecy and filch the list of the 190 judges names? Instead he received this waffly briefing.




Then Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter and a member of the CMS committee who was recommended to me as being an "activist", had a go and received the same briefing as John Whittingdale, from a different person.

No list of judges was forthcoming. The BBC had closed ranks against its own parliamentary oversight committee.

Ben Bradshaw - apparently unshocked by this - put me in touch with Bob Shennan (above), the head of Radio 2, 6 Music and the BBC Asian Network directly. Mr Shennan responded to my letter to him - in the link above - like this.



It's very small lettering there, I know, though you can make it bigger by clicking on it. The first seven paragraphs are a repetition of sections of the waffly briefing paper delivered to the two MPs. The eighth, unrelatedly, says

"With these things in mind I believe that releasing the names of the judging panel would compromise the impartiality of the voting process."

This is the nub of the BBC's argument for not releasing the names: the names of the folk awards judges are a secret because making the information public would "compromise the impartiality of the voting process".

I wrote back.

Dear Mr Shennan.

Thanks for the message below. Could you be a bit more specific please about the ways in which "releasing the names of the judging panel would compromise the impartiality of the voting process"?

I look forward to receiving your reply.

Best wishes
Emma Hartley

He replied



Dear Miss Hartley,

I guess it is simply a question of lobbying and undue pressure being brought to bear on judges to support certain acts. That would be likely to effect (sic) the impartiality of the voting.

Best
Bob

Sent from my iPhone


I wrote back pointing out that the only way one can meaningfully lobby a music awards' judge is by playing them some music, unless they are corrupt. If the former is the case: what's the problem? Listening to music is what judging is all about. And if they are corrupt, get some new judges. Making the list of names public would help purge any corruption. I also quoted him some Jeremy Bentham and Woodrow Wilson on the subject of corruption and secrecy in public life. But he didn't seem to like that very much and the next thing I knew there was an email from Fergus Dudley...

Unless one is cynically assuming at this point that the folk awards are a way of lining the pockets of the judges - could this really be true? - it is almost inconceivable that the BBC would devote this much time and effort to concealing these names: the Freedom of Information act, the Culture, Media and Sport committee and several BBC executives have all given their expensive time to the issue now. What kind of a use is this of public money? 

Moreover, this kind of nonsense is an engine for making people cynical about the BBC.


To conclude, here is a word from Genevieve Tudor, that least cynical of BBC employees and one of the small number of folk awards judges whose names have been made public as a result of the changes two years ago. Genevieve is a BBC presenter of a folk show in Shropshire and surrounding counties and was involved in choosing the Best Original Song and Best Traditional Track winners this year and last. This is me instant chatting her on Facebook.






So I guess that's that argument disposed of... Folk awards judges whose names are public are not subject to undue pressure or lobbying of any kind. This was the reason given for keeping them secret: can I have the names of the folk awards judges now? 


If anyone at the BBC or Smooth Operations would like to send me the judges' names you can contact me here.

Or if any of this strikes you as ridiculous, you can contact Bob Shennan in person at the BBC on bob.shennan@bbc.co.uk


* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

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