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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) 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.


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

* 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, 13 March 2014

Ben Bradshaw MP gets a briefing about the folk awards from Bob Shennan, head of BBC Radio 2, and invites me to write to him

Back in December the head of the culture, media and sport select committee, John Whittingdale MP, approached the BBC to inquire about the anonymous judges of the BBC folk awards. And got a briefing paper.

This month Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter and a fellow member of the culture, media and sport select committee, did the same thing. Whereas Whittingdale got his briefing from Andrew Scadding, head of the BBC's public and corporate affairs, Bradshaw received a briefing from Bob Shennan, controller of Radio 2.

Here it is... though if you read Mr Whittingdale's, the similarities may strike you more than the differences. 

"The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards celebrate outstanding achievements during the previous year within the field of folk music.  The nominees are chosen by a voting Panel which is made up of approximately 190 people.  The Panel is comprised of those persons who have a professional or semi-professional interest in the folk industry, i.e. folk festival and folk club organisers, journalists, presenters, record company personnel, folk music academics, etc.

Folk Music is a small music sub-genre.  Although very few folk artists are attached to major labels some do have record companies of reasonable size, such as Proper, who have large budgets and a marketing team. However, the vast majority of folk artists still run their own small labels and are genuine cottage industries. There is no doubt that within the folk genre there is a great professional boost for people who win a folk award, which although perhaps small compared to a Brit Award or a Mercury win, it is measurable. If the voting panel were published there would be an incentive for the major and better off record companies to lobby the panellists to influence their vote. This would disadvantage many of the smaller, self-releasing nominees who could not afford the cost of this lobbying. Each year the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards throws up new names that would probably not get such an opportunity if there were to be heavy lobbying from better off artists. 

In its current form the Folk Awards does present a genuine level playing field that could be jeopardised if we change our voting system. The process used is in line with other major award events such as the Brits and is regularly and rigorously examined by BBC compliance and Editorial Policy.

The Awards are determined by two rounds of voting by the wider Panel:

Round One: The Voting Panel are asked to nominate up to 3 artists in each category.  To avoid any possible conflict of interest, panellists are not permitted to nominate artists with whom they have a close professional interest.  Managers, agents, publicists or record company members of staff, are not allowed to vote for any artist(s) that they represent.

Round Two: Each Panellist can vote for one nomination in each category.  Panellists are not permitted to vote for artists with whom they have a close professional interest.  These votes are counted by the BBC & Smooth Operations and the nominee with the most votes in each category is declared the recipient of the award.  Winners are announced on the night of the Folk Awards. Spoiled voting papers (e.g. papers where more than one vote has been cast or where the mark is not clear) will be discounted.  Only the winner with the most votes is recognised, and no other results are released (i.e. there are no runners up).In the event of a tie, that is more than one artist receiving the same highest number of votes, then the award will be made jointly to all the artists. 

The top 5 ‘Best Albums’ nominated in round one are put to a public vote on Radio 2.

The Awards ‘Best Original Song’ and ‘Best Traditional Track’ are awarded by a specialist Panel

The Panel comprises of people with professional or semi-professional interest in the folk industry.  
The Folk Awards Committee nominates and oversees the panel.

The Specialist Panel for 2014 are:
Ian Anderson - Editor, Roots Magazine
Bruce MacGregor - Presenter, Travelling Folk (BBC Scotland)
Frank Hennessy – Presenter Celtic Heartbeat (BBC Radio Wales)
Jon Lewis – Producer Radio 2 Folk Show – Smooth Operations
Karine Polwart – Musician, Song Writer and Previous Award Winner

The Awards for ‘Lifetime Achievement’, Good Tradition’, Lifetime contribution to songwriting’ and Roots Award is determined by two rounds of voting by the Committee:-

The decision is taken at a meeting scheduled towards the end of the 2013.  The Committee have an open discussion of these nominations with a view to arriving at a consensus.  In the event of failure to reach a consensus, the award is decided by way of a vote.  Smooth Operations will keep records of all committee meetings.

The Young Folk Award is determined by a separate panel of judges.  A shortlist of 10 acts is selected from all the entries submitted to the Young Folk Award competition.  These 10 acts are invited to a Performance weekend, which culminates in a performance concert from which a specialist panel of judges, comprising musicians and industry personnel, determine a winner.

Nominated Representatives
The BBC & Smooth Operations appoint nominated representatives that are responsible for monitoring the voting. They will ensure that votes are properly collected and counted and that the process is conducted in line with the rules as well as the BBC's Editorial Guidelines on Awards. Nominated Representatives are not permitted to vote either as part of the Voting Panel or The Folk Awards Committee.  Smooth Operations keep and store all nomination and voting papers on behalf of the BBC for 3 years following each award ceremony.

Nominated Representatives for 2014 are:
Louise Whitehead                   – Project Manager, Smooth Operations
Fergus Dudley                          – Editor, Editorial Standards BBC Radio 2, 6 Music & Asian Network

The Folk Awards Committee consists of 5 people, 2 are members of the Folk Awards production staff, 2 are senior members of BBC Radio 2 staff and the 1 is an independent expert.

The Folk Awards Committee 2014 are:

John Leonard                            – Managing Director, Smooth Operations (Chair)
Kellie While                               – Head of Programmes, Smooth Operations
Mark Simpson                         – Producer Bob Harris Show, BBC Radio 2
Mark Ellen                                 – Music specialist
Al Booth                                      – Specialist Editor BBC Radio 2

Voting Panel - Terms and Conditions
A copy of the ‘Panel Declaration Form’ provided must be signed and returned along with the nominated/voting form, failure to do so will render the nomination/vote void.  By returning a completed nomination/voting form, panel members acknowledge that they are still eligible to be part of the Panel and that they will abide by these rules.

Since its inception in 1999 the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards has become a significant annual cultural event. It has been responsible for introducing over 400 folk artists from grass roots level, via the Horizon Award and more significantly via the Young Folk Award, to main stream audiences.

This year alone, two of the artists nominated for Folk Singer of the Year, Bella Hardy and Lucy Ward first appeared on Radio 2 as finalists of the Young Folk Award.

Some of our past Horizon Award winners are now listed amongst the most respected folk artists in the world. Karine Polwart, who went on to win Folk Singer of the Year is one of Scotland’s most prominent and respected singer songwriters. Cara Dillon, Julie Fowlis (now co-presenter of the Folk Awards) Blair Dunlop and Kris Drever of the band Lau, are all past Horizon Award winners.

We are very proud that there is such a quantifiable and measureable positive effect on the careers of artists such as these in a genre of music that does not often achieve the mainstream attention it deserves. By looking back over the 15 years of the Radio 2 Folk Awards we can see how many of our fledgling grass roots artists have developed into internationally successful performers."

After receiving the briefing, Ben Bradshaw invited me to address Bob Shennan myself directly, which I have done. Here is the letter.

Dear Mr Shennan,

Ben Bradshaw MP has very kindly offered to pass this message to you on my behalf, in his role as a member of the government's culture, media and sport select committee, as I've been having some trouble wading through the BBC's bureaucracy, in particular the application to yourselves of the Freedom of Information act, which seems in my case to have resulted in the opposite.

He also forwarded the briefing you sent him about the BBC Radio 2 folk awards and its anonymous judges. He's a busy man, though, and therefore is possibly unaware of its similarity to the briefing sent to John Whittingdale MP - the chair of the CMS committee - by Andrew Scadding, head of the BBC's public and corporate affairs.

Also, the similarity that your briefing to him bore to remarks made by John Leonard back in 2011 on the same subject

In fact, the strong similarity that all of these sets of remarks bear to each other is quite surprising and makes me wonder whether they are not, in fact, the same set of remarks recycled?

The most surprising thing of all about this would be that the first time they were made, they were held up to ridicule in the British national media. 

It's hard to imagine why any media organisation, especially a taxpayer funded one like the BBC, would batten down the hatches after that rather than considering the merit of the question: you would think that the organisation's instinct would be to do the opposite. In this instance, the question is "Who are the judges of the BBC Radio 2 folk awards"?

I came at this sideways. I thought it would make an interesting subject for my blog and at first there seemed to be no question of secrecy. I knew a judge, who agreed to do a background interview, Mike Harding, who at the time was the main folk DJ on Radio 2, said the names weren't a secret. But then it turned out they were. And it seemed at the time that they were only because John Leonard - owner of Smooth Operations, who the BBC pays to run the awards for them - said so. Read what he said for yourself.

I'm sure you're aware that the BBC has guidelines for running award ceremonies.

which include that "criteria for judging or nominations must be transparent, clear, fair and consistent". 

Knowing who the judges are falls squarely under this guideline. Moreover I ask: what genuine interest does Radio 2 - or the BBC more widely - have in concealing this information?

The only argument that presents itself - and it has done on three separate occasion now, in John Leonard's off-the-cuff remarks, subsequently in the corporate briefing to John Whittingdale MP and now in your briefing for Ben Bradshaw MP - is that making the names public would result in attempts to influence the judges.

Shall we examine this idea for a moment?

Where else in British public life is this argument taken seriously? Is Radio 2 asking us to believe that if we knew who the judges were this would somehow place someone, somewhere at a disadvantage? How?

Surely this is analogous to arguing that if we knew who our MPs were we might try to influence their policies? Or that if we knew how our taxpayers' money were actually spent we might wish it to be done differently every once in while? 

The only way one can meaningfully influence the outcome of an honest music judging process is by playing a judge some music. And yet this is exactly what these judges are supposed to be doing: listening to as much music as possible. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that the process is a stitch-up and that the judges should be restricting themselves in some way to a particular group of folk musicians, or music produced by a particular set of music producers. Surely this is not what is intended? Is it? It may be worth considering for a moment that the 190 judges are all somehow involved in the industry and the implications of that.

Conversely, if the fear is that the judges themselves are corruptible - that they could be bribed with a signed Seth Lakeman CD or a free felafel at a festival - then it is the job of the administrators to choose someone honest instead. Obviously with 190 judges at the last count, it is hard to know much about any of them... and surely that is another reason to throw some light on the situation? If Smooth Operations and the BBC do not have the time to keep track of these judges, why not let the rest of us have a go? Or have fewer and change them regularly.

Refusing to name the judges of the folk awards is, by a kind analysis, probably a time saving measure. Everyone involved in the awards' administration would rather not change the process: if it aint broke, don't fix it. And yet this argument is the essence of conservatism.

Folk music is the music of the people, who are not always best served by conservative attitudes. What the industry, its musicians and fans deserve is a transparent set of awards, rewarding the hard work and talent of the folk, roots and acoustic musicians of the British Isles and showcasing them internationally. This would go a long way to counterbalance the manufactured top-down nature of reality music shows like Britain's Got Talent, The Voice and The X Factor, that can lead young people to believe that the only route to success is to be picked from obscurity by a celebrity who will wave a magic wand and change their lives forever. Surely better to send the message that hard work, talent, good songwriting and touring are rewarded? 

Some of this country's best exports are cultural. And yet the image we most often present of ourselves abroad - Downton Abbey, Brideshead, The King's Speech - is a very partial view of British society. I believe it is the job of the BBC to showcase the talents of British artists from all walks of life and that one of the ways this may be achieved is by better administering the BBC Radio 2 folk awards.

This year the date chosen by the BBC Radio 2 folk awards administrators for the ceremony was the same night as the Brits. Surely this, if nothing else, should have sent up a red flag somewhere in the BBC's compliance department that there was something awry with the conduct of these awards? What are the folk awards for, if not reaching an audience of music lovers - music lovers who were largely occupied elsewhere on that evening.

Naming the judges of the folk awards would go some way towards assuaging doubts that the BBC is serious about its commitment to this kind of music and that it would like the awards to be properly administered. Mr Shennan, I ask you to name the judges. 

Thank you.

* 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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