On the 50th anniversary of the greatest festival on earth, the BBC was tasked with high expectations of festival-goers. It was an enormous challenge, which the broadcaster largely rose to. Overall, viewing figures reached more than 10 million over the weekend of the Glastonbury Experience.
“We’re used to having fallow years”, half-jokes Emily Eavis, as she takes the cameras on a tour of an incongruously barren Glastonbury site. Not even the druids at nearby Glastonbury Tor could have foreseen the devastating summer live music was to experience. It hardly feels like a period of rest and recuperation when the whole of the industry is battling for survival. All the more important then, that we remind ourselves of the good times.
Reflecting the festival itself, the BBC’s coverage featured a vast collection of acts. As is tradition, the Glastonbury section of the BBC’s website held the portal to a multimedia offering. Newly introduced, however, was a dedicated iPlayer channel, home to over 100 previous performances. No fears about choosing one act over another when watching virtually, of course. The fervently promoted BBC Sounds app also took centre stage, with Jo Whiley’s shows featuring interviews and fond recollections on historic performances.
It’s no secret that Glastonbury retains a degree of authenticity through a homely presentation of organisers Michael and Emily Eavis. This sparked the idea of telling the festival’s chaotic history through a series of five mini-podcast episodes, titled ‘Glastonbury 50’. However, the decision was taken to have actors voice the words of those involved. The actors’ strained Somerset imitations was cringe-worthy at best, and entirely failed to encapsulate the magic of the festival.
Much better executed was The Glastonbury Experience; a BBC Two highlights show broadcast each night from the site. Next to the skeleton of the hallowed Pyramid stage, a live track from the achingly cool Arlo Parks was a notable reminder of what we are missing. Dairy cows looking-on behind the Londoner delighted in this exclusive performance.
Indeed, the BBC’s coverage was overwhelmingly well-executed. Viewers may well have reached for their hand-sanitiser, uncomfortable at the sight of festival-goers’ proximity in unhygienic conditions. With live music no longer a reality, luxuries like the pause button and the kettle paled in significance next to the desire to lose your inhibitions (and wellies) in a mud-drenched field.
This feeling of nostalgia was well-represented through the choice of headline acts across the weekend, which included the likes of Beyonce, Jay-Z and Adele. Particularly memorable was David Bowie’s set, aired in full on TV for the first time. Like ‘Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties’, the opportunity for music-lovers to reminisce over one of British music’s finest exports. Twitter thus became the stand-in muddy field of the weekend.
In all their attempts to relive the past, it is a shame that the BBC somewhat neglected to examine the significance Glastonbury has for artists’ future projects. Although the importance of the BBC’s Introducing Scheme was occasionally present, it was lost amongst the plethora of re-visits and ‘Legends’ slots. One of the great tragedies of this summer-that-never-was is the loss of opportunity for those artists who were just breaking through. For so many, the festival is the proudest reference on their CV and vital for future bookings elsewhere. It’s a shame, then, that the harsh reality of the present wasn’t touched on more clearly in the coverage. At times, it was a little too wistful.
Nevertheless, viewers certainly got their license-fee worth. We were reminded again of emotional moments like Coldplay’s Viola Beach tribute in 2016, and Adele even found herself watching along to her headline set, to this day astonished that it really happened.
Despite the BBC’s relative success, the truth is that they could never aspire to match the experience of the festival itself. All the broadcaster could hope to do was remind us of what we’re missing. This they achieved, although not the Golden Anniversary Glastonbury expected or deserved. The BBC’s coverage reminded us of the devastating power of live music. It will hopefully be a while before we witness another fallow year.
Words by Adam Goldsmith