Where there's muck

Having undergone two trials by mud in recent times, the BBC are investing more than ever to bring you this year's Glastonbury experience. Ian Burrell reports
Click to follow

Access to Worthy Farm in Glastonbury, site of the world's most famous arts and music festival, has never been harder for ordinary mortals, who had to endure night after sleepless night pounding phonelines and the internet to have a prayer of a ticket.

Access to Worthy Farm in Glastonbury, site of the world's most famous arts and music festival, has never been harder for ordinary mortals, who had to endure night after sleepless night pounding phonelines and the internet to have a prayer of a ticket.

But such exclusivity does not apply to the BBC, which will arrive in Somerset this year in a strength that would not embarrass the US 3rd Armoured Division.

A convoy of 40 technical vehicles and five links trucks will carry an army of 230 production staff, who will rig the farm with 30 miles of cables, three camera cranes, two 32m-high hoists and 41 cameras.

The operation to decamp such a huge chunk of White City's resources to the country will cost the corporation upwards of £1m.

An extraordinary commitment to 39 hours of Glastonbury broadcasting will draw criticism from the "why-oh-why" element of the viewing public that will baulk at the expense and the saturation coverage.

But it also offers hundreds of thousands of disappointed and ticketless music fans the chance to see every single act appearing on the Glastonbury main stages on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.

For the BBC, it also offers the challenge of what is probably the largest ever experiment in reality television - with a cast of 150,000 festival-goers, an unrivalled contingent of musical celebrities and the unpredictability of the British climate in late June.

Mark Cooper, the BBC's creative head of music entertainment, has seen it all, having attended many a Glastonbury since the festival started in 1971. He even went to the Bath Blues Festival at Shepton Mallett in 1969, the event that first inspired Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis to set up his own music event.

The BBC managed to get its hands on Glastonbury in 1997 after Mr Eavis had taken a sabbatical in 1996. The previous two years, Channel 4 had covered proceedings.

In Cooper's view, Channel 4 misjudged the growing interest in what was becoming the world's greatest music festival and got the tone of its coverage all wrong.

"It was a lesson in some ways of what not to do. I don't want to sound bitchy but I think Michael felt that a lot of the tone of the coverage was a bit metropolitan and a bit sneery," he says. "It wasn't as fashionable then and there was an element of people from the Groucho Club coming down to sneer at the hippies."

Cooper claims that the BBC's "public service spirit" makes for a "natural fit" with the "altruistic spirit" of the festival itself. "Micheal Eavis is a very moral man. He's a Methodist. He has a commitment to youth culture, to music, to the charities it supports. The title is Glastonbury Music and Arts Festival - I really like that. It's not a bunch of bands and promoters making lots of money and selling burgers."

The first BBC Glastonbury broadcast, in 1997, was done on a budget of around £150,000 and offered 12 hours of programming, a small fraction of what will be available this year. Cooper remembers that festival as "one of my proudest moments in television" because of the coverage of Radiohead's OK Computer set, a month after the release of that landmark album. "We joined them just as they went into 'Paranoid Android' and there was a sense of being absolutely at the right place at the right time. It was an ecstatic moment."

Sadly, the rest of the 1997 coverage was an "appalling" experience for the BBC, which found itself facing a logistical catastrophe. Cooper says: "We hadn't been before and it was terrifying. The weather was apocalyptic and people got really jumpy. I had to do my Agincourt speech from the tent, saying: 'We are going to get through this!'"

The following Glastonbury the heavens opened again, and "it was like being trapped in a nightmare". These two "baptisms of mud" made for great television, says Cooper, as viewers sitting at home revelled in the schadenfreude of watching festival-goers wading through sludge. "If it's raining at rugby, you leave the field after 80 minutes. If it's raining in London, you search out some cover. But at Glastonbury you can't escape, you're there for 72 hours," he says. "When it is muddy, it is like a Bosch painting."

Cooper's very worst Glastonbury moment was when David Bowie refused to allow the BBC to broadcast more than six songs from his 2000 set. "Heritage artists always feel that they are diminished if they give too much of their past away to the public free," says Cooper. "He was brilliant and I ran onto the stage to say to his manager, 'Give us more'."

To no avail. The BBC abandoned Bowie, to the astonishment of the viewers, without saying that it was legally obliged to do so. "I felt I didn't handle it right," says Cooper. "The following year we were only allowed to show four songs by Rod Stewart, which was about two too many. He came out in his white suit - he didn't exactly do Glastonbury."

Someone who will be "doing Glastonbury" this year is Sir Paul McCartney, Saturday's headline act, who is building a special set for his two-hour performance. A BBC team flew out to Helsinki last week to meet Macca and see his show because, as Cooper says, "both he and we want to give the very best representation of him at Glastonbury".

This year the television coverage will feature for the first time all four main stages (Pyramid, Other, Jazz World and the New Tent). Before the festival has even started, BBC3 has been broadcasting nine half-hour Glastonbury Calling shows, hosted by Radio 1 presenters Edith Bowman and Colin Murray from an artificially-grassed pit inside Television Centre. BBC3 will broadcast from 7pm until 2am every evening during the festival, while BBC2 will join the proceedings during Saturday and Sunday afternoons. "With the interactive button, at any time you can choose to go to one of three stages," says Cooper.

Although Glastonbury has of late become a tamer affair, he says it is no less a spectacle. "It has retained all its charm and although it has lost that electric edginess, the price for that was becoming too much to pay," he says. "It's still very unpredictable and you don't know what you will meet round any corner, whether it's a giraffe or 12 nude people having a picnic."