Glastonbury Experience 2020 review: BBC coverage is an orgy of reminiscence

In a world where technology keeps improving as the real world gets scarier, this was an alarming vision of the Glastonbury of the future

Ed Cumming
Monday 29 June 2020 06:38
Adele headlines the Pyramid Stage Glastonbury 2016

This weekend was meant to be the 50th anniversary edition of Glastonbury. The BBC, never shy about letting us know the festival is on, was damned if it was going to be held back by a little thing like it being cancelled by an international death plague. There has been so much coverage this weekend that you’ve had to look quite hard to work out that it isn’t actually happening. This is an exciting development for broadcasters, who must now be wondering which other events they can cover without the need for pesky reality.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, BBC Two aired classic headline sets: Beyonce, Adele, Coldplay, Bowie, Sheeran. The concerts were preceded by live spots from the empty Worthy Farm in which Lauren Laverne and Clara Amfo, sitting in a field full of cows, reminisced between highlights. Soothing stuff. Meanwhile, it’s all over the radio: BBC Four is showing acoustic sets for people who prefer their music quiet, and iPlayer has been turned into a kind of Glasto copyright library, with hundreds of performances from the past 30 years. It won’t have passed by the gods of irony that the best way to enjoy this rural festival is with decent broadband.

Between gangly Chris Martin playing in bumfluff to a crowd who didn’t know the words to “Yellow” and catching up with Liam Gallagher’s pub-piano dentistry, I was caught off-guard by the sight of Jimmy Cliff in his yellow suit in 2003, knowing I was in the audience somewhere. I hadn’t thought about it since, mainly because I couldn’t remember it, but as with a family photograph, the BBC coverage will now be blurred with the actual memory, and cherished.

The Beeb has been showing old football matches this summer, too, and the contrast between music and sport is striking. Although England losing to Germany always has a certain sense of deja vu, there isn’t much to be gained by literally re-watching the 1996 semi-final, as BBC One invited us to do on Saturday afternoon. Glastonbury’s different. Worthy Farm runs on nostalgia at the best of times, and the new iterations of the festival serve mainly to generate new misty-eyed memories.

For the 100,000 or so people who attend, a tiny fraction of the number who watch it on TV, the memorable acts are usually the emotive old-timers, Springsteen or Macca or some half-forgotten dance or reggae act you loved at university. You only need to have gone once to bore on about it for the rest of your days. However compelling the evidence to the contrary provided by Stormzy or Billie Eilish or Dave, most people can’t shake the sense that things were better when they were young. From the retro Glastonbury pictures being shared on Instagram, it’s clear that nostalgia for the times you went is really nostalgia for the person you were when you went.

Amid the orgy of reminiscence, some of the looking back was a reminder that while music might not be as good as it used to be, TV is indisputably better. Pulp playing “Common People” in 1995 defined a cultural moment as well as their career, but the recording is horrible, the violin as high in the mix as the crowd. These days, even minor acts on faraway stages are captured in ultra-high definition, with audience shots that pick out every fleck of mud.

Acts can try to opt out of recordings to preserve some of the live magic but they will be captured by thousands of phones. Between Covid and the price – and scarcity – of tickets, even if Glastonbury returns, it will be years before it gets back to normal. In a world where technology keeps improving as the real world gets scarier, this was an alarming vision of the Glastonbury of the future: you had to not be there.

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