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‘Glastonbury is like Disneyland – when you’re there, you don’t really think of the outside world’ 

Renowned documentary maker Francis Whately on his new BBC film Glastonbury: 50 Years And Counting, which chart’s the festival’s evolution

Politics meets popular culture at Worthy Farm, Somerset each year (bar occasional fallow years) for a unique celebration. Glastonbury, the greatest music festival in the UK if not the world, has always combined social conscience with a bacchanalian spirit.

The festival is curated by father-daughter duo Michael and Emily Eavis. And every Glastonbury sees huge global acts perform alongside small, offbeat, off kilter artists from the margins.

Glastonbury turned 50 in 2020. And Francis Whately, whose Five Years trilogy of David Bowie films are classics of the music documentary genre, turned his gaze on the festival for a new film (which, like that year’s festival and the event in 2021, was delayed by Covid).

Whately’s film charts the festival’s evolution. We see Glastonbury as a lawless, late hippy love-in, a CND-supporting, anti-Thatcher site of resistance, a refuge for New Age Travellers and early adopter of climate change activism, right through to the modern, inclusive mega-festival that three million of us apply for tickets for each year.

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Glastonbury: 50 Years & Counting tracks the music from Bowie to The Smiths to Massive Attack to Dua Lipa and Stormzy, charting increasingly musically diverse line-ups. Well-chosen performance footage – from Sinead O’Connor to Dave, Radiohead to Orbital (“the show was amazing. And the music was bearable,” is Eavis’s memorable verdict on their show), David Attenborough to Beyoncé – alongside impeccable archive material helps paint a picture of the festival’s evolution and growth.

Ahead of this year’s twice delayed 50th anniversary festival, with Sir Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish, Kendrick Lamar and Diana Ross among the biggest names, we caught up with Whately at his film’s premiere at the Curzon Bloomsbury in London.

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The Big Issue: What does Glastonbury represent to you?

Francis Whately: I think Glastonbury is a bit like Disneyland. It’s like the ultimate escape. When you’re there, you don’t really think of the outside world at all. So it is its own enclosed magical space. If the weather’s okay, you can forget about the rest of the world for four or five days. And it is also like Disneyland in the way it is incredibly well organised, everything is there and the people are very nice.

Is it a peculiarly English festival?

The idea of having a festival is not peculiarly English, but Glastonbury is peculiarly English because of who runs it. Because Michael and Emily Eavis run it – more Emily these days – it has an ethos to it that is lacking in a lot of other festivals. It is a family affair. It is run by two committed people who believe in more than the bottom line. It’s not for profit. Everything is ploughed back into the festival or into good causes. And that makes it unique.

Emily Eavis in Glastonbury: 50 Years and Counting. Image: BBC

That social conscience is in Glastonbury’s DNA, isn’t it?

Michael Eavis’s raison d’etre was that he wanted to give back to society. That was very important when it came to getting the right ethos for Glastonbury. So once he joined hands with CND, it led to Greenpeace and Water Aid and the work they’re doing with Ukrainian refugees this year. So there’s always been a good social conscience backbone to the festival.

How do you go about capturing the essence of the festival that has been evolving for 50 years in one film?

It’s so hard. Because Glastonbury means so much to so many people. And everyone has an opinion. It must drive the poor organisers mad because they’ve never got the line-up right. There’s always someone saying, Oh, it used to be much better. There’s a rather nice poster that used to be up at the festival in the Eavis’s office that says queue here if you think the festival isn’t as good as it used to be!

It’s hard to make a film that can capture it all because there are hundreds of bands playing this year on 93 stages so it is different for everyone. So I’ve chosen bands and areas of the site that I think represent changes in the festival, when the festival changed from one thing into becoming something different. Because it’s had many iterations that have reflected society. And at the heart of my film is the story of how Glastonbury has changed with the times and how it reflects Britain. Nowadays it is a bit more about getting the biggest acts but they’re still just a fraction of what goes on at Glastonbury. There are a lot of people I interviewed that would never go near the Pyramid Stage.

Michael Eavis is an absolute beacon and icon of 21st century Britain. And he should be celebrated.

Francis Whately

What are some of the key moments of evolution in the festival that you highlight?

I think the spirit of the travellers is still very much there. They arrived in 1989 and they changed the festival and you could argue they made it into the festival that it is today. Michael Eavis, with his liberal, Methodist ethos, said, “These people are disenfranchised, these people are not wanted by society. So I’m going to welcome them”.

Michael Eavis in Glastonbury: 50 Years & Counting. Image: BBC

And there are two stories in my film, both of which were started by people who had been in the travelling community. And they are two of the most successful areas that Glastonbury has ever had and certainly the most inventive. One of them is called Lost Vagueness, which no longer sadly exists and the other Block9, which is partly a gay area with other areas you can dance the night away in. So it is areas that begin once the Pyramid Stage finishes. It’s also known as the naughty corner.

Francis Whately at the premiere of Glastonbury: 50 Years & Counting. Image: BBC,Sarah Jeynes

Were you able to sneak David Bowie in – was there any crossover with your incredible Bowie films?

That’s very kind. I do get this very brief story in from 1971, where Linda Lewis talks about getting very stoned with Bowie in the farmhouse. And it’s a great story. But I suppose this film feels similar to my first Bowie film, where I chose five years from his life. I was terrified people would say, well, you should have chosen this year instead. But no one did.

So I hope they won’t say, well, you should have done this or that because this is just one take. Every director would have made a completely different and equally worthwhile film. What’s so nice about Glastonbury is that everyone who goes each year goes on a different journey. I couldn’t possibly capture that. So all I captured is what I thought was historically important to tell the story, from 1970 to today.

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When you were talking about Michael Eavis and his attitude to people who are marginalised – I guess in that way it couldn’t fit better with The Big Issue and what we do…

It could not fit better. Michael Eavis puts a lot of his money towards affordable housing in Pilton and the surrounding area. He does still believe in CND. He still believes in all the charities. And he still wants to give a lot back. I think he said once that he could be driving around in a Rolls Royce but he doesn’t. He doesn’t live ostentatiously.

He’s still very keen to help the local community and especially to help those people who haven’t got homes or affordable homes and to help those people who feel marginalised. He is an absolute beacon and icon of 21st century Britain. And he should be celebrated – and so should Emily Eavis for carrying on that tradition…

Glastonbury: 50 Years & Counting airs at 9pm on BBC2 on Sunday 19 June then available on BBC iPlayer. BBC Music brings Glastonbury Festival 2022 to viewers and listeners from Wednesday 22 – Sunday 26 June on BBC television, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio and BBC Sounds

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