Glastonbury festival on BBC is my armchair pilgrimage to hipster Disneyland

Exemplary wraparound coverage on TV, radio and online captured the exhilarating thrill of the music without the knee-deep mud slides

All the sights, sounds and glory of the Glastonbury festival, once again exclusively delivered by the BBC as the “ultimate armchair experience”? The chance to see the oldest-ever main Pyramid stage solo headliner (Paul McCartney, 80), and the youngest-ever one (Billie Eilish, 20) without having to brave the rumoured soggy weather in a rain poncho? Where do I sign?

This is broadcasting history in the making: the first Glastonbury since 2019, when it was halted by the pandemic, missing its 50th anniversary in 2020. With hundreds of acts and an estimated 200,000 people on site at Worthy Farm, the BBC promised wraparound coverage: television, with new access to ultra-high definition and documentaries such as Francis Whately’s sociohistorical odyssey 50 Years & Counting; BBC Sounds, including “all-day Glastonbury” via 6 Music’s From the Fields; plus live streams – and more – from iPlayer. All delivered by multitudinous presenters: Lauren Laverne (who, sadly, hashas to leave to leave after the death of her mother), Jo Whiley, Steve Lamacq, Jack Saunders, Clara Amfo, Remi Burgz and Jamz Supernova, to name but a few.

And so it begins, hipster Disneyland 2022, exploding across screens, streams and the airwaves with the vision of Glastonbury’s host – Amish-bearded octogenarian and sometime dairy farmer Michael Eavis – heaving open the gates, shouting “Welcome!” to the hordes buckling beneath rucksacks.

For the first time, BBC2 features a Thursday-night peep at what’s to come, hosted by Saunders and Laverne from some kind of on-site nocturnal glade, fashioned like a Salvador Dalí nightmare, full of model cows, metal butterflies and neon triangles. It includes an interview with Eavis’s daughter and co-organiser, Emily. Beaming in shortie green wellies, she speaks of people viewing Glastonbury as a “pilgrimage”.

By Friday, when the music starts, the BBC is flooded with “peak-Glastonbury” colour: face-painted, angel-winged, rainbow-hued crowds; swooping shots of rammed tent sites. Festival-goers dressed as everything from unicorns to flowerpots and giant lobsters. Weather-wise, it’s more about occasional bursts of sullen drizzle than torrential rain, which is a shame. As someone once sucked knee-deep into a classic Glasto mud slide, I assure you it is “character-building”; as well as hilarious for those of us watching from our sofas.

Once the dirt-and-welly anthems – AKA the music – kick in, it becomes a curious mixture of exciting and overwhelming. With Glastonbury so vast, there is no hope of broadcasting everything, but there are constant live streams from the main stages, live radio interviews and more. Much. More. So, what to watch; listen to? Legacy acts? Indie stalwarts? New sensations? You’re not even at Glastonbury and you’re paralysed by all the choice.

Whiley in front of crowds and stage at Glastonbury
Jo Whiley was part of the BBC’s impressive team of presenters at this year’s Glastonbury festival. Photograph: Ray Burmiston/BBC/Matt Burlem

At times, the outside world penetrates the Somerset bubble: the overturning of abortion rights in the US makes it feel – suddenly, horribly – like the Handmaid’s Glastonbury, sparking furious onstage invective, including from Phoebe Bridgers: “All these irrelevant old motherfuckers!” Volodymyr Zelenskiy gets among the wildest cheers of the day, speaking via video link, asking for support for Ukraine.

Music-wise, there’s the exhilarating but exhausting sensation of hopping from one cultural lily pad to the next (Dry Cleaning, Wet Leg, Arlo Parks, Sam Fender, St Vincent), sometimes hitting the live feed, other times, watching recordings or interviews.

Before you know it, Friday headliner Eilish is on stage, her anger (a “dark day for women”) and hits (Bury a Friend, Bad Guy) swirling past in a pulsating, quasi-teen fever dream. Come Saturday, the sense of cultural smorgasbord starts up again. McCartney or Megan Thee Stallion? On Sunday, Pet Shop Boys or Kendrick Lamar?

Just as with being there, the broadcast Glastonbury experience demands dogged organisation. Plus an element of self-curation: dipping back into the archive again and again. On Saturday, radio shows such as Radcliffe and Maconie were already featuring cuts from Friday’s sets.

As for how the BBC deals with the gargantuan wraparound-Glastonbury task? I’d say, damn impressively - with overall excellent sound and vision, truly capturing the spirit and excitement of live music. There’s the odd quibble. Several hours in, presenters’ overuse of the word “iconic” is making me want to throttle a Glastonbury unicorn.

Otherwise, there’s a clunking handover here, a shuddering live stream there, the occasional waft of smug cultural gentrification everywhere. The last of these is to be expected of Glastonbury. What I didn’t expect was that the BBC would make me so pleased to see the field(s) of dreams back. Maybe “pilgrimage” is right, after all.


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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