Why the BBC won’t show you Glastonbury’s best stage

Creative brilliance: IICON stage in Block9
Creative brilliance: IICON stage in Block9 - Getty

The BBC is about to begin its annual shock-and-awe Glastonbury coverage. Didn’t get a ticket? Don’t worry, you’ll be able to see everything from your sofa. Didn’t want a ticket? Sorry, you’ll have to switch over to ITV. This weekend, your licence fee is being spent in Somerset, to bring you every atom of Dua Lipa, every sashay of Shania.

What you won’t see is more interesting. Those who have attended the festival know all about the south-eastern edge of the site, sometimes called ‘naughty corner’, which comes to life after dark. Here, several of the best clubs in the world appear, for just five days, particulalry in an area called Block9, the brainchild of two set designers, Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher. There is Genosys, a brutalist rave; IICON, a multi-million pound dance stage built around the sculpture of a gigantic head lying on its side; the famous NYC Downlow, a meat-market themed gay club inspired by 70s and 80s Manhattan.

If any of these venues existed during the rest of the year, they would be famous in their own right, tourist attractions, like Berlin’s Berghain, which visitors would fly in to see from around the world. Instead, they are known only to the people who go to the festival, who are spoilt. While these clubs have made fleeting appearances on the BBC, they are wildly out of proportion to their importance at Glastonbury. Viewers at home could easily watch all weekend and have no idea they existed.

Partly this is because raves are more difficult to film than 100,000 people singing ‘Yellow’, or a  wackily-dressed druid-type sitting in the sunshine. But I wonder if there is something else at work, too. Is the BBC ready to make an anarchic gay club prominent on its website? Festivals are meant to have a wildness to them, an unsettling edge. “Letting go” can be exhilarating because there is a risk involved in the loss of self-control. You will not find anything edgy in Coldplay on Saturday night; still less in the predictable CND and lentils pamphleteering of the political stages. But in the darkened corners of the site there is still a frisson of obscure energies.

The sense of freedom is encouraged by the monumental place-making. Nobody who sees the Iicon’s 3-D display forgets it; NYC Downlow feels like you have wandered onto the set of an enormous Hollywood film. When so much work goes into providing an opportunity, it is an encouragement to take them up on it.

Subversive: NYC Downlow in Block9
Subversive: NYC Downlow in Block9 - AFP

Block9 represents the effort of hundreds of talented, dedicated and creative people, coming together to make a stage for tens of thousands of people to fray slightly at the edges, to anonymise themselves in a crowd and perhaps even discover something about themselves. The only politics is personal liberty. In the week of the general election, men and women will sweat side by side without knowing how those around them will vote or what they think about Gaza or the Just Stop Oil protests at Stonehenge. A mercy.

I can understand why the BBC are wary of showing raves, where many if not most of the crowd will be under some kind of illegal influence, or a sweaty, sultry club, where who knows what activities you might inadvertently catch. But the same could be said of the mob at the Pyramid Stage, who are filmed and vox-popped constantly. The Iicon stage, in particular, with its extraordinary 3D visuals, would make compelling footage.

These days most of Glastonbury feels sanitised. Security is tight; the fence is high. You must submit a photograph to buy a ticket. The extent of the media coverage means that when you are there you can sometimes feel more like you are participating in a jingoistic pageant, like a royal wedding or Wimbledon, rather than taking your place in a tradition of Anglo-Saxon revelry stretching back to Beowulf. If Glastonbury still retains anything approaching a radical spirit, you will find it down in the corner, but you won’t see it on the BBC.