Silent Movies on the Radio

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Pete Heywood has embarked on a quest to tell a big story and as a photographer it seemed natural to use photographs to help tell the tale. Quite how to do it has turned into a story with its own twists and turns. The latest twist, Silent Movies on the Radio, takes a bit of explaining. We talk to the horse’s mouth.

“Silent Movies of course were never silent and Radio is full of images even if they are only in your mind.”

“I have been fascinated by the idea of using back projection of photographs and images since 1996, when I booked a series of ten performances of Brian McNeill’s multimedia show The Back O’ the Northwind. Brian had put together a bunch of songs telling the stories of various Scots who had travelled to America. Brian is one of the masters of the narrative song and he tends to research them in detail and amasses a mine of information. The songs were initially released as a CD by Greentrax before Brian took it on the road as a show. The technology he used was fairly simple, two projectors and a screen, plus some simple controls that allowed him to coordinate his live performance with a series of slowly moving still images. Although a solo show, it still involved a van full of equipment and a four hour set up time. Myself and a friend, Blair Mathewson, helped with getting the gear into the venues and then, at Brian’s request, left him to get on with putting it all together before show time.”

“The shows were a revelation to me. Some people have a fertile imagination when listening to songs. I haven’t. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not alone in benefiting from visual clues and believe that this style of presentation can open up the songs to a much wider audience. I spoke to Brian about the possibility of making the show more practical to put on by using data projection and laptops, but with the technology at that time is was difficult to achieve the slow blends and the magical ‘third images’ than can appear during some of these transitions.”

After that tour in 1996, Pete and Brian left the door open for doing it again at some future date. Brian wanted to work on a parallel project that explored the Scots who had looked eastwards to Europe rather than westwards towards America and the New World. That second production, The Baltic Tae Byzantium, was almost ten years in the making. Anyone who has worked on this type of presentation will know that the process of creating a moving show, often involving a few hundred images, can take a long time.

In relation to folk music there have been quite a few notable shows, stretching back from this period to Magic Lantern’s work with shadow puppets and forward to projects like Bob Fox and Benny Graham’s How Are Ye off for Coals. Technical issues, even down to the problems of setting up a screen in a small venue, meant that there was a danger that the performances strayed into ‘lecture’ territory and this, coupled with the fact that they were hard work, meant that the performers tended to retreat back into straight performance.

It was to be almost fifteen years later before the next opportunity presented itself to Pete in the form of a Greentrax Anniversary concert at the Queens Hall in Edinburgh. In the intervening years there had been a trend towards bigger concert platforms and there is a void on stage that needs to be filled. There is a limit to what you can do with lighting, particularly with flashing lights, which may suit a disco but distracts from live performance. Sensitive lighting coupled with a projected event logo or cloth backdrop was the norm for a folk concert and Ian asked if anyone could project a PDF for the show he was planning. “He really just wanted a logo but I had other ideas! In the months before the concert Greentrax had released Far, Far from Ypres, a WW1 themed album. I had written an article for Living Tradition and suggested to Ian that the next step would be to produce a show. When I discovered that a couple of songs from that album were to be featured during the Anniversary Concert, I took the opportunity of the big screen and large stage platform to prepare some images to go behind that sequence of songs. I also prepared slides for the other sections of the concert including Steele the Show.”

Before the concert Ian was apprehensive, fearing that the slides would be a distraction. By the interval he was eagerly looking forward to what Pete had up his sleeve for the second half. “This was perhaps the first time that I realised that something special was going on. Although the background images were designed to be just that, background, once you use them you really miss their presence if at any point they are not there. They don’t need to be complex or attention grabbing, but like a subtle lighting wash, they both fill a space and unify the stage.”
The potential in the Ypres performance was spotted by the management of The Queens Hall and a representative from Celtic Connections. Soon after Ian McCalman was busy developing a full Ypres stage show for its Celtic Connections debut the following January. Pete set about working on the graphic projection which turned out to be a big task. “The challenge was to make them fit in a seamless way to the somewhat uncertain timing of a live performance. The show was taking shape at the same time as I was working on graphics and the script was a moving target. I had a good idea of what was likely to happen but needed to build in flexibility. For that first show I had three laptops on the go. I would have liked to have been in the hall to witness the event, but for space reasons I was running the projection from high up at the back, behind glass, in the lighting control room. It was the right place to be; I could panic in peace!”

The response to the Ypres show has been nothing short of phenomenal. It has now been aired in four large concert halls, returned to Celtic Connections where it played to a sell out audience of over two thousand people, plus a daytime performance for sixteen hundred school children. It has also been performed in the French town of Martignas, near Bordeaux, where despite playing to a largely non English speaking audience, it had a similar emotional impact. That emotional impact can’t be attributed to any single element, it is the combination of the songs, the narrative, the images and the live experience which has made it so powerful.

“It’s fair to say that the show has had a deep impact on the performers. A camaraderie has built up among the cast. The live performances bring emotional challenges. My role is primarily behind the scenes which has allowed me to be a fly on the wall. I spoke with Dick Gaughan shortly after the schools performance at the Concert Hall and he was clearly moved by feelings of both privilege and responsibility of singing to such an audience. On various occasions I’ve also noticed the emotion in Iain Anderson’s voice, being close to breaking point at times. Iain is an experienced BBC Radio presenter and has been a commentator at countless important moments. The show clearly touches him, even after a number of performances. He regards Ypres as being the best thing he has ever done.”

The cast members hadn’t had the opportunity to see the slides in context, partly because they were facing in the opposite direction on stage, and partly from having enough emotions to deal with when singing the songs that they didn’t want to look at the images behind them. However, friends had told them how the images had added to the performance and they asked if there was a way of seeing them.

“I didn’t know how to let members of the cast of Ypres see the slides and to be honest I was fearful of doing it. I didn’t think that the slides alone would stand up to scrutiny – as far as I was concerned they were there to set a mood and that was a background rather than foreground job. I toyed with the idea of doing a private performance ‘in the round’ with the cast singing towards the screen, but for various reasons I thought that wouldn’t work. I then experimented by making a simple recording from the side of the stage of the concert which we presented in France. I then added that as a soundtrack to the slide sequences and finally output that in a video format. I didn’t think that bringing the slides to the front, and losing any visual contact with the singers would work, but I was surprised to find that much of the emotion of the live show was retained. With hindsight, this simple experiment was the catalyst for the ‘Silent Movies’ concept.”

“Far, Far from Ypres has taken up a lot of my time as I transitioned over the past couple of years from magazine editor to semi-retired ‘officially old’ person who still harbours creative ambitions. The other issue which still challenges me is a desire to help to tell the story of the folk revival over the last forty to fifty years. That challenge itself could be split into two parts, the how and the what, how to tell the story and what is the story that needs to be told.”

“I still believe that not enough attention is being given to the story of the current generation of musicians who I feel have been cursed to some extent by the term ‘revivalist’. I also feel that many of the various histories so far have been fairly academic in nature and often written from an Anglo-centric perspective.”

“I was convinced of the need for a creative use of multimedia – in many respects we haven’t moved much beyond the book and the wax cylinder. There is no shortage of material, but the challenge has been how to present it. The project is likely to involve CDs, books, websites etc., and everything also points towards Radio documentary. When collecting material now, I am conscious of the need to leave a visual record.”

“This multi-faceted approach is clear in my mind but I find it hard to describe to others. If I mention a book, someone will ask when it is coming out and how many pages it will have, whereas I am still thinking about collecting pieces of a jigsaw and leaving the choice of picture until later. It was only after I did the photo exhibition at Celtic Connections that I felt the skeleton of the project was beginning to take shape and that other people were able to catch the overall vision.”

“I took on an opportunity to produce a photographic exhibition for Celtic Connections in 2014. It was quite a large exhibition with over forty panels, most containing one major image and two or more supporting images. The content centred on photographs relating to The Girvan Folk Festival which was celebrating its 40 year anniversary at the time. We referred to the exhibition photographs of being ‘The Girvan Era’ because although many of the photographs were taken there, they actually reflected the history of folk music throughout the country during that forty odd year period that I am so keen to document. This exhibition contained an embryonic multimedia element in the form of QR-codes embedded into each panel. By scanning these links with a smart phone, there was an instant link to audio elements and potentially limitless narrative served through a website. The longer term idea is that people will be able to feedback information via a phone or website, actively developing the database in a kind of folk Wikipedia, but that presents a few more technical challenges.”

Over the last year, working through Traditional Arts Development, a community interest company, Pete and a small team which includes John Weatherby and Kris Koren of SoundSense, have been quietly working away on cleaning up and documenting some hundreds of hours of historical live recordings. Some of these are now available on the photography exhibition website, some of them have been used in what might be best described as a ‘pre-production’ introductory double CD marking the 40th anniversary of the Girvan Folk Festival, something that was a big part of Pete’s own history. Some of them have now also been used in a live setting under a series which has been given a strange title, Silent Movies on the Radio.

“The idea for ‘Silent Movies’ came to me in the middle of the night. Many of my ideas originate in a state of semi slumber and the world might sleep a little easier to know that I rarely remember much about my thoughts come the morning. Silent Movies however stuck with me.”

“As a child my father used to take me to The News Theatre in Manchester which was a cinema presenting rolling Pathé News interspersed by cartoons. My father got the news of the day, I got my share of Donald Duck and The Road Runner! My first idea for Silent Movies was that it could take the form of a rolling visual presentation in support of the photographic exhibition, but the idea quickly developed from that.”

“The simplest description of Silent Movies on the Radio would be to imagine a Radio show, presented live in front of an audience. Behind the participants would be a screen projecting relevant images, including video or film footage. There would likely be some live performance, some interaction with the images and some historical audio. The unique additional element is that these shows will be recorded, audio only, and subsequently edited. After reintroducing the visual elements to the live sound, the next step is to produce a video file that can be viewed via a website. This will result in a ‘Listen Again’ Radio experience with images. It isn’t Radio, it isn’t Television. It’s Radio with pictures.”

“I’ve come to think that the idea is genuinely innovative. Whilst I’m reluctant to claim that this is an innovation akin to the Radio Ballads, Charles Parker took a relatively big step forward with a couple of simple concepts, using actuality rather than a narrated commentary and using songs to tell part of the story. The concept behind Silent Movies on the Radio is also a simple one, although potentially powerful. For me it also ticks a couple of boxes at the same time, there is the buzz of a live show but in the process you can capture some history.”

The first four shows took take place in January during the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. They were piloted in a low key way, linking to the exhibition of photographs which has remained in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for a second year. Each show was different, giving the team a good idea of how the concept could be adapted for different subjects and circumstances.

The first evening featured The Clutha, a seminal folk group from Glasgow who were recently inducted to the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of fame and marking their fiftieth anniversary as a group. The Clutha were the guests on the opening night of the Kilmarnock Folk Club forty years ago and some live recordings from period were played during the show with live interaction from members of the group and the audience. The next event centred on an interview with Billy Jackson, best known for his time with Ossian. His story intertwined with the history of many of Glasgow’s and Scotland’s major folk bands leading up to The Wellpark Suite, a piece of music commissioned to mark the centenary of Tennents Wellpark Brewery. Played by members of various groups including Ossian, Battlefield, Jock Tamsons Bairns and The Easy Club, it was regarded as a high point in recent folk history.

A third evening explored the story of Irish music in Glasgow looking particularly at the huge contribution made by the McHugh family. Jimmy McHugh came to Glasgow in 1947. The evening included historical audio and video of Jimmy McHugh and his Four Provinces Ceili Band, together with live music from the current generation of The Four Provinces led by Jimmy’s son Brendan.

The fourth evening was different in that in the first half it took the form of a one man show by Tommy Sands followed by a less structured second part. Again the evening included use of historical audio, video and photographs. Tommy’s show had come out of his book, The Songman, published in 2005. In an interesting comment after the show he said that it took him about two years to write the book and his mind was focussed on the past. “Telling the story in the context of a live show, in front of people in the audience who you know and respect, connects the story with the present as well as the past.” The Silent Movies approach may well prove to be an efficient way of getting the story down.

These exploratory evenings took place at Adelaide’s in Glasgow, a converted Church venue in the city centre. Plans are in hand for the series to be launched on a regular schedule in the autumn. There is already interest in embracing the concept from a number of festivals with Warwick Folk Festival taking the lead and presenting Silent Movies at their festival this summer.

“As far as the ‘listen again’ radio links it is a case of ‘watch this space’. Celtic Music Radio are already on board with the idea and we are talking to other potential Radio partners. The shows will be available via our own website but we are keen to develop relationships to open up the possibility of more people contributing to the workload. There is a big story to be told!”