The BBC Write A Song For Lincolnshire Contest, 2017. The South Holland Centre, Spalding, Lincolnshire. November 2nd, 2017.
This annual contest, like a little acorn has grown. Starting out in 1992 in Spilsby Theatre, it has been something of a moveable feast of late, moving to bigger venues in Boston, in Lincoln and in 2017, to the best venue of all, in Spalding. And now it is big business: so much so that in recent years BBC Radio Lincolnshire has suspended its normal schedules and dedicated the whole evening to a "live outside broadcast" from the venue. Finals Night sees those successful entry songs and their writers/performers, come before the judges and an enthusiastic live audience, as well as many thousands listening at home.
Normally I write an annual report/review discussing the concert in depth, and giving the reader an insight into the pros and cons of the various songs and performers. This year however, I don't quite have the heart (or maybe stomach?) for it, and would instead prefer to comment on the controversy that resulted in the choice of winner for 2017.
Now, before I say anything further...
...it needs to be said loud and clear that BBC Radio Lincolnshire have done a marvellous job helping keep Folk Music alive in the county...a shire that was, I’ll have you remember, until relatively recent boundary changes, the second biggest county in terms of land area in all England. And the BBC annually "throw the works" at this event: no stone is left unturned in the promotion of the contest, and BBC Radio Lincolnshire top brass and ace presenters are there in the concert hall on the night. The show is hosted by Jono Brine, a class act who has confidence to burn, but never comes over as anything other than what he is: a true mensch. He is ably assisted by the commendable Tom Lane, the man whose idea this whole event was, way back when.
And this year’s show – whilst not the greatest of years - had some strong songs. Unfortunately what I perceived as clearly the weakest of the eight finalist songs, went and won it.
Now, I realise that one man's floor is another man's ceiling. I do not have a monopoly on wisdom. Could it be that I am losing my touch when it comes to picking a winner?
Maybe yes...for that is far from impossible. After all, in my 17 years since I became a regular judge on the competition, I usually pick the winner. And have never had a song below third on my own voting card, become the overall winner (when all the judges’ cards are combined).
Yet, I had this song 8th out of 8th, whilst my fellow three judges mysteriously had it first...though the Chair of the Judges clearly did some last minute "Ali shuffle" based on wanting a degree of unanimity, for he had been banging the drum for a totally different song, whose lyrics had clearly appealed to his liberal values...then switched his allegiance at the 11th hour.
However, what tells me that I was emphatically not barking up the wrong tree, was the audible gasp of astonishment from the audience when the name of the winner was announced. It is something I will long remember. The man in the row in front of me turned to my wife and said "what a disgusting decision!" My wife agreed, and would not even stay for the traditional winners' reprise of the successful song.
The winners were Salutation a group of students at Caistor Grammar School. Their song by Nick McCann, Sean Murphy’s Dancing Feet, was I thought more a paean to the remote Co Mayo town of Bellmullet, than a reference to the Irish community in Caistor. And after all, a prerequisite for a song being eligible for the competition is that - as it says on the tin - it be a Song for Lincolnshire. And thus having heard it, you should not be able to say that the song could have been as much about Lancashire as Lincolnshire...!! Or, if you prefer, that it was as much about County Louth in Ireland as Louth, in Lincolnshire.
After the concert, I got over 40 emails from audience members expressing shock at the result, and they were almost all of my opinion that one song had clearly walked it: Paul Dickinson’s splendid Lincolnshire Heroes. A song that was quintessentially Lincolnshire in all aspects, and one which met the contest criteria in a sublimely funny way and with some killer lines. Paul must have been disappointed at not being in the top three, and that travesty – which I have called the worst jury decision since the first OJ Simpson murder trial – was inevitable when the Chair of the Judges opined in our deliberation that it was “merely a funny song” (Eh? ...as if a funny song cannot win...??!!). Talk about the "leading of a jury" ...?! That is leading one down an artistic route that ends in grey uniformity.
Needless to say, Paul met such a bizarre disappointment of a decision, with his trademark magnanimity.
So, where does the contest go from here?
Well, I am sure the contest will get over this bump in the road. And it will certainly get over having me as a judge. But some things need saying to my friends at BBC Radio Lincolnshire: indeed, especially because I regard them as my friends. I have maximum respect for the people I know there, and I feel I owe it to them to point certain things out.
You see, the problem can be solved tomorrow. And here is how: viz... that they revert to the status quo that existed before 2015. That was the year when the BBC brought in "celebrity judges": which was an accident waiting to happen.
For my 15 years before in this contest, judges like myself who looked after the preliminary stages of weeding out the also-rans, had the additional role of being judges on the big night. Thus it was that I would be driving around a full week before the final, with all the songs of the finalists on my car stereo. I would hear them each at least a dozen times, and it is fair to say that I would be word perfect on most of the choruses and many of the verses, come the evening of the finals concert. Having thought about the songs since I had first heard them at preliminary submission a month before, they had now marinated in my brain.
And thus I would inevitably have something insightful to say to my fellow judges on each of the songs, and hope and expect them to have their insights to relate to me. (Though one regular judging colleague never did have my degree of rigour, though that said, was 100 times more au courant with the songs than my fellow judges and me too, were this year.)
Contrast the pre 2015 system, with the situation now: we four judges this year were given the song lyrics about 25 minutes before curtain-up. It was the blind leading the blind.
That dear friends, is no way to run a railroad...or more to the point, a serious artistic venture. It is frankly philistine. It is akin to the jury of the Man Booker Prize, being just shown blurbs and chapter headings, and then having to decide the best book of the year.
As it was, my fellow judges, decent people I am sure, hopelessly ignorant as I too was of the finer nuances of all the songs, decided to vote with their eyes. And their eyes told them that this group Salutation, comprising of school students, showed bags of promise. And at least they were not wrong there. And Salutation's time will doubtless come when they win with a song that gets a unanimous vote of the jury.
But this year, they were a million miles away.
However, seeing I was the lone dissenting voice on the jury, they won fair and square. (I say that...though the fact was, that they actually tied on total points with a well-constructed song from Kim Biggs: one that I had voted second. Quite rightly, as the rule is that the trophy cannot be shared, then the outright winner must be the song that most judges voted first. And seeing as Kim had no first place vote, and Salutation had three, then there was no doubt as to where the prize should go).
So there was no jiggery-pokery, and no question of a stacked jury.
And so it was that we saw the splendid trio The Young ‘Uns (who had been booked to perform to cover the time while we the jury were deliberating) appear like old ‘uns, when they presented the winning prize to a group about half their age...!!
If there is a God, then methinks He certainly has a sense of humour.
And so, yet another year over. Weirdly, although the BBC must surely know in their very bones that the result was patently absurd, the result will do their audience figures no harm. As Mao Tse-Tung once famously said... "catch them young". And since BBC Radio Lincolnshire have their listening figures to think about, they must appeal to the youth audience, as many of their older generation listeners die off. So what better than a group of school students win with their 2017 entry?
Whatever my musing, the name of the writer of Salutation's song is on the trophy for this year. Nothing will change that, so best of luck to him and them.
(Mind you, says I smiling, I think they have had their share of that, already...!!)
...the fact is, that as the dust settles for another year, our big thanks must go to Charlie Partridge and his team at BBC Radio Lincolnshire, for their continued valiant support for the county's Folk scene. And I hope that they know with regards to all my heartfelt comments above, that I still have massive respect for their efforts.
Photo Credits: (1) Paul Dickinson, (2) Salutation, (3) The Young ‘Uns (unknown/website).