Critic’s Chair: Guy Somerset watches and listens to two wonderful series on YouTube and Spotify featuring great raconteurs and wits broadcast from their homes during the long UK lockdown
This week, the UK started off along the second stage of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “cautious but irreversible” roadmap to the complete lifting of the country’s Covid-19 restrictions by June 21.
Shops are open, pubs and restaurants can serve drinks and meals outdoors; heck, you can even get driving lessons. Britons can see the light at the end of the tunnel and are just hoping it isn’t the Range Rover of Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings as he heads home after another trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. They have also become used to many U-turns by Johnson as he has got one thing after another wrong throughout the year of living Covidly.
In previous national crises, such as World War II, Englishmen of David Hepworth, Mark Ellen, John Mitchinson and Andy Miller’s ages and (middle) class might have been expected to retire for the duration to their gardens or allotments to dig for victory.
This being the 2020s, however, they’ve been on Zoom making YouTube videos and podcasts.
Hepworth’s and Ellen’s Word in Your Attic has had a long genesis.
Hepworth and Ellen were for many years music magazine makers, responsible in one way or another for such notable publications as Smash Hits, Q and Mojo.
They have also had side lines as broadcasters on radio and television, where they are best known for having fronted the Whistle Test music show and being part of the presenting team for Live Aid.
In recent years, they have both been successful authors, especially Hepworth, who has written a further five books since his 1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year was released in 2016.
When Hepworth and Ellen found the corporate magazine business had become too, well, corporate and they had risen too high in it to do the enjoyable things that enticed them into the business in the first place, they quit their executive positions to launch an independent monthly where they could get their hands dirty again. They called it, being the ages they are (Hepworth is 70, Ellen is 67), The Word, after The Beatles song.
The Word had a good run as a print publication (2003–2012), but eventually went the way of many magazines in a perilous decade for print publications.
While it was still operating, The Word had a weekly podcast, which Hepworth and Ellen continued more irregularly afterwards, usually focused on live events they held with authors of new music books.
And then Covid struck. No more live events.
But there is Zoom, which has enabled Hepworth and Ellen to continue remotely from, yes, their attics, and now not as a purely audio experience via podcasts but with their own Word in Your Ear YouTube channel.
The channel does many things – quizzes, two-hander riffs on everything from “Neil Young and the concert that invented ‘the whoop’” to “Does anyone form a band anymore?” – but its centrepiece is Word in Your Attic.
This is where, about once a week, Hepworth and Ellen talk via Zoom with another locked-down muso, sometimes in their attic too or even their garden shed. (No digging for victory is going on from the sheds, though; these sheds have been converted into recording studios or an office to write in.)
Because of their more than 40 years covering music, Hepworth and Ellen can call upon an impressive line-up of guests, including musicians, authors, broadcasters and journalists.
The conversations roam widely and are welcome relief from the isolation of lockdown for guests and viewers alike. The one constant of the 120 episodes is guests are asked to show any interesting items they have unearthed rummaging around their homes while secluded in them.
Hepworth and Ellen greet each guest with the necessary mix of curiosity and delight the format needs to succeed.
They are great wits themselves, particularly inveterate raconteur Ellen, and have no shortage of stories of their own to tell.
The interviews are illuminating in lots of different ways, from the chance to poke around the backdrops of the rooms in which guests are sitting, to the revelations that often emerge.
For instance, Altered Images frontwoman Clare Grogan tells the touching story of how her mother had always been undemonstrative about her pop music stardom and she had assumed it meant little to her; but then after her mother died she had to go through her things and found an extensive trove of memorabilia she had kept from Grogan’s career.
In one of the most recent episodes, Gary Kemp from über eighties New Romantics Spandau Ballet speaks about the formative influence of folk music on him and nominates Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief as the greatest album ever made.
Kemp, Grogan … there is, admittedly, a certain vintage to presenters and many guests.
And even younger guests, such as broadcaster Samira Ahmed and author, journalist and broadcaster Laura Barton, are quick to pay obeisance to Hepworth and Ellen as the originators of the irreverent, innovative and hugely influential Smash Hits.
Before lockdown, Hepworth and Ellen were in-person guests on Backlisted, to talk about – of course – The Beatles.
Backlisted’s Andy Miller has in turn been a guest on A Word in Your Attic.
Backlisted remains a podcast but has also embraced Zoom to continue during Covid.
Miller and co-presenter John Mitchinson have a long history in publishing and bookselling and have built up a large and loyal following since launching Backlisted in 2016.
Each episode (and there are 136 of them), they are joined by a couple of guests to talk about a, yes, backlisted book – i.e. something older, possibly even out of print, rather than off the conveyer belt of new releases.
Like Hepworth and Ellen, they have the contacts (and fans of their podcast) to attract great guests – including authors such as Andrew O’Hagan and Val McDermid.
And like Hepworth and Ellen, they are themselves genial, inquisitive and informed hosts.
Long-time listeners particularly enjoy the running gags and recurring references to Croydon and Anita Brookner.
Perhaps Backlisted will yet end up as a YouTube channel too.
It doesn’t actually need to be visual, although there would certainly be pleasure in following the facial-hair fortunes of Mitchinson and Miller as we have those of Hepworth and Ellen during their past year stuck at home and succumbing to lockdown-beard syndrome. (In the already biblically bearded Mitchinson’s case, it might be a question of a lockdown shave.)
And it would be nice to know if Mitchinson and Miller possess as impressive a record (or for them book) collection as the floor-to-ceiling shelves of LPs Hepworth has as his backdrop.
Attics, like garden sheds, aren’t what they used to be.
Word in Your Attic (YouTube); Backlisted (Spotify, Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts).