“It's the first law of sociology,” said Paul Mason near the end of Northern Soul – Keep the Faith (Wednesday BBC1; iPlayer). “All youth subcultures eventually come back.” Mason was talking about the remarkable Wigan Young Souls, a gang of bright-eyed teens who, in 2013, are dressing sharp and dancing all night to soul records that were never hits.
What's miraculous is how Northern Soul happened in the first place, in the 1970s. Mason, until recently the economics editor of Newsnight, was there. So his documentary was authentic, personal, thorough and fun, the polar opposite of the rock-lifting, what's-all-this-nonsense attitude TV often has towards cultural blips that mean everything to the participants. If the Northern Soul faith is indeed kept and passed on then this film will be there, lurking on YouTube somewhere, waiting to draw new converts in.
Northern Soul – a genre of American pop named after the English nightclubs that were the only places in the world to play it – was a secret club with thousands of members. It came out of Mods listening to Motown: among the early NS favourites are records made and discarded by the likes of Marvin Gaye, or recorded by artists who were on Berry Gordy's roster but never made it big. Then it went deeper, into singers whose names mean nothing, who never had any commercial success, who never got played on the radio, but their rough, cheap recordings spoke to people in the north of England, like a crackly shortwave broadcast from a parallel world.
NS was deliberately based on singles that had been overlooked, partly due to the common impulse to react against whatever is popular: “No one wants to be spoonfed sh*te from the charts, do they?” as Elaine Constantine, director of the upcoming feature film Northern Soul, put it to Mason. But it was more than stubborn contrarianism: the romance was one of underdogs in obscurity, making their art in the hope that someone, somewhere would one day have their life changed.
The scene had its own style. Devotees wore a sort of souped-up, souled-up Mod, with vests and ever wider trousers servicing the practical need to dance all night. And the dancing: disciplined but expressive, macho but emotional, a mix of Bruce Lee kicks, aerobic star-jumps, lindyhop crisis-crosses and showboating on the balls of the feet.
One contributor to Mason's programme said Northern was essentially the same as rave culture: people ignoring the mainstream and gathering in thousands to take drugs and dance to music with a flat 4/4 rhythm. He was wrong, because that beat was less than half of Northern Soul. The songs have titles like Lonely for You Baby, I'm Stepping out of The Picture, The Girl across the Street, I Hurt on the Other Side, You Can't Have Your Cake, Long after Tonight Is All Over: universal tales of dreaming and yearning and bottomless, everyday heartbreak. At one of the all-nighters that still run across the country every week, we saw a lad in his 20s who wasn't just dancing to You Should'O Held On by Frankie Karl and the Chevrons; he was mouthing every word.
Mason, who has recently, brilliantly documented how youth movements and social media drove protests across the world in the Arab Spring and beyond, explained exactly how records made in the poverty of Detroit and Chicago rang a bell in Wigan, Warrington and Stoke. But he was more interested in how the music had deeply affected individuals. He met Wigan Casino veteran Fran Franklin, who misted up when she recalled how Northern had been her ticket out of a tough upbringing in Edinburgh: “The minute the soul scene started, my mum was like: OK, that's your outlet, off you go.” Mason danced with her, in a social club somewhere: square panels on the ceiling, chairs and tables pushed to the edge of the parquet, sunshine flaring through the window. Fran and other soulies were filmed in beautiful slow motion; Mason himself did a pretty decent triple spin.
A middle-aged man reconnecting with when he felt simply, vividly alive, Mason put his own soul into it – witness the joy in his eyes when Elaine Constantine described the collective rush of a packed floor all hitting a break in the music together. He ended on a montage of him performing his spin on a cobbled street, by the sea, under a railway bridge, in a deserted club. “On the dancefloor, it felt like, well, freedom. It felt like finding a new family. A small part of me is still always there.”