Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis talks Bruce Forsyth, blue tits and bagging The Rolling Stones

"There’s always a wishlist, and only the best bands are on it... And we’ve been ticking ’em off and ticking ’em off. The Rolling Stones were the only ones that were left”

Early June down on Worthy Farm in Somerset and top of today’s to-do list at the scene of the world’s biggest and greatest music festival: how to look after the tits.

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“Blue tits have nested in one of the storage areas,” says farmer/ proprietor Michael Eavis, as we tour the 1,200-acre site currently being transformed from pasture into rock ’n’ roll nirvana: the home of the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts 2013, during which 175,000 humans will replace the 400 Friesian cattle that are, the rest of the year, Eavis’s bread and butter and high-grade milk.

“We’ve taken a vote,” continues the 77-year-old Methodist, “to delay construction in that corner and leave the tits till their chicks have fledged.” The hippie ideals on which Eavis founded his rock festival in 1970 (T Rex on the bill and free milk for all) are clearly still going strong.

On this spanking summer day in the Vale of Avalon, stages are going up left, right and centre. Thirteen miles of super-fence are being installed. New toilets, engineered into the ground and capable of holding 60,000 gallons of effluent (“a Rolls-Royce job! They won’t smell!”), are put through their paces (not literally). Mud? Not round here on this sunny afternoon, there isn’t…

Up at the farmhouse, meanwhile, living-room talk is resolutely not of the medium-range weather forecast. Rather, discussion centres round this year’s Pyramid Stage headline acts, and Eavis’s near five-decade pursuit thereof.

“Well, there’s always a wishlist, and only the best bands are on it – about 20 of ’em. And we’ve been ticking ’em off and ticking ’em off,” recounts this hale and hearty grandfather of 18. He’s had Bowie (1971, 2000), he’s had Dylan (1998), he’s had Macca (2004), and two years ago he finally landed U2. “The Rolling Stones were the only ones that were left.”

“Yeah,” nods Emily Eavis, his daughter and Glastonbury partner. “But this is something we thought would never happen. Because we were always told it was unlikely we would ever get the Stones.”

The Rolling Stones were indeed a glaring omission from the ranks of acts who have appeared over the decades. If American arrivistes Jay-Z (2008) and Beyoncé (2011) could do it, why not the greatest extant British rock ’n’ roll band? The five-day mega-festival operates a famously old-fashioned-cum-egalitarian principle when it comes to paying performers. That is, acts come for the vibe as much as the fees, which are traditionally considerably less than those offered by other, newer, more business-like events. Any profits the Eavises do make are poured into their charity partners: WaterAid, Oxfam and Greenpeace.

“It’s supposed to be a big money thing,” is Michael’s answer as to why it’s taken Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood so long to finally shake off their stick-in-the-mud stance. “But in fact they weren’t at all greedy.”

“There’s only a couple of bands that are so big hat they don’t really do festivals,” adds Emily, 34. “It’s the Rolling Stones and U2. They just roll around the world doing these huge shows, and we’re just this little festival.”

Have they tried to book the Stones previously? “We ask every year!” says Michael with a burst of the giddy, almost childlike laughter that is something of a default trait. “I saw Mick Jagger at the Q Awards years and years ago, and he was standing halfway up the stairs – perched on a ladder there on his own – and [Eavis’s late wife] Jean said, ‘I’m gonna ask him to play.’ I said, ‘Oh no, no, you can’t do that, you can’t talk to these people.’ And she went straight in there – ‘Why haven’t you done Glastonbury?’ And he said he’d never been asked. Well, he was asked then.”

According to Mick, “It’s the first time we’ve actually been asked, to be honest. They keep talking about it but they never asked us before.”

“Jean asked him definitely point blank right there!” Eavis hoots. “She went straight up, handbag in her arms! Ha ha ha!”

The Eavises attribute the Stones’ agreeing to play to a combination of factors. There’s the fact that U2 did it, and there’s good old pester power, “like it was with Paul McCartney,” nods Emily: two of Jagger’s children (Elizabeth and Jade) are regular festival-goers, as are the children of Mick’s brother Chris, who lives in Glastonbury village. Richards’s offspring, too, are seemingly veterans of Glasto in all its giddy glory.

Plus, it’s not unfeasible that the timing suited their satanic majesties: in June 1971, the year Eavis’s inaugural Pilton Pop, Blues and Folk Festival changed its name to Glastonbury Fayre, the Stones were in the south of France, recording their totemic double album Exile on Main Street. Now, in their 50th-anniversary year, the idea of one remarkable, indefatigable, globally renowned British institution meeting another was surely too good to resist.

This summer is a big moment all round for the Family Eavis. For one thing, Emily gave birth to Noah mere weeks ago, a younger brother to two-year-old George. Is this the next generation-in-waiting of rock festival gurus?

“It will be a miracle if it’s still going,” demurs Michael. “If we stick to our guns, our principles, then it will succeed. But if the kids start creaming off all the money then we’ve had it, haven’t we?” he laughs, again, loudly. “My kids won’t be like that,” Emily replies, good-naturedly. She knows of what she speaks: one of her personal missions is to keep a weather eye on excessive encroachment on the Glastonbury Ideal by corporate branding. “But no,” she agrees, “you can’t have anyone cashing in.”

For another, last year was a year off. Supplies of portable toilets, fencing and police were stretched to capacity by the needs of the Olympics. Opting out of summer 2012 was, they agree, a blessing.

“Three inches of rain that weekend!” gasps Michael. “We would have had it – we would have gone completely bust. You can’t run this show with three inches of rain. We were so lucky. We can go to two inches, but after that it’s impossible. And we’ve got the Olympics to thank for that – because the year before should have been the year off,” he says, explaining that ordinarily every fifth year is the festival’s fallow time. “It must have been divine intervention.”

Which brings us neatly to Songs of Praise. This week it’s coming from the Eavis family chapel and shrine. “We were involved with building that 150 years ago,” says this fifth-generation farmer of this picture-perfect example of England’s green-and-pleasant land beneath mystical Glastonbury Tor. Michael has been interviewed at length for the programme, “and I was scared – talking about God is a nightmare. But I got round that by saying, ‘Well, if there’s isn’t a God we have to invent one, basically. Because we need one out there somewhere!” he booms.

This rock ’n’ roll(ish) edition of Songs of Praise says something about the media coverage of this year’s Glastonbury. The BBC has come on board like never before. Buoyed by the success of their multi-platform, red-button, interactive Olympics coverage, the corporation are giving more TV and radio broadcast hours to the festival than ever before.

Eavis admits he’s pleased at this commitment. But true to form, he continues, “Yeah, we love the BBC, but then, we’ve been good to them as well. All through the years, we’d have people phone us from Sky and Channel 4 – ‘Can we do it, we’ll do it better, we’ll pay you more money…’ – and I said, ‘Well, we’re not interested in the money. We want to support a national institution that benefits the whole wide world for free. OK? That’s it. Period,’ as they say!” Again with the gales of laughter.

Sitting on the other side of the living room, Emily is smiling broadly and shaking her head slightly. Along with her husband Nick – he manages the Chemical Brothers, and they met when she tried to persuade the dance duo to donate a song to Oxfam – she now does the lion’s share of the band booking, while Michael concentrates on infrastructure. They are, it’s clear, a great and complementary team.

“And also,” she says when her dad finally stops, “it’s much better not to be pigeonholed with just Radio 1 or 6 Music – it’s much better to have a little bit on every station. Glastonbury is not one thing, or just for one genre of music or group of people.”

Too true. At Glastonbury 2013, the young folk are catered for by Friday Pyramid stage headliners Arctic Monkeys, while the youthful can cut a rug to Mumford & Sons on the Sunday. But over on the Avalon stage, a light-ent legend will be making his debut at the age of 85: arise, Sir Bruce Forsyth, accompanied by, in the senior Eavis’s words, a “jazzy rocky folky” band. “Emily’s husband talked me into it,” says Michael.

Michael Eavis, of course, is well past pensionable age. Now that his dream has come true and he’s landed the Stones, might he consider hanging up his festival wellies for good? “I don’t think so,” he smiles. “There’s no sign of me giving up at the moment. This period now, the four weeks leading to the festival, is the most exciting month of my life. It’s better than any drug you could create – allegedly! I’m not making comparisons!” he roars. “But I do get an enormous high from it.”

“I want to do 50 years, actually,” he states vigorously, “that’s what I’m aiming at.” But that’s seven years away. Most pressing right now are the final plans for the arrival of the Rolling Stones spectacular. Details are hush-hush, but the Eavises reveal that the band’s set will include a game old bird, lighting up the stage, strutting its stuff, breathing fire and flapping… No, not 69-year-old Sir Mick, but a hewn-from-metal phoenix affixed atop the Pyramid Stage. It will be unveiled at a top-secret moment during the weekend.

What extracurricular attraction would Michael and Emily Eavis recommend to the Stones as offering the quintessential Glastonbury experience?

“Well, Mick is staying on Friday night, on site,” reveals Emily. “The Underground Piano Bar!” exclaims her dad. “Got to get him in there. I’m the only person who knows where it is.”

“You could take him round the site in your Land Rover – like the Popemobile!” beams Emily. “I’d take Mick to see dawn in the King’s Meadow. That’s a lovely moment.”

And what happens if guitarist Keef drinks too deeply of the Glastonbury spirit and disappears inside the Stone Circle?

“Well!” guffaws Michael Eavis, “he wouldn’t look out of place, would he, Keith?”

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Glastonbury is on BBC TV, radio and online from today until Sunday