“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 those funny little cultural blips that mean everything to the participants. If the Northern Soul faith is indeed kept and passed on, this film will be there, lurking on YouTube, 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.
Northern 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: it was the romance 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 criss-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 freedom. It felt like finding a new family. A small part of me is still always there.”
We were promised a classic scrap on Question Time (Thursday BBC1; iPlayer). Much of what’s wrong with the programme is in that sentence: it’s watched by people who hope their entrenched view will win against a different one. It’s fun on Twitter, but so’s The X Factor. On what’s meant to be a flagship political forum, it’s incredibly rare for an argument to be unpacked, for a factual statement to be challenged. Doing so would be bad telly.
One example from this week’s circus: the journalist Louise Cooper, who incidentally was the only woman on the all-white panel, said green energy was going to cost us all £300 a year in higher bills and we should be consulted. Is this true? Is there more to it than that? Are fossil fuels also heavily subsidised? Cooper had already got her applause. We moved on.
Part of Question Time’s problem is that it, to an extent understandably, conforms to the inequalities of the political and media class. Business interests and conservative, centre-right beliefs are dominant. Ideas that are supported by large numbers of ordinary people, but not many politicians or media tycoons, struggle to get through.
Yet QT makes this worse, not only by needlessly reinforcing the imbalance through sheer weight of numbers, but also by combining the half-hearted effort it does make with its desire to feature a celebrity or wild-card member of the panel.
A few weeks ago, in another supposedly must-see edition, Russell Brand made several fundamental points about bankers and the relationship between political parties and the people who fund them. That these thoughts emerged from a twitching, hairy boho rather strengthened the idea that they are outlandish. This week, Will Self put the view that tinkering with the energy market is a poor substitute for taking supply out of commercial entities’ control altogether, since heat and light are necessities that consumers can hardly choose not to consume.
Self, who famously said of the phone-hacking scandal that “this whole imbroglio is epiphenomenal” (translation: Beth from Neighbours has allergies), now opined that energy was not “fungible”. He quickly explained it – and hey, that whole imbroglio really had been epiphenomenal. But his sesquipedalianism, old jokes about Ed Miliband looking like Wallace from Wallace & Gromit (he’d apparently delivered a “monody” at the Labour conference – Ed, not Wallace), and general air of debilitating annoyance at finding himself on the programme in the first place made everything Self said sound alien – exactly what all the other panellists wanted.
As for the big showdown itself, it was both dull and absurd. Self alone had questioned the effectiveness and desirability of our war on terror. Then when everyone else was expressing how appalled they were by Labour high-rollers having slyly briefed against each other during the Gordon Brown era, Self mentioned how fellow panellist Michael Gove’s education department has been questioned over the use of private email and anonymous Twitter accounts. The author wondered aloud whether cheap back-stabbing is endemic in politics.
Interesting as it was to see Gove genuinely livid at these attacks on sacred institutions, the minister’s response was instructive. He accused Self of playing to the gallery in order to sell more books, which won a round of applause. Shortly after, Gove responded to Self by saying the audience would decide who was right, which won a round of applause from the same crowd who had just agreed that people shouldn’t play to the gallery. Gove knew he was on home turf. This grotty little man wasn’t going to get his dander up and get away with it. He didn’t know how to play the game.