Live 8

Saturday, July 2, 2005 by

We’d been here before. An armoury of premier BBC faces entombed in a pod high above one of London’s most distinguished landmarks, each charged with the task of helming one of the longest live musical broadcasts ever seen on television, the mood one of bluff stoicism mixed with a gush of words and phrases that never quite did justice to the occasion, while somewhere far below the millions gathered to dance and sing their way into history.

But enough about David Dimbleby et al and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. This time round the pod’s deferential desk and chair set-up had been junked for a more tasteful arrangement of patterned sofas and low coffee tables. Giant upholstered cushions completed the scene, one of which supported the luminous suit of Jonathan Ross. The prospect of adding another dozen or so hours on telly to the three he’d just put in on Radio 2 registered barely a wrinkle on the man’s foppish brow. This was a once in a lifetime occasion (“Well, since the last one”). Besides, David had been in the pod on and off for 36 hours and never complained.

So it was time to forget the agreeably amateurish efforts of the old Whistle Test gang who’d been handed the job of piloting Live Aid two decades ago. Here, everything would be ultra-slick, ubër-professional and right out of the top drawer of the Beeb’s most illustrious in-house filing cabinet of celebrity.

Cut to Jo Whiley standing limp and lifeless backstage, desperately tugging at Elton John’s sleeve. “You’ll speak to Jonathan?” she coos to the back of the tonsorial troubadour’s head. Cut to Fearne Cotton cowering on the stage, gingerly clutching an amusingly large microphone. A large crowd can be clearly seen milling about behind her. “The crowd are here,” she notes, as if spotting them for the first time. She reckons they’ve come bearing “cheese sandwiches and tents”. Cut back to the pod where Jonathan and Elton clear their throats with a few bawdy in-jokes and the first bit of sniping of the day (“The press … so cynical … wouldn’t work”). And we were off!

Whatever your views of the cause – of Bob Geldof, of the Make Poverty History campaign or the calibre of bands taking part – Live 8 was always destined to be unequivocally memorable television. In this sense it was exactly like the Golden Jubilee, the General Election, even like the Eurovision Song Contest: all events with which you may feel absolutely zero affinity or sympathy, but which once married up with the small screen become occasions that demand to be watched. It’s all down to way TV can unleash moments of drama in such a fashion as to catch you off guard and leave you choked with emotion. You knew Live 8 was, by definition, always going to deliver something along these lines, something that reminded you of how TV is a peerless source of popular entertainment. Just what that something would turn out to be was, naturally, the most exciting aspect of the day.

The alternately bungling and bucolic efforts of our hosts to fill time between going on air at 1pm and the start of the concert at 2pm at least meant the “something” wasn’t going to show up straight away. Jo seemed more preoccupied in polishing up her enduringly unique style of interviewing, namely asking a guest a question only to interrupt with an anecdote about herself. She also essayed the first of what would be the most wearily recycled posers of the day: “How does it feel?” The fact it was aimed at U2′s guitarist, meaning she had to ask: “How does it feel, Edge?”, made it sound even more ludicrous. Meanwhile Fearne strolled around backstage pointing out everyone she recognised. This wasn’t enough. You wanted to sense the supposed mounting anticipation and apprehension yourself, not simply be told about it by, say, an itinerant Johnny Vaughan speaking – as ever – in bullet points.

Some good-natured jousting between Bob Geldof and Michael Buerk shifted attention back towards the point of the occasion, and also onto the not so fine line the BBC had to tread between treating Live 8 as an event to be reported and a cause to be promoted. The fact that this was a far more nakedly political affair than Live Aid was already making for moments that would’ve left less partisan viewers, and BBC executives, both squirming and fuming.

Indeed, right from the off, despite a pretence of neutrality, everyone from Jonathan downwards more or less threw their lot in with the campaigning element of proceedings. In a way the absence of a more simple, impartial message – send in your money – meant things had to be this way. But you did wonder how the endless challenges to the leaders of the G8 and displays of anti-government rabble-rousing could be defended to those licence fee payers who perhaps agreed with the motive but not the means to help Africa.

As if on cue Andrew Marr materialised in the pod looking dapper in casuals. Cutting loose with a bit of street talk – “It’s gonna talk deals, right, helping is fantastic” – he made the first of a number of valiant attempts to add some perspective to the day only to instantly undercut Live 8′s reason for existence. As the concert wore on, this would make for an increasingly awkward jarring of moods. We’d see someone on stage rallying the crowd with the charge that anything was possible, only for Andrew or one of his BBC News colleagues to subsequently pop up and declare that it wasn’t.

This, plus the fact there was nothing tangible to point to as evidence of the day’s success (aside from the number of people who’d signed an online petition, which we were all occasionally but never explicitly encouraged to do), ended up wrapping the entire broadcast in a thin cloud of unreality. Yet this only seemed to make Jonathan more prone to talking up the activist side of Live 8, as if desperate to convince viewers that what we were seeing was not simply a bit of entertaining song and dance. It couldn’t help but feel just a bit of a muddle. We could make poverty history, but then again we might not, so there’s this petition on a website which is kind of relevant, but in the meantime here’s a few words from Ricky Gervais.

Given all this, not least the latter, it was a welcome relief when the music actually started. Here was where you were immediately reminded of the Beeb’s expert handling of the staging and filming of seminal live events, and at last you began to get a handle on the significance of what was taking place, the volume of the crowd, and the intensity of the atmosphere.

It’ll be the edited highlights of the concert that will get remembered, of course, in the same way the “best bits” of Live Aid discount the numerous lengthy pauses, the trivial technical slip-ups, and the endless interludes spent in the company of presenters and erratically garrulous guests. Hence Jonathan’s bungled overture to Live 8, which he tried to begin two times before receiving the green light, will forever be remembered as going out precisely at “two o’clock” rather than a few minutes past (as a cheeky cutaway to Big Ben proved). Similarly Paul McCartney’s opening duet with U2, which sounded not just rusty but rather ropey, will assuredly live on endlessly in a spruced-up, properly audible and suitably regal version.

Nevertheless, of the audience watching at home, surely only those without any heart would claim they weren’t moved in some small way at some point by what they saw on their TV set during the ensuing 10 hours. And there were plentiful moments of high emotion and catharsis if you wanted them, some probably working better on television than in Hyde Park. U2′s release of several dozen white doves from the stage; Bob Geldof’s shameless solo stab at I Don’t Like Mondays; a tiny Annie Lennox singing Why? dwarfed by a sequence of images of young African AIDS victims; Madonna’s meticulously choreographed hoofing; Robbie Williams’s similarly calculated derring-do; Pink Floyd’s stately last waltz – all these felt as if they gained something from being reduced for the small screen and then repackaged for the world at large.

Other times the cameras acted like a petulant magnifying glass, illuminating the foibles of Mariah Carey and her ubiquitous throng of rent-a-kids (who even accompanied her back on stage for the finale), the way that bloke from Keane always treats his piano like it’s something to be bashed and beaten up rather than played, and the demented preening of many a fledgling rock band that might suit the open air but can’t help but look like amateur pantomime on telly.

Back in his pod, Jonathan orchestrated the cavalcade a bit like an old-style Communist leader, switching wildly between calculated brinkmanship and cautious benevolence. Dido and Youssou N’Dour’s attempt at 7 Seconds was accordingly dismissed in a sentence (“They went on a bit at the end”), while Travis were smooched with indulgent teasing (“Are you going to let any birds loose during your act?”), Kofi Annan’s half minute in the spotlight was batted away (“I hope he had a ticket”) while Snoop Dogg’s assault of profanity (“Put your mother-fucking hands in the air! Put your mother-fucking hands in the air!”) was tackled not with an apology but a breezy: “Well, they say dogs should often be kept on a leash; that’s what happens when you let one off.” Indeed, as a predilection for extreme swearing was continued by other acts, Jonathan and the BBC gave up trying to apologise and simply made no reference to it. More grist to the mill of the naysayers, no doubt, but they’d probably switched off by that point anyway.

Even the host’s formal set piece interviews eventually began to sound like the absent-minded mutterings of an ageing Cold War apparatchik, as he recited the same questions time and again (“What’s been your highlight so far?”; “Who are you looking forward to seeing?”; “Tell me what the atmosphere is like”) with ever-increasing tetchiness and ever-diminishing returns. When he brought his family on to wave at the camera and to receive the nation’s felicitations, the transformation into tinpot overlord was nigh on complete. In fact he, Jo and Fearne were all guilty of a singular lack of inspiration when it came to quizzing Live 8′s participants, and you could only wish more BBC faces had been on hand to pilot proceedings with a deal more charm and imagination. Then again, those on the other end of the microphones didn’t have that much to say either, mostly choosing between “You never say no to Bob” and “The press – they’re so cynical”. It was a reminder that pop stars aren’t in this business to speak and preach and develop cleverly constructed political argument. They’re paid to sing, perform, then get off the stage.

If only the likes of Razorlight and Velvet Revolver had taken these points, especially the last one, to heart. Those bands which did play longer than their allotted time couldn’t help but come over on TV as being more than a little selfish. Indeed there seemed to be a hell of a lot less professional stagecraft on display than 20 years ago. A few basic rules appeared to have been forgotten. On these sorts of occasions we don’t want to hear “a new song” (The Scissor Sisters) or see an undignified display of shirt-ripping (Razorlight again) or “a very special guest” who turns out to be crap (Elton John with Pete Docherty) or nameless acoustic noodlings (The Stereophonics). Just give us the hits, don’t over-run, and leave the polemics to those who seem to know what they’re talking about, like, yes, Bob Geldof, or Kofi Annan.

Or even Will Smith. The one-time heir apparent of Bel-Air rustled up the greatest TV moment of the day just after 5pm when he launched America’s Live 8 in Philadelphia. Sharing the stage with an impressively framed copy of the American Declaration of Independence (it had its own bodyguards!), he began by co-ordinating nothing less than a global equivalent of the passing-the-chocolate-cake routine from Nationwide as, starting with Philadelphia, he led each of the Live 8 concert audiences in the sending of greetings onto their nearest neighbouring venue. As the camera flicked effortlessly from the US to the UK and on round Europe, for the first time you got a sense of the real magnitude of what was going on. Of all the day’s unexpected moments of unashamed melodrama and spine-tingling emotion, this took first prize.

But Will wasn’t done yet. He went on to give us all an articulate lesson in “interdependence”, persuaded the world to join him in clicking its fingers every three seconds to mark the rate at which people are presently dying in Africa, and later as a finale knocked off a fine rendition of his greatest song, the ace Summertime. Nobody on this side of the Atlantic came as close as him to summing up the universal nature of the occasion. Although Peter Kay probably succeeded in uniting a fairly similar number of folk in disbelief at his toe-curlingly embarrassing school assembly-esque singalong.

By the time coverage switched from BBC2 to BBC1 (just in time for Snoop Dogg to announce “drop that shit”), things were running about 90 minutes late. They ended up two and a half hours behind schedule, prompting rather desperate pleas from promoter Harvey Goldsmith to “take your time” in leaving the premises. It was somehow typical that while Philadelphia had the smooth stylings of wordsmith Will Smith to guide them through the day, we had bumbling old Harvey, who got the date wrong, uttered the immortal phrase “Everybody happy? Well this’ll make you happier – it’s Keane!” and was eventually usurped by, of all people, David Beckham. The footballer’s attempt to introduce Robbie Williams was itself a masterstroke of miscasting, as the man’s sentences got steadily slower until he actually stopped speaking and just stood blinking helplessly, unable to open his mouth.

More effusive turns on the microphone from the likes of Lenny Henry and Dawn French brought back memories of Smith and Jones’s appearance at Live Aid, and at times such continuity was laid on with a trowel. This was none more evident than when Drive by The Cars struck up, backed by the same topical footage as in 1985. It was about the only time we got to see what the audience were being made to watch between the acts, a state of affairs that won’t have pleased Coldplay’s Chris Martin (“If the BBC’s doing its job properly it should show this film” he grumbled to the world) but which undoubtedly avoided muddying already pretty murky editorial waters.

Paul McCartney’s return to the stage for the finale summoned up still more recollections of two decades ago, though in 1985 at least there was some vague sense of accomplishment as the curtain came down. Given there was no concrete sum towards which Live 8 had been working – no grand total to announce, no target amount to have reached – there was no equivalent feeling of closure this time. Echoes of Andrew Marr’s cautionary edicts continued to haunt us even in the face of Macca wigging out with Mariah Carey’s kindergarten on Hey Jude. Yet Jonathan wasn’t bothered – he’d “had worse days in Hyde Park”. Jo Whiley was more concerned with watching The Kaiser Chiefs in Philadelphia. Fearne Cotton just giggled, ditched her microphone and began clutching a wine glass instead. It was time to switch off.

Whatever happens as a consequence of Live 8, chances are there won’t be quite so much rose-tinted reminiscence 20 years on from this date. After all, it’s probably hard to wax nostalgically about a TV event that, for all its glorious hue and cry, had no to cheque to sign off, no rabbit to pull out of a hat, not even a punchline. But that’s not the BBC’s fault. When you’re faced with covering a giant charity do that might feasibly not achieve anything at all, and which is purporting to raise not cash but consciousness, getting the cameras to point in the right direction is more than enough. Especially when they’re recording one of the greatest television spectacles ever.


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