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Interview with Mike Connelly about Jazz Britannia April 25, 2010

Posted by wallofsound in British Jazz.

Some weeks ago I interviewed Mike Connelly who was producer and co-director of Jazz Britannia. This UK-produced television documentary is described by the British Broadcasting Corporation as ‘a three-part landmark series charting the development of jazz in Britain – a musical journey which also reflects the enormous social changes of the post-war period’ (BBC 2005). The programme utilises an impressive wealth of archival material – clips from film, television and radio, still images, press cuttings, LP covers – as well as many original interviews with jazz musicians and critics, all organized into a chronological account narrated by British actor Terence Stamp. The interview was part of research on the series and I was primarily interested in finding out about the development of the programme and how Mike articulated its aims and achievements. he was particularly generous with his time, and even after judicious editing there is still enough audio for three short programmes.

This post contains the edited audio of the first third of the interview. Mike basically covers the origin of the series, including the influence of Gilles Peterson’s Impressed CDs and the importance of BBC4, the thrust of the story, his take on Ken Burns’ Jazz and his reasons for selecting Stan Tracey’s Under Milkwood as a key moment in the series narrative. You can access specific points in the interview by identifying the topics in my comments just below the audio wave.

Here’s a written summary of Mike’s points containing links so you can get at background you may not be familiar with.

In this interview Mike starts by explaining how the idea for the series developed. He remembers discussions with Mark Cooper (the series’ co-producer) stimulated by John Akomfrah’s 2006 programme Stan Tracey: Godfather of British jazz leading to the question: could we make a series about British Jazz? They discussed how one could tell the story and what archives they should use? And then Mike set to write the script for the series with Ben Whalley over a six-month period.

Mike notes that these discussions coincided with the release of Gilles Peterson’s ‘Impressed’ CD series of British Jazz from the 1960s: “that was really interesting .. the spur that was saying ‘we weren’t alone’ .. we were able to piggyback on that a bit.” Once they secured the commission Mike involved Tony Higgins (who wrote liner notes and programmed the Impressed releases).

Mike locates the Jazz Britannia series in two important developments within the BBC at the time: The increased utilisation of the BBC’s archives, and producing programmes which re-assess received history. He explains these in terms of the development of the project coinciding with the appointment of Janice Hadlow in July 2004 as Controller of BBC Four with a background including history and archives [Head of History Department, Reputations], and cultural television [The Late Show]. For Mike, this marked a period when archives became important for the BBC, first in theme nights when old programmes were re-broadcast around, and then utilised and reflected on in making new programmes.

“We have this vision; we have this history of post-war Britain and its very familiar, and we know the archive, and we know the narrative, we have a narrative in our heads that’s attached to pictures and the thing about the Britannia series which I was adamant about: was that we could go through the ‘short-hand’ that we have, so for instance we could go through those images and that story, but told from another perspective: so, they walked the same streets in swinging London, a community or a group, but they didn’t have the experience that we see on television. That wasn’t their experience. I thought that as kind of interesting way of approaching it.”

“The whole Britannia thing was that you take an outsider culture (which is what jazz was) set against what we believe to be the narrative of recent history, and particularly the television narrative, because it’s all these pictures that we think [of as the history], and that’s what I find interesting. And it’s a great story anyway.”

The producers pieced the history together from the records, only using published histories “’magpied’ them together”. Maybe Godbolt, probably Ian Carr. The history was broad stroke, quite simple, made more intricate by the interviews.

Mike didn’t like the Ken Burns Jazz documentary. For Mike, Buns didn’t know very much about jazz and by recruiting Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch the documentary was fixed to one line of argument. “There has to be more voices” states Mike. He also takes issue (siding with jazz fans) with the assumption at the centre of the series that “after a certain point in the late 1960s that was it; that was the end of jazz.” However, Mike doesn’t see Jazz Britannia (with its strong emphasis on 1960s jazz) as a counter argument to Burns’ series. He argues “what we didn’t want to do – although I think we did, we fell into the trap – (of making) big claims for British jazz, but we didn’t want to constantly go back, there are markers to give context, but we didn’t want to constantly go back and forwards … to make comparisons with American jazz … It was a different story, I always felt.” The archive was stunning.

He also explained how they decided on the turning points. He is openly thoughtful, trying to recall why those were moments were selected. He identifies them as emerging from “from the story”. This is one of the moments of ambiguity in his account, because he brings forth both the idea of a narrative – the battle between trad and the moderns is his example – and he re-emphasises the importance of records as building blocks.

He agrees with me that the programme gives a key place to Under Milkwood. He references an accepted cannon – “it was a key record anyway” – but he also highlights Tracey’s involvement (presumably as pianist at Ronnie Scott’s) in the moment in UK jazz cultural history in which the ban on US artists was loosened, and finally that the record was based upon the work of a Welsh poet “somehow seemed to take us to the second part of the story; it was a spring broad into the Impressed generation”.

Mike accepts that he hadn’t been aware of most of the music on the Impressed compilations, and he discusses the extent to which he was influenced in structuring the programme by the compilations and subsequent re-releases of 1960s jazz.

Part Two of the interview follows soon.



1. hollowmenfilm - July 13, 2010

I’m dying to see this series but can’t find it on DVD anywhere. Any info on where to find it?

2. wallofsound - July 19, 2010

As far as I am aware it isn’t on DVD. The BBC repeats it every now and then.

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