Even his sternest critics will find it hard not to feel sympathy for Mike Harding, seemingly sacked from presenting the country’s flagship folk (and let’s not forget roots and acoustic music) show after 15 years in one phone call from a boss he’d never met. On the face of it, this sounds like unbelievably brutal treatment, however fulsome (and presumably insincere), the tribute to him from Radio 2 overlord Bob Shennan, when he announced Harding’s imminent replacement from his Wednesday evening slot by Mark Radcliffe.
As Mike has been quick to point out in his understandably vitriolic response to the axe, the audience for his show has grown from just under 100,000 to just under a million since he took it over in 1997 when – if memory serves correctly – Ralph McTell was hot favourite to get the gig. Like one of his predecessors, another comedian/singer Tony Capstick, he initially sounded awkward and unnatural within the confines of a broadcast format, but gradually created a style that must now feel to those loyal listeners currently firing off angry letters of protest like a reassuringly comfy pair of slippers.
“They have sold the folk world down the river,” says Mike and he might be right, though it would be wrong to pre-judge what Mark Radcliffe might or might not bring to the table. If anything, Bob Shennan’s controversial decision may even be a consequence of Harding’s own success on the show, reflecting the ever-broadening popularity of the genre. Instituted by Harding and the Smooth Operations team, the Folk Awards (to be held in a slightly re-modelled format in Glasgow in 2013) coincided with the surge of a new generation of outstanding musicians, which collectively helped raise the profile of the music to unprecedented levels. It may be a sign of the times that the suits now consider folk a serious enough hitter to warrant the wider and younger profile potentially accorded by a former presenter of the Radio 1 breakfast show.
Mike is a product of the early folk club scene, who rode the wave of comedians which helped sweep the likes of Jasper Carrott and Billy Connolly to household name status, while also being a more than decent string musician well versed in traditional song. Fay Hield located The Old ‘Arris Mill – one of the stand-out tracks on her new album Orfeo – from The Mike Harding Collection Of Folk Songs Of Lancashire and while his one novelty hit Rochdale Cowboy is always brought up in these sort of dispatches, he’s also written some strong serious material like Bombers Moon. Not everyone’s cup of loganberry juice for sure, but he’s completely immersed in the culture of folk music…perhaps too immersed for the new all-purpose crossover ideal of Bob Shennan’s view of folk music.
The content on this week’s Mike Harding Show ranged from Bob Dylan, Saw Doctors and Kate Rusby (with Paul Weller) to three Bellowhead tracks (including an interview) and the relatively little-known Gadarene, Pilgrims Way, Heidi Talbot, Scots Gaelic singer Kathleen Macinnes and the wonderful young Yorkshire singer Stephanie Hladowski, with guitarist CJ Joynes. A juggling act, for sure, but not a bad mix of old and new, familiar and obscure, specialist and non-specialist. When you consider the various budget cuts along the way that have prevented the inclusion, among other things, of live sessions, he’s done a decent job appeasing the natives.
Mike Harding will be OK. The cartoon image of buffoonery some still hang on him is a misleading remnant of his old comedy act and belies a proud and serious man of many talents: political observer, playwright, rambler, cook, author, historian and storyteller, as well as singer, musician and broadcaster. I see him sometimes in Connemara where Mike has a house and a studio which he effectively built himself and he’s often to be found in the pubs playing banjo and mandolin in informal sessions with local musicians. He will, I predict, re-emerge on BBC radio in one shape or form at some point down the line.
Meanwhile, a fresh barrage of ‘we’re-all-doomed’ hand-wringing will greet Radcliffe’s first folk programme in the New Year. His 6 Music shows with Stuart Maconie occasionally offer a generous nod to the folk idiom (a while back they devoted a large segment of the show to a vinyl reissue of Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs) and he’s a regular at Cambridge Folk Festivals; but while he undoubtedly has genuine affection for the music, it’s not intrinsically in his blood, whatever the official press releases say. Stephen Fry’s famous entrance at the Folk Awards a few years ago with the booming tongue-in-cheek claim “Ladies and gentlemen, folk, roots and acoustic music is…my life…” springs to mind.
Who knows? It may all turn out for the good. Radcliffe is an outstanding broadcaster with a ready wit and an easy microphone manner and after 15 years maybe a format shake-up is justified and necessary and the show will be rejuvenated by a fresh eye yielding new discoveries and alternative angles. Yet the overriding fear is that the change is simply emblematic of a homogenisation of broadcast music where the edges get blurred, the show begins to be overrun by the likes of Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes which the general public are then deluded into believing represents the genre and the grass roots, most hard core, challenging and interesting part of it tumble unnoticed off the cliff.
When Mike Harding interviewed me on his show a few years ago about my book In Search Of The Craic and asked me to suggest some likely illustrative music, I half-jokingly offered up the name Margaret Barry. If anyone was going to scare the children and frighten the cosy Radio 2 listeners on a quiet Wednesday evening, it was going to be the long-dead undisciplined Irish street singer with the wild voice and the wayward banjo and I didn’t imagine for a second they’d go for it. But Mike and then producer John Leonard didn’t bat an eyelid and when the programme was aired there was Margaret in all her rampaging glory sounding…extraordinary. And as far as I’m aware Broadcasting House didn’t crumble in the process.
Will Mark Radcliffe play Margaret Barry? Has Mark Radcliffe ever heard of Margaret Barry? I somehow doubt it…
Irwin was an assistant editor of Melody Maker in the 1970s and 1980s, before leaving in the summer of 1987 as the magazine moved in a different direction, and editor of Number One magazine in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
His book In Search of the Craic details a comic journey around Ireland seeking out pub music sessions and became a best-seller in Ireland. Subsequent books were In Search Of Albion, a similarly light-hearted journey around English traditions and rituals and Sing When You're Winning, about the history and culture of terrace songs at football matches.
He's also reviewed music for The Guardian, Mojo, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and fRoots and has been a Mercury Music Prize judge.