Remembering the Bickershaw Festival, 50 years on – back in conversation with Chris Hewitt

With Glastonbury behind us for another year, give or take BBC iPlayer highlights, there’s still plenty to savour on the festival calendar, but in this feature I’ll head far further north and back 50 years, to one of the most influential outdoor music weekenders, when a host of happening acts descended upon a Lancashire mining village in 1972.

It was an event where 19-year-old John Mellor – soon restyled Woody, and later Joe Strummer – saw Captain Beefheart’s Saturday night headline slot as a lifelong inspiration, and where 17-year-old Declan MacManus – in time becoming Elvis Costello – felt The Grateful Dead’s Sunday night headlining set made him want to form a band. And it ultimately inspired Chris Hewitt to create the first of his legendary Deeply Vale Festivals in 1976.

Deeply Vale was memorably cited by veteran DJ/presenter Bob Harris as deserving its ‘place in rock history … the best loved and silliest rock festivals of all time.’ But proud as he is of that, Chris acknowledges he truly cut his teeth on the circuit volunteering for Bickershaw Festival, on a muddy site not far from Wigan.

And to mark that event’s golden anniversary, Chris has updated an expanded 2012 publication celebrating that May 5th/7th event, writing, compiling and honing an impressive A4-size paperback featuring lots of colourful detail, memories of the festival conveyed in words, rare photos, and ephemera.

When I spoke to Northwich, Cheshire-based Chris back in 2018 (with a link to that interview here), we focused on his triple-DVD/ hardback book combo put together to mark Deeply Vale’s 40th anniversary reunion, and his links with legendary broadcaster John Peel. And I mentioned to him first off this time that I saw this latest publication is ‘A Dandelion Records Book’, commemorating the label they were both involved with.

“Yeah, I managed the band Tractor around the same time I got involved with Bickershaw Festival, so also got to know (labelmates) Stackwaddy, Medicine Head, Bridget St John, and so on. And (more recently) I thought, nobody’s using the Dandelion Records name, so got permission from Peel to relaunch that label to issue new Stackwaddy and Kevin Coyne releases, and the Tractor archive.”

Among the book’s testimonials is one from the late Jeremy Beadle, who told Chris, ‘You have succeeded brilliantly. Like most people I’d forgotten just how awful and just how fantastic Bickershaw was.’

It was Jeremy Beadle who persuaded The Grateful Dead and a host of other West Coast US musicians plus some of the top UK rock acts to come to the unlikely setting of Naylor’s Farm, Bickershaw, in what provided Chris’ first hands-on involvement in outdoor music festival promotions – mostly selling tickets, handing out flyers, and putting up posters.

He was promoting music events at Rochdale College when a panicking Jeremy Beadle contacted him three weeks before the event, Chris one of several student union events officers around Manchester called upon to help, his experiences at Bickershaw seemingly inspiring him in a similar way to how 1969’s Bath Festival of Blues lit the touchpaper for Michael Eavis, sowing the seed for Glastonbury Festival.

Later generations recall Jeremy Beadle as a familiar face on UK television in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it turns out that Chris got to know the London-based TV and radio presenter, writer and producer better in later days.

“The first thing I did (for this project) was a Bickershaw DVD, and I was trying to get in touch before I released that. I didn’t manage that, but after its release I got a phone call one Sunday afternoon saying, ‘Can I order a copy?’ I asked for a name, and the caller replied, ‘Jeremy Beadle.’

“I’d actually left him a note at a theatre he was appearing at in Northwich, asking if he could contact me, but it never got to him. I did get to meet him while he was working as a compere at Ken Dodd’s testimonial at the Liverpool Empire though.  

“He said, ‘Let’s meet up in March next year, come down to my house and I’ll do my first film interview about Bickershaw since the festival.’ Sadly, he died that January (2008), four years before I finished the book. But I got quite a bit of info off him about the contract and the concessions, and he put me in touch with a guy who did all the artwork for the posters, Trevor Hatchett.”

The Bickershaw Festival Company was originally set up in an antiques warehouse in Salford by Peter J. Harris and Harry Cohen, aka Bilkus (or The Count, on account of his customary top hat and Dracula cloak get-up), a Wigan market trader – originally from London – who also had a pub in the village.

The pair were soon joined by Jeremy, who had headed north to edit Richard Branson’s Time Out North West, a regional spin-off of the renowned what’s on listings magazine, until a lack of advertising revenue saw it fold after six issues.

And despite initial suspicions about Peter Harris, he felt the concept had potential, and following assurance from the co-creator that most of the finance was in place, he took over planning the festival’s music and artistic side, bringing in the afore-mentioned Trevor Hatchett, a designer, for the artwork, and architect Ian McCittrick to design an ambitious stage structure.

However, three weeks before the event, Peter Harris was arrested for previous business dealings, and later imprisoned, Jeremy having by then booked an impressive array of acts only to discover there was no money to pay them.

The festival HQ soon shifted to nearby former pub, the Forresters Arms, which backed on to the site, and it was around then that Chris came on board.

“Jeremy was targeting all the colleges and universities for people to go to the festival, contacting social secretaries, saying you can have free admission if you help work on it, entice students at your college to come. That was when I got the phone call at the SU office at Rochdale College from Jeremy, asking if I could come and work on tickets and flyering, and I travelled down to Bickershaw to meet up with him.

“Discussing the finances of the festival with Jeremy in late 2007 he told me he had wanted to create what he envisaged as an English Woodstock, and although he was managing to achieve many of his objectives towards it, he was forever chasing Peter Harris for cheques for everything, including his own wages.

“To think Jeremy had a gargantuan commitment to pay artists and site contractors and was faced with his main financier/businessman going to jail with three weeks to go, it is testimony to Jeremy’s amazing ability and self-belief that the event was such an artistic success, given the weather and underlying financial problems.

“He later told me he had always, because of his fight to overcome his disability earlier in life and go into showbusiness, had a firm belief in backing the maverick outsiders of life, supporting crazy ideas. It was this self-belief – that he could create recreate Woodstock with West Coast American bands in a field halfway between Manchester and Liverpool – that saw the festival succeed artistically.

“And even though the Bickershaw stage – one of the largest seen in the UK in the early ‘70s – was eventually scaled down from Jeremy’s original idea, it did come into use at later large outdoor concerts.”

Chris goes into detail on the stage setup and how some of those plans were common practice by the time of Live Aid and other huge events more than a dozen years later, albeit with set designer having learned some of the lessons regarding wheeled platforms negotiating heavy mud, and about certain ‘open to the elements’ concerns.

“The roof was left virtually completely open to the elements – a lot of equipment used by The Grateful Dead and American bands was stepped down from 240 to 110 volts, so there was less risk of fatal electrocution in the rain, but there was still 240-volt equipment in use some of the time.”

Chris was six years Jeremy’s junior, ‘only 13 when the first buds of flower power started to grow in the UK.’ But this Oldham grammar school lad soon developed an interest in that scene, and by the dawn of the 1970s was reading the music press and a regular gig and folk club attendee, intrigued on seeing Woodstock: The Movie at the flicks in 1970, on the back of the previous year’s Monterey Pop film.

“West Coast rock fanatics who lived in the UK were itching to get a taste of US style rock festivals, sleeping under the stars and watching outdoors some of those great bands from across the Atlantic. Jeremy Beadle told me in 1972, a few weeks before Bickershaw, he had no experience in staging a rock festival and had never really attended one, but he found the maverick-like challenge of taking on all the responsibility too exciting a challenge to resist.

“I may have felt slightly similar organising Deeply Vale Festival for the first time in 1976, but by then had helped out with Bickershaw, a couple of festivals for Rochdale Council, and hundreds of indoor concerts.”

It seems Jeremy had not been paid since late January 1972, living off petty cash and the £125 he’d received in wages since December. And later there would be financial implications regarding all those who jumped or ripped down fences to gain entry to the festival, or were let in free or unofficially by corrupt security men, the event’s financiers never likely to get their investments back. However, Chris was truly inspired by Jeremy’s positive approach under pressure, and what he saw unfold on stage.

“My experiences helping him at Bickershaw in the run-up to the festival and spending three days taking in all the bands in damp muddy conditions was a great grounding for putting Deeply Vale together from its start in September 1976. I also spent August 1976 at Rivington Pike Free Festival, and that beautiful West Coast hippie vibe permeated that site for the two festivals there in 1976 and 1977.”

Peter Trollope, a Liverpool Echo junior reporter who attended, wrote straight after the event, ‘After three days of muddy glory, Bickershaw (population 1,200) near Wigan, today slipped back quietly to obscurity while organisers of the festival met to consider whether to hold another one.”

It was expected to take at least five weeks to dismantle the fences, stage and site, and clear the 150-acre site, a reported £40,000 loss and the suitability of the site for such a happening clearly issues in the post-event discussions taking place as – according to the Echo report – ‘thousands of fans started a mass exodus from the site … after the last group finished playing … the roads to and from the tiny village … packed with fans walking home.’

That reporter went on to television, Chris saying he ‘ended up quite high in the BBC and ITV.’

“Peter did current affairs investigation programmes. He was also very friendly with Philip Norman, both coming from Liverpool. I think he went from the Echo to Granada, then the BBC.”

In his report, we learn that Jeremy Beadle blamed ticket touts for the festival’s ‘financial failure’, estimating ’about 50,000 paying fans had been joined during the three-day festival by at least 20,000 fans who had got in for free.’

One attendee quoted in the book pointed out that if they took around £60,000 in gate receipts and tickets were £2.25 each, ‘even allowing for the traditional attendance exaggeration, it’s clear a lot of people didn’t pay their way in’ That commentator added, ‘People were coming in, getting a pass out, then flogging their ticket back to someone else for a knock-down price. Worse still, the event cost £120,000 to put on. They should have paid more attention in maths class. The blokes doing the gate were the usual ‘wolf in charge of the sheep pen’ chancers, reselling tickets back to people, trousering takings – and all done with not so much a smile, more the threat of a busted head.’

However, Peter Trollope reported that the villagers were happy enough, many having ‘made considerable profits by selling drinks and food to the fans,’ adding that ‘one shop owner said, ’I’d certainly welcome them back next time. They were well behaved kids, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.’

That was backed up by local police praise for fans’ behaviour, reporting ‘about 32’ drug charge arrests, although another publication intriguingly added that police ‘could not confirm the story that, during Saturday night, a farmer with a field near to the festival site had all his cows milked. ‘But,’ said a spokesman, ‘We wouldn’t be surprised.’

Several newspaper reports are included in Chris’ book, for a festival where as well as Friday night headliners Dr John and the afore-mentioned Captain Beefheart and The Grateful Dead, an impressive lineup also included The Kinks (one punter recalled they threw a piano off stage and were ‘a little bit stinky and a very bit pissed’), Donovan, Wishbone Ash, Linda Lewis, Hawkwind, Brinsley Schwarz, The Flamin’ Groovies, The Incredible String Band, Cheech and Chong, America, and Al Stewart.

Meanwhile, Kinks drummer Mick Avory’s recollections included those of a shared caravan with Swedish actress Britt Ekland, in that period between memorable roles in Get Carter! and The Wicker Man.

And as one contributor concluded, ‘There were just 32 drugs arrests, a few drunk and disorderlies, and 18 Hell’s Angels nicked for breach of the peace outside. The weather was disgusting and the site in all honesty was simply unsuitable. Nonetheless, Bickershaw was great for the region and begat the well-loved Deeply Vale festivals later in the decade. Best of all though were the two belting performances from the Cap’n and the Dead – inspirations that day to Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer, and millions before and since, and still.’

Some of the quotes within are attributed anonymously, often as ‘other people’s thoughts’. What was your source there, Chris?

“There was a guy called Paul Rowley who worked for BBC Radio, a Wigan Athletic reporter, later a reporter for the House of Commons and on the Levison inquiry. He was at the festival as a youngster, and on the 40th anniversary did a one-hour radio show, later updated for the 50th anniversary.”

You can find that interview via Northwich-based CH Vintage Audio’s website, www.chvintageaudio.uk, where Chris, described by BBC 6 Music as a ‘musical archaeologist’, also details his company’s sound system recreations for various film and television projects, and equipment supply, hiring out ‘60s and ‘70s sound equipment, having amassed an impressive collection down the years.

Recently involved in recreating authentic sets for Danny Boyle’s TV miniseries Pistol, based on Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir, his CV also includes work on 2019’s Elton John biopic, Rocketman, 2018’s Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, 2017 Morrissey drama England is Mine, and – coming next – Steve Coogan-fronted Jimmy Savile drama, The Reckoning, and action movie Fast & Furious 10, past projects also having included a rebuild of 10cc’s original Strawberry Studios in Stockport.

“For the Pistols thing, I had to go to Hammersmith Odeon, because the opening of the film shows Steve Jones breaking in at the end of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour, stealing their gear, cutting between original footage and my recreation of the stage set, with all the correct equipment.”

It’s been a busy career, Chris only 22 when he put on the first Deeply Vale festival, meaning he was barely 16 when he first booked bands at Rochdale College, and 18 when he got that call from Jeremy Beadle to help out at Bickershaw. And, now in in his late 60s, he’s clearly not slowing down.

“No, I’m speeding up!”

Incidentally, Chris has also published two volumes of his impressive The Development of Large Rock Sound Systems, another passion project.

“One covers the Isle of Wight and early Pink Floyd, and the next goes into the fact that last year we recreated the whole of the Pompeii PA here.”

That involved Floyd’s October ’71 Italian amphitheatre concert, filmed for a documentary film and released 11 months later, another 50th anniversary project.

“We should have gone out to Pompeii with the Australian Pink Floyd to do it, but because of Covid, it got scuppered, so we wanted to do something on the anniversary. I had all these pictures, and I’d just got Led Zeppelin’s old PA as well, so needed to do volume two. And I’m just starting on volume three now!”

Have you returned to Bickershaw in recent times?

“I’ve been back a few times. We were there a lot in 2012, and I’ve a friend in Leigh. It’s one of those where – because it was cold and damp that weekend – while all the sandwich companies on the site were making no money, the guy who owned the fish and chip shop stayed open and was able to buy himself a bungalow!”

I was wondering how recognisable the village would be today, with new housing developments and so on across the former coal belt area.

“That’s right, and seven years after Bickershaw, I did Leigh Festival, which featured Joy Division, The Teardrop Explodes, and everybody at Plank Lane. There was hardly anyone there, but it did become legendary.

“I did the stage, and was only a couple of miles over the soggy fields, full of subsidence and water. And they didn’t fence off any of the drainage ditches. There was that classic sign that said, ‘Danger – Crap in Water’, and people wanted to know if that was an instruction or a warning!”

For more details about Chris Hewitt’s Bickershaw Festival book’s 50th anniversary edition, and the two volumes of The Development of Large Rock Sound Systems, visit www.deeplyvale.com, heading to the music industry books section. Alternatively, call Chris on 07970 219701 or email hawkethos@gmail.com. You can also head to www.chvintageaudio.uk.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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