“Hello”, I said, upon answering the phone.
“Hello” came Phill’s response, which I think was a little bit unimaginative and lazy of him, as he’d merely copied exactly what I’d just said; but that’s just typical Phill. However, there was nothing unimaginative or lazy about what followed. “I’ve got the perfect opportunity for you” he said.
He informed me that the presenter and documentary maker Danny Robins had tweeted to say that he was looking for musicians in York who know about witches and are available tonight to take part in a BBC documentary.
Phill stopped talking. I waited for him to continue, and explain where I fitted in to all this. But he didn’t continue, and so I broke the silence.
“So how exactly is this a perfect opportunity for me?” I asked.
“Because it’s a BBC documentary. It’s exposure. You need to do it”.
“Yes but he wants musicians who are in York tonight. I am not in York. He wants a musician who knows about witches. I don’t know anything about witches. I’ve read Harry Potter, but that hardly makes me qualified on the subject”. But Phill didn’t seem to see any of this as a problem.
“Well I’ve tweeted Danny back to say that you are the perfect person for the job. You need to do this. It’s exposure”.
But hugely embarrassing myself, spouting made-up bollix about witches wasn’t quite the kind of exposure I’d been aiming for. What Jimmy Savile got three weeks ago on ITV was “exposure”. Not all exposure is positive.
At that moment I received an alert from Twitter informing me that someone had messaged me. It was Danny Robins. He wanted to know if I was in York tonight and if he could give me a call to discuss the documentary. Give me a call? But I knew nothing about witches. What the hell had Phill told him about me? He was obviously under the impression I was the man for the job.
I tweeted Danny back, informing him that I wasn’t in York tonight. I wished him luck with his documentary, then closed Twitter and thought no more about it. Until about thirty seconds later, when curiosity got the better of me, and I decided that I could at least speak to him and find out more. I Tweeted him again, saying that actually I might be able to be in York tonight and that he could give me a call if he wanted. The phone rang about a minute later, and it was Danny.
I’ll gloss over the first minute or so of our conversation, as it was merely the standard exchange of pleasantries. If however you are interested in this particular portion of the phone call, then you might want to buy the DVD version of this blog, and check out the deleted scenes.
After a while the conversation naturally turned to witches, as so often happens. He informed me that his original plans had fallen through and that he’d lost the musicians he had booked for the show. I made a joke about him and his show being cursed, which was obviously a hilarious comment because he was doing a show about witches. He laughed, though frankly not nearly as long or as hard as he should have done given the quality of the joke. I think I detected jealousy in the laugh. He was probably upset that I’d come up with such an amazing joke before he had. It was currently 1 nil to me in the comedy game, and I think he knew it, and he was meant to be a professional.
I was feeling a little bit sorry for him. After all, he had just been left in the lurch by some witch loving musicians, and if you’ve ever been left in the lurch by some witch loving musicians then you’ll know that it’s not a nice feeling. Plus, I was feeling a bit guilty for joking about his situation. In addition to this, I was starting to get quite excited at the prospect of taking part in the documentary.
“The plan was that we would stand on Hob Moor in York”, explained Danny. “I’d ask the musicians to play and maybe chant to summon evil spirits. They would also maybe sing a song about witches, and I’ve got a song that I wanted them to join in with too called kill your dog for Satan.
There was now no way I could not take part in this documentary. It was too surreal to deny. I told him not to worry.
“I am a folk singer,” I informed him, “I know loads of folk songs about witches, I play the accordion, and I can get to York in under two hours”.
He sounded utterly relieved and profusely thanked me for stepping in at such short notice. If only he knew what a giant step that was. If I was going to make it to York in under two hours then I had to be out of the house in under fifteen minutes. But before I could leave the house, I had to find a folk song about witches, because as I’d mentioned earlier, I didn’t know any songs about witches. I know what I’d said to Danny—that I knew loads of folk songs about witches—but I had felt sorry that he’d been left in the lurch so near to the recording time, and I was getting excited by the prospect of spontaneously taking part in this crazy-sounding documentary, and I just got a bit carried away.
After ten minutes of frantic Googling I eventually found something that I thought would work. But I had to be out of the house in five minutes. I didn’t have time to learn the song now; I would have to learn the words on the train.
I saved the words to a memory stick and closed down my laptop. I put my shoes on and made to leave the house. But then I realised that I had forgotten something vitally important. There was one key ingredient of the song missing, that I really could do with knowing, if I was going to sing it on the BBC: what about the tune? How did the tune go?
I quickly rebooted my laptop. I then did two minutes of frantic youtubing (which is actually much more intensive than ten minutes of frantic googling). I had no idea whether the song would even be on Youtube. Fortunately I managed to find a home recorded version of someone singing the song. I clicked on it, praying that it would be good enough to give me a semblance of an idea about the tune.
After one verse into the song, I heard the sound of the taxi outside beeping it’s horn (well it was presumably the taxi driver beeping the horn, but you know what I mean. This really isn’t the time to get pedantic with me, can’t you see I’m stressed?).
I listened to the second verse which had exactly the same tune as the first verse. I decided that I would just have to assume that all the verses of the song had the same tune, because I really didn’t have time to stick around and listen to all ten verses. Hang on, ten verses? How the hell was I going to learn ten verses in less than an hour? But I didn’t have time to worry about that now; I really needed to get in the taxi and to the train station, otherwise I wouldn’t make the train, and all this would be completely academic.
I grabbed my phone, loaded the voice memos app and pressed record. As I gathered my coat and bag and made my way down stairs and out of the house, I hurriedly hummed the tune into my phone.
I got into the taxi and headed towards the train station, praying that there wouldn’t be too much traffic on the road. The train was due in less than ten minutes. I couldn’t afford to be held up in a traffic jam or by a series of red lights. Fortunately, the curse that had affected Danny Robins hadn’t yet affected me. Though I’m sure the witches would have much more fun watching me standing on Hob moor, fruitlessly trying to remember the words and tune to an unlearnt song.
The fare came to just over £7. I thrust a tenner into his hands. I didn’t have time to wait for the change. “Keep the change” I shouted, “must dash, I’ve got spirits to evoke”.
I ran into the train station. I realised that in order to make the train, I would have to make a second financial sacrifice. Normally I would head to the ticket office before getting on the train, because I can save a third on the price of the fare with my rail card. However, they tend not to accept rail cards if you purchase your ticket on the train. But needs must; songs about killing dogs for Satan aren’t going to sing themselves. I didn’t have time to go to the ticket office. I barely had time to actually catch the train, but fortunately I made it with seconds to spare.
I reached a seat and sat down. I gave
a small sigh of relief. So, I had found a folk song about a witch, I had the lyrics on my memory stick and the tune hummed on to my phone. Now all I had to do was learn the damn thing.
But then a thought struck me: I had been so preoccupied with finding a song about witches and getting to the train on time, that I’d never even considered what I was going to do after I’d recorded the documentary. By the time I’d finished the recording, I would have missed the last train back to Newcastle. It was already eight o’clock. Danny had been put up in a hotel by the BBC. Would I end up having to ask Danny Robins if I could spend the night with him? Perhaps he’d think that I’d agreed to take part in this documentary because I thought that there’d be sex with him at the end of it. Maybe this is how the witches’ curse would manifest, with me and Danny Robins engaging in a mutually-undesired act of sexual intercourse with each other, just because of a silly misinterpretation. Both of us would probably be too British to say no. Well I would have to save us both this tragic fate and find alternative accommodation.
I called my friend Ben who lives in York. He answer the phone with a hello. I reciprocated also with a hello. Normally I’d be a bit more creative but there really wasn’t time to worry about that.
“I know it’s a bit short notice but can I stay at yours tonight?” I said. Fortunately, The answer to this was yes. “;And would you like to stand on Hob Moor with me, Danny Robin’s and a witch expert, as I sing a folk song that I don’t know and haven’t learnt yet about witches. And before you say no, I’ll also be playing my accordion to evoke evil spirits and singing a song about killing dogs for Satan”. To which Ben said yes. Well actually he sounded completely confused and tried to ask questions, but I told him that I didn’t have any time to talk further right now, and that I really needed just a yes or no. We arranged to meet at the train station in three quarters of an hour.
I texted Danny to let him know that I was on the train and would be with him soon. I then settled myself down to learn this folk song.
But then another thought struck me: I had no idea about the song that I was learning other than the title and who sang it. It was a folk song, so there was probably a whole story surrounding the song. If I was asked to talk about the song, then I would have to have some idea as to where the song came from and when it was written, and so on. I had made it out to Danny that I was an aficionado of witch-based folk songs. But how could I learn the song and research the song in forty minutes? I couldn’t. For a start the Internet reception on the train would be terrible. I decided that someone else would have to be implicated into this project, and so I called upon the services of fellow Young’un Sean Cooney.
I tried to explain the situation to Sean as quickly as I possibly could, although this obviously made him immensely confused.
But there wasn’t time for elaboration. For now, Sean would have to contend with the bare basics: that in an hour’s time I was singing a folk song about a witch that I hadn’t learnt yet for a BBC6Music documentary, and could he please do some research about the song that I could digest ready for the interview?” Sean rose to the challenge as only a Young’un could, and over the course of my train journey, while I hastily attempted to learn the lyrics, Sean supplied me with text messages containing facts about the song.
Due to the paucity of information available about the song, some of it contradictory, I was getting fragmented bits of information coming through. I’d then get another message later telling me that the fact in the last message was not really true but merely conjecture from people on Internet forums. For instance, my frantic Googling back at home had brought up a song called Witch of the Westmoreland by the Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers. I then found the song on YouTube, and it again said that it was by Stan Rogers. But now I was getting texts from Sean telling me that the song was actually written by the Scottish folk singer Archie Fisher, and appeared to be called Witch of the Westmerlands. However the song had been covered a number of times by different artists and the name of the song varied. I decided to sing Witch of the Westmoreland, since singing Westmerlands would probably require me to sing it in more of a Scottish accent, and I had enough to contend with as it was without trying to sing in a different accent as well.
I soon realised that the song in its entirety would be far too long to sing. It would take about five minutes if I sang it all the way through, and I couldn’t really imagine them spending five minutes of the documentary on one song as the documentary was only an hour long. I managed to redact the lyrics in a way that still meant the song made sense, by taking out a few of the more incidental verses. Sorry to Archie Fisher, but needs must; I hope he’d understand. They’ll probably remove even more verses in the editing stage.
“We are now arriving at York station”, came the announcement. He then reminded us to take all of our personal belongings with us, although I couldn’t help feeling that I’d left my sanity behind me in Newcastle.
The train journey was over. My head was full of disparate, hastily cobbled together facts about the song. But I had completely failed to learn the words. The challenge had been too much for me. I’d kind of learnt the song in a jumbled up way, but I wouldn’t be able to sing it properly, certainly not under the pressure of the situation.
I decided that I would have to sing the song unaccompanied. Not playing the accordion would free up my hands to read the lyrics from my Braille note taker. I would have to read the words rather than doing it from memory. This would somewhat undermine my position as witch-based-folk-song expert, but desperate times called for desperate measures. And anyway, the listeners wouldn’t know I was reading the words. Perhaps it was for the best that I didn’t accompany myself on the accordion, after all, I hadn’t actually ever played the song before.
Ben and I drove to the address that Danny had given us, which was for the house of the witch expert Gavin Baddeley.
It turned out that Gavin is actually a genuine witch expert. He had actually written books about witches, and had researched the subject extensively. He also writes about witches and dark magic for newspapers and magazines, and has talked about the subject on other radio and television programmes. He hadn’t merely hastily learnt some witch facts from Wikipedia (or wiccapedia, which is similar but more witch-based) five minutes before the recording of the documentary.
According to his website: “Badeley was made an honorary priest by the 20th century’s leading Satanist, San Francisco’s ‘Black Pope’ Anton LaVey”.
Gavin’s house told the story. It was decorated in a gothic style, and was crammed with shelves full of books on witches. He had a black cat called Mort. It was obvious that he was in to witches. We also met his wife. This is just an incidental fact, and has nothing to do with proving that he was in to witches; although come to think of it, she was flying around the room on a broom stick and cackling quite a bit.
One of the reasons I love radio is because unlike TV, one man can go out with a digital recorder and make a radio programme. No cameras and camera men or directors needed, just one man and a digital recorder. However, not having the budget or the resources afforded to TV also has its downside. Danny was delighted to see Ben. The reason for this was because he had a car, which was something that Danny didn’t have, and so Ben also became an integral part of the arrangement, as we needed to get to Hob Moor, and there wasn’t enough room on the broom stick for all of us. So in less than two hours, Ben and I had saved the day: I had brought the evil-spirit-evoking accordion and the witch music, and Ben had brought the transportation. Surely, this now means that the BBC owe me a little favour. I await the call.
But just as we made to leave for Hob Moor, the rain came down. Ah, of course, the rain. So that was the curse. A bit simplistic and predictable but nonetheless effective. We couldn’t record in the rain because the digital recorder would get wet and interfere with the recording. However, it appeared that the rain was probably a completely natural occurrence and not the result of a witch’s curse because after ten minutes the rain stopped, allowing us to make our course to Hob Moor.
The car journey will also be a feature of the deleted scenes section, but we shall now skip straight to Hob Moor.
Danny asked me to play some haunting music on my accordion for him to use as a musical backdrop. I find it a lot easier in these situations to actually just make up a tune rather than trying to play a real tune. It also means that I can’t really make any mistakes, because the tune had never existed before that point.
Danny then did an interview with me, asking me questions about the relationship between witches and the supernatural and folk music. I had been so focused on learning the song and facts about the song, that I’d not considered that he might ask me broader questions about folk music and witchcraft.
Fortunately I am not completely alien to the concept of blagging and believe I have developed some reasonably useful techniques over the years. In fact, I’m thinking of writing a book on the subject: the Blagger’s Guide to Blagging.
My basic principles of successful blagging include: 1. Talk and act like an expert. Think about the way experts talk. Take David Attenborough for instance. Think about how he intonates, inflects, think about the meter of his voice, the way he will pick out certain words and say them with more force and intensity. Or Stephen Fry: Think about what he does with his voice that makes you believe he knows what he’s saying. His phrases are deliberate, decisive, precise; he stresses key words, and employs a wide vocabulary. So basically, my top tip for blagging is to simply sound like an expert. And try not to not sound like an expert. In other words, what do Stephen Fry and David Attenborough not do? They don’t do long “ums” and “ers”, they don’t use indefinite, weak phrases like “let me think” or “I’m not sure exactly …”.
My second top tip for successful blagging is to talk very generally about the subject while giving the impression that you’re not just talking generally about the subject. So, At one point he asked me whether accordions had existed four hundred years ago, and using these blagging techniques, I was able to busk a response: “well Danny, yes and no. There would have certainly been less complex predecessors of the instrument we have before us today, but these instruments would have been more primitive and lack the sophistication of the modern Accordion”. In other words, I didn’t have a clue. But I assumed that it was reasonably likely that anything they did have would be more primitive, and less complex and sophisticated than what we have today. It’s just common sense, but packaged in fancy wrapping paper with a big bow on top. Incidentally, Wikipedia informs me that the Accordion wasn’t invented until the 1820s, though in my defence it was apparently a more primitive, less sophisticated instrument than the ones we have today.
Danny then asked me to talk a little about the song. It was at this point that I realised that with all the blagging and the accordion playing, the song’s tune had completely vanished out of my head. I’d been mentally running through the tune over and over again, but then I obviously stopped thinking about it when I was asked to play a haunting tune on my accordion. If it had been a traditional song then I could have perhaps just made up the tune, but I could hardly do that with this song. The recording of me hurriedly humming the tune was on my mobile, But I couldn’t admit to Danny that I’d forgotten how the tune went. It was bad enough having to read the words, without then having to refresh my memory about the song’s tune as well.
I therefore went into advanced blagging mode. I apologised and said that I had forgotten to switch off my phone, and that we wouldn’t want to ruin the recording with the sound of a phone going off or phone interference. Danny stopped the recording while I pretended to switch my phone off. In actuality, this involved me switching my phone on, loading the voice memos app and then discretely listening to the hummed tune. Obviously this process was taking quite a bit longer than turning a phone off would ordinarily take, and so I had to pretend that the phone was playing up a bit. So as I listened to my humming, I tutted and made comments out loud like, “bloody phone, come on, turn off. It’s been acting up a bit of recent”. When I was happy I’d got the tune, I switched my phone off, and the recording recommenced.
Fortunately, I sang the song without too many mistakes, and I think I managed to pull off a credible performance. I also accompanied Danny singing his composition Kill Your Dog For Satan, joining in the chorus with gusto, and played another made up eerie tune on the accordion.
It was a surreal experience, But immensely fun. I’m interested to know how it will all sound in the context of the documentary. Perhaps I will listen to it and cringe in horror at the complete bollix I am talking, or perhaps this will herald the start of a new career, where I become the go-to person for desperate documentary makers. Perhaps they will have edited me out entirely. You can find out at midnight tonight on BBC 6Music. I’ll be back tomorrow with the IPlayer link and maybe some post-programme reflection.
The programme is called Desperately Seeking Satan, and apparently is pick of the week in the guardian, the radio Times and the Sunday Times. So what do you think about that ladies? Impressed are we? Form an orderly cue. I will be asking for birth certificates though. You can’t be too careful nowadays. Oh, why did I have to go and ruin things right at the end with an awful Frankie Boyle style joke. There goes my career.