The Community Ballads

The Community Ballads have been whirring away for a few months now, with myself and filmmaker Connor Hawkins eager to produce both a radio documentary and short film about the bustling countryside communities, craft ales of Hooky Brewery, and the pubs of north Oxfordshire.

Getting Started…

In its infancy, the doc was set to be purely about Hook Norton Brewery, and took inspiration from filmmakers like Danny Cooke. The tone was going to be very celebratory and convey an appreciation for craft and hard-work.

I was personally drawn to a radio ballad I had been introduced to at the Charles Parker Day at Salford University. It so happened that another radio feature of mine was commended on that day and narrowly missed out on the prize! It was inspiring to hear how Smooth Operations produced these programmes by modernising the techniques used by Charles Parker and Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger to fuse folk music with interesting speech. I wanted a go, so Connor and I both had very clear influences that would inform our productions.

Getting down to business…

The really exciting thing was that we had no boundaries. We had copious contacts from basing the production in our home county of Oxfordshire, and we had interest from the local radio station 107.6 Banbury Sound. Our first port of call was to meet with Hook Norton Brewery and get ourselves on the same page.

It was also the summer, so it seemed every week there was a village festival or a gig in a local pub. It proved quite a cunning documentary idea because as I trawled through the gig listings at local pubs, it became evident that to truly soak up the community, we’d have to go along ourselves!

The good did come with the bad – some of the events such as Bodfest and the Conie’s Beer Festival were glorious sunshine, others (such as Bloxfest) poured it down with torrential summer rain, causing some soggy songsheets at the end of the performance for Frances…

Despite the miserable British weather, the spirit of these events was awesome. Community groups and punters flocked together to put music, food, stalls and bring the village together. It was said by Chris Leslie of Fairport Convention that village days are not new, they go back hundreds of years, but now-a-days it seems like we need more of an excuse to put them on…say for example the Queen’s Jubilee. The great thing about these events is that it is communities genuinly saying “let’s have a party!”, and you don’t have to look far to find a pre-fixed village name shoehorned in front of the word ‘fest’.

Bloxfest, Bodfest, the Adderbury Day Of Dance… the events came thick and fast and I began to storyboard how we could tie everything together.

Hook Norton

Our visits to Hooky’s Victorian tower brewery were exciting and the footage and recordings sit proudly on our clogged-up hard-drives. I’d organised for us to spend the morning with Head Brewer (and 5th generation of the founder) James Clarke, to record the brewing process, sit down and talk candidly in the Visitors Centre and mull over the family business, and indeed the craft of brewing. From there we spent time with Martin Beck in his workshop, where he restores and repairs the tower brewery using the same materials as were originally used by the Victorians. All his repairwork is bespoke to the original building, so to observe his handiwork was fascinating.

We then hopped about Roger’s Hooky dray. This is the horse-drawn dray that carts barrels of Hooky beer to nearby pubs – our short trip took us down to the Pear Tree Inn at the foot of Brewery Lane, where the Brewery workers used to go at lunchtime for a recharge. Roger told us about the heritage of the brewery and how he keeps the horses. The landlords joked with us that even in this day and age – you’ve got beer deliveries coming in on horse-drawn cart is if it were 1900, then you see him ticking off a computer-printed order!

The experience of recording with masters of their crafts was awesome – at times we were creeping up the steepest of staircases straining to capture the best content we could, the next moment you’ve got Roger pilfering a 12-crate of Hooky Gold from the Visitor’s store to fuel the jaunt down to the pub!

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention

We had Fairport in the diary (no different to any other year…) because it is the most remarkable story of a sleepy, canalside village that completely transforms to welcome 20,000 music fans for a long weekend. It turns in to tent-city, the pubs spring in to life with fringe festival, and the zest and character of the village makes the whole event not just a folk-rock festival in a field but a whole community celebration.

It was at Fairport that we spoke with a few of Fairport Convention themselves – Chris Leslie who is local to the area, and we organised to speak with bassist Dave Pegg a few weeks later. The messy art of voxpopping is often considered a hard task – trying to get punters to stop and talk – but at Fairport it’s the easiest thing known to man. It is dubbed the ‘Friendliest Festival In The World’, and for good reason. I don’t think anybody declined to have a chat with me about why Cropredy is so wonderful. The overarching response was that it brings the whole village together – the pubs act as satellites to the main stage, and the community groups welcome with open arms the revellers to their breakfasts and stalls. It’s a good time in the countryside back-end of nowhere.


The Pub

After darting about to our fair share of north Oxfordshires village festivals and casting a celebratory light on Hook Norton Brewery with our early-morning visit to where it all happens, it left the pubs to explore. Not that we needed too much of a push to do that.

It struck us that the hub for music and social life in a vilage community is the pub. It’s the heart of everything – everyone at Fairport told us about it, and every village day we visited revolved around the pub. The characters we met in the various locals were fabulous, and it became clear that we needed to take a look at what happens in a village where there is no pub… Visiting Morton Pinkney brought back teenage memories of razzing a motorbike around remote, nearby fields: the stern old lady that came out of her house, not to repremand us for the noise of our 50cc hairdryers, but instead reccomending a good place for riding.

By the time we’d finished in Moreton, we’d pretty much got everything we needed. Just the songs left.

The Ballads

This part of the programme was the linchpin for me. It’s in the title! The Community Ballads. I had set out to make a programme that took heed of Charles Parkers’ technique to fuse music with speech to tell the story. I had been squirrelling away the best nuggets of audio that we’d recorded along the way, and got a local songwriter/musician on board who had agreed to turn these nuggets of inspiration in to music.

I sent him three 10 minute clips, focussed around the local pub, the countryside village, and the brewery. What came back were three demos, which even in their unpolished form, hit the nail square on the head.

We soon took to the studio of Njinxky – Pepe Cartwright – who is pictured earlier in the post with Frances Mitson. Tight for time in the run-up to the broadcast on 107.6 Banbury Sound, we spent a few hours on a countryside Sunday morning laying down these three songs.

Slotted in, they completed the programme.

I was absolutely delighted with the finished doc. It’s the result of months of hard work, that coincided unhelpfully with final year Uni projects and an ever-increasing workload at Key103. Regardless, we pressed on and after I sit here with three very precious bounced WAV files after some satisfying hours tinkering in ProTools on trains and the seat I’m sat in now: infront of my girlfriend’s garden table which has been left in our lounge after use as a prop in her TV show.

Have a look at some of the photos from the months of production – it’s been rewarding and extremely fun…

And the accompanying short film is entitled Know The Field – you can have a preview of what’s to come below…

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