Peak Time Viewing
With a new documentary series revealing the workings of the Craft, Edwin Smith talks to Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes about why this is the perfect opportunity for Freemasonry
For certain members of the general public a misconception persists that Freemasonry is a mysterious organisation shrouded in secrecy. A Sky 1 five-part television documentary series that debuted on 17 April is hoping to finally put these rumours to bed.
Coinciding with the celebration of the Craft’s 300-year anniversary, the timing of Inside The Freemasons could not have been better. ‘We’ve targeted the Tercentenary as a catalyst to being as open as we possibly can,’ says Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes, adding that the decision to let the cameras in does not signify a major shift in philosophy. ‘I actually don’t think our openness is anything new. What is new is the way we’re going about it.’
The series meets members of the Craft at every level, from the Pro Grand Master to James Wootton, a Bedfordshire farmer preparing to take the First Degree under the watchful eye of his father in the first of the five episodes. The second and third episodes follow the fortunes of an Entered Apprentice and a Fellow Craft Freemason undertaking the Second and Third Degrees. After an introduction to Freemasonry in the first episode, each programme takes a theme, exploring masonic charity, brotherhood, myths and the future of the Craft.
BEHIND THE SCENES
It took a year of discussion before the project got off the ground, with the episodes then taking a further year in the making, explains Emma Read, executive producer and managing director of Emporium Productions, the company behind the documentary series.
‘These things always take a long time because everyone’s got to be comfortable [with the process]. But once we started, everyone was 100 per cent committed,’ says Read, who was also responsible for 2013’s Harrow: A Very British School documentary series and has made over 1,000 hours of factual television for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Discovery.
Read believes that UGLE felt comfortable working with Emporium and Sky because they specialise in getting access to institutions and individuals who have a reputation to protect, but about whom there are misconceptions.
‘The way that we make programmes with people is to explain that we are not here to express our opinion – this is not investigative, this is not current affairs, this is a proper documentary where we show people and places as they are,’ explains Read. ‘We film people going about their various activities and they then tell the story themselves. It could also have been called “The Freemasons in their Own Words”. It’s that kind of approach.’
With two small teams carrying out the filming, recording for hundreds of days in total, Lowndes was impressed with the discreet way in which the project was managed. ‘They’ve been very unobtrusive and therefore got the best out of people,’ he says.
‘The most effective way to make observational documentary is not with a hoard of people,’ adds Read. ‘In observational documentary, or in fact in any television, the relationship with the people you’re filming with is everything. Why would somebody allow you to carry on filming if they didn’t like you? I wouldn’t. You have to have trust on both sides or it doesn’t work.’
‘In observational documentary, or in fact in any television, the relationship with the people you’re filming with is everything. You have to have trust on both sides or it doesn’t work’ Emma Read
A DEGREE OF SURPRISE
Despite the levels of trust, certain elements of Freemasonry had to remain off camera. Some of the Second Degree is filmed, but almost nothing of the First or the Third appears on screen. ‘Naturally we would have liked to film elements of both the First and Third Degrees,’ says Read, ‘but that was where the line was drawn. As a mason, you only do those once and each is supposed to be this amazing moment – so if you know what’s coming, it’ll spoil it.’
Read did discover a great deal about Freemasonry, however, and was struck by the scale of the charitable work that is done – ‘they hide their light under a bushel, I think’ – as well as the powerful bond of brotherhood that exists throughout the Craft.
In particular, there were two men whose stories resonated with Read. The first, Peter Younger, draws on the support of his fellow Widows Sons masonic bikers after unexpectedly losing his wife, and the mother of his seven-year-old daughter, after she suffered a heart attack. The second, Gulf War veteran Dave Stubbs, recounts the way that he used to sit up at night and feel as though he had ‘been thrown away’ after leaving the army. Later, says Read, ‘we see him being elected and installed as Worshipful Master of his lodge, which is a tearful moment’.
Read expects the series to draw a varied range of responses from the public. ‘My feeling is that some people will have this ridiculous, conspiratorial approach and say, “You’re not showing X, Y and Z.” There will be other people who already love Freemasonry and hopefully there will be some people who go, “Oh that’s interesting, I didn’t know that. It’s completely opened my eyes to it.”’
Although Lowndes expects some concerns from within the brotherhood, he’s anticipating a positive response overall. ‘I’m sure there will be criticism from some of our brethren that we should never have got involved with the documentary. There will no doubt be things in it that some people think we should not have done. However, the general impression I have is that it will be well received – I think we’ll get a lot of support both internally and externally.’
Marking the Tercentenary of Freemasonry naturally raises the question of what the next 300 years will hold. ‘I think we have a very exciting future ahead,’ says Lowndes. ‘We now have more young people coming in and I think we’re giving them better chances to find their feet in Freemasonry than ever before. Within that age group, I can’t remember the Craft being in better shape.’
Life and soul
With a bit of ritual, special outfits and a strong sense of camaraderie, Northern Soul is a music and dance passion for Dave Stubbs that perfectly complements his Freemasonry. Sarah Holmes finds out more
Leafing through a red leather box of vinyl, Dave Stubbs suddenly jumps to his feet. ‘Ah! This one! This record is magic,’ he beams. Turning to an old-fashioned record player, he carefully places the unsheathed disc on the turntable and drops the needle. A crackled silence is followed by the stomping bass of John Leach’s 1963 track Put That Woman Down. The music rumbles through the two-up, two-down terrace in Shrewsbury as Dave bounces on the spot, face to the ceiling and arms open wide, crooning in time to the gravelly vocal.
It’s the kind of passion usually reserved for the front row at a music festival, but here in the humble setting of his living room, Dave’s exuberance practically bursts through the walls. He is a music fan, quite obviously, but with a particular taste for the B-side American soul tracks of the 1960s.
Unlike the populist songs of Motown, this music was harder, grittier and less palatable for mainstream audiences. Even so, it found a devoted fan base in the Mod-inspired subcultures of northern England. From 1970 onwards, journalists such as Dave Godin referred to it as Northern Soul, and underground clubs like Twisted Wheel in Manchester and The Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent began hosting Northern Soul all-nighters.
Like so many, Dave Stubbs first came to the music as a teenager in his local youth club. ‘It was the older lads, the ones sneaking into the Northern Soul all-nighters, who introduced us to the music,’ remembers Dave. ‘That’s how we learned to dance; we just copied what they were doing. It was all experimental.’
Thanks to the genre’s athletic dance style, Northern Soul fashion was dictated by the need for practicality. Loose-fitting clothes such as baggy Oxford trousers, Ben Sherman-style shirts and sports vests became the accepted uniform. Dave looks every inch the genuine article in Wrangler Bluebell jeans, a check shirt and a flat cap. ‘It’s not a costume for me. I walk around in these clothes every day,’ he says. Although vintage shops are the main source of his authentic 1970s wardrobe, his most prized possessions have been passed down to him by fellow ‘soulies’.
The only incongruity in his outfit is the masonic ring on his right hand. As a member of Salopian Lodge of Charity, No. 117, Dave balances his time between Northern Soul and Freemasonry. ‘My great grandfather was a Freemason, so it was something that always interested me,’ he explains.
A military man for most of his youth, Dave served in Iraq in the early 1990s and his living room is adorned with paraphernalia of his time there, including a framed certificate of commendation for his work with Operation Desert Storm. But it wasn’t until leaving the army that Dave became involved in the Craft.
Having become a county standard bearer with The Royal British Legion, he got talking to a Freemason while on duty at the Shrewsbury Flower Show and was proposed as an initiate. ‘I know a lot of lads from the military who are involved in Freemasonry,’ says Dave. ‘It’s something that we look for after a military career – that sense of belonging.’
It didn’t take long for Dave to introduce his brethren to the belting world of Northern Soul. Every month, he organises a Northern Soul night at the masonic hall on Crewe Street, the proceeds of which go towards maintaining a World War I memorial commemorating the Shrewsbury Freemasons. Simon Curden is a regular attendee and, like Dave, has a passion for the Northern Soul scene: ‘It’s fun, keeps you fit and is part of a fantastic social world. It’s not so different from Freemasonry.’
It’s not just members who benefit from Dave’s musical interest. This summer, his friends and family will get a glimpse into the Craft when he hosts his Northern Soul-themed wedding reception at the masonic hall in Shrewsbury. ‘My fiancée Polly is a Freemason and a Northern Soul fan too, so it’s a place that’s close to both of our hearts,’ says Dave. ‘It’s not surprising that so many people who enjoy Northern Soul are Freemasons too. I find the two interests very complementary. On the Northern Soul scene, we’re often called soul brothers and soul sisters, and just like a masonic lodge, we all stick together.’
Watching Dave cut his way across a dance floor, it’s no surprise he was cast as an extra for Elaine Constantine’s 2014 film, Northern Soul. In celebration of the premiere, Dave hired out the local cinema, selling the tickets to family and friends, and giving the proceeds to the local Freemasons’ memorial.
It was his involvement in this BAFTA-nominated documentary that won him the starring role in a national Shredded Wheat advert last year. A mini film showing the ritual leading up to a Northern Soul night out, it captured every moment of Dave’s meticulous routine as he got ready. ‘The ethos is all about turning out smart,’ explains Dave. ‘So from the moment you wake up on a Saturday morning you’re ironing shirts, shining shoes and listening to records. It’s a whole-day ritual.’
For three days, a film crew camped out in Dave’s front room, interviewing his friends and family on his lifelong devotion to the Northern Soul scene, and the philosophy behind his passion. ‘They could have hired an actor,’ he says, ‘but I think they chose me because I actually live the lifestyle. It’s in me as a person, so there was no need for pretending.’
Luckily, Dave’s brush with stardom didn’t go to his head; he didn’t even keep the lifetime’s supply of Shredded Wheat that he received after the advert. ‘We tired of it pretty quickly, so we gave it to the homeless shelter down the road,’ he says, keen to add that money was never going to be a motivating factor: ‘Northern Soul is my passion and I wanted to show other people what it is like, and hopefully share the joy with them.’
While Northern Soul was predominantly the preserve of Suedeheads and Mods in the 1970s, over the years its following has diversified; nowadays you’re just as likely to find youngsters tearing across the dance floor as the original soulies. ‘Nobody will judge you for letting go and having a good time in Northern Soul,’ explains Dave. ‘It’s all about the shared love of the music. You can completely lose yourself in it, and it feels amazing.’
Such is the adrenaline rush of the Northern Soul all-nighter that often, Dave says, he’ll return home at 7.30am only to head back out to an all-dayer by noon. ‘It becomes a lifestyle, I suppose,’ says Dave. ‘Just like Freemasonry, it’s not about money, and it’s not about connections. It’s about camaraderie, and living in a way that makes you feel good.’
‘Nobody will judge you for letting go and having a good time in Northern Soul.’ Dave Stubbs
Out on the floor
Starting off in venues such as Manchester’s Twisted Wheel in the late 1960s, Northern Soul’s unique brand of fashion and dance quickly spread to other UK dancehalls and nightclubs like Chateau Impney in Droitwich, The Catacombs in Wolverhampton, the Highland Room at Blackpool Mecca, The Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent and Wigan Casino. With the beat becoming more uptempo, Northern Soul dancing became more athletic and started to feature spins, flips, karate kicks and backdrops.
Dave Stubbs is a Northern Soul enthusiast, ex-Army family man and the new face of Shredded Wheat!
Dave's philosophy of life can be viewed here on YouTube, where he advocates finding out what makes you happy, and surrounding yourself with like-minded people.
The Senior Warden of Salopian Lodge of Charity No. 117, based in Shrewsbury in Shropshire, has become accustomed to seeing his face on ITV as well as in the national newspapers, and Freemasons in Shrewsbury quite regularly give up the function room at their Crewe Street headquarters to his brand of Northern Soul music.