Mark Radcliffe‘s self-confessed career highlight came in 2006 when he won Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes with a suspiciously Cornish-sounding Shane MacGowan. It’s not a bad claim to fame for a Bolton-born DJ, musician, writer, performer and broadcaster. But if you were to ask Joe Public to identify Radcliffe, they’d be more likely to point to his weekly Folk Show on Radio 2 or his daily stint with Stuart Maconie on BBC 6music.
When I caught up with Radcliffe, his thoughts were turning to the Homegrown Folk Festival at The Met later this week. Over three days, the best of the best of English folk will be tripping over to Bury to showcase their considerable musical skills. Although the festival is only in its second year, it has attracted the top tier of talent. Among the many acts playing at venues across Bury town centre will be the Barnsley Nightingale Kate Rusby, hottie of the folk scene Seth Lakeman and award-winning Jim Moray.
Radcliffe will kick things off on Thursday evening when he leads a panel of folk experts (editor of fRoots Ian Anderson, Fay Hield, Olivia Chaney and Chris Wood) in a discussion of recent developments in English folk, roots and acoustic music. The evening will be topped off by performances from both Wood (one of the most acclaimed songwriters on the folk circuit) and Chaney, a hotly-tipped singer who has been compared to Joni Mitchell.
“It’s a fascinating time for folk,” says Radcliffe. “Folk has a traditional image and it does mean different things to different people. But folk music has prodigiously talented young musicians now, I am speechless with admiration for them. There are many young artists who are proud to call themselves folk artists.”
Radcliffe believes that the folk genre welcomes musicians of all abilities and is, at heart, an inclusive type of music which always has something to say about the world we live in.
“I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll and wanting to be a rock star, all that coming onto the stage to adulation. Folk is different. The wonderful thing is that it is terribly accepting and nurturing. You can be any age, dress how you want and no one judges you.”
As a Bolton lad (Radcliffe went to Bolton School and later to Manchester University), Radcliffe always receives a warm welcome in this part of the world. He is in awe of the plethora of venues in the North West and further afield, from the Grade II-listed Burnley Mechanics building in Lancashire to the Hebden Bridge Trades Club in West Yorks.
“Folk music is almost music hall in that it was very much the music of the people,” muses Radcliffe. “Even alternative comedy, that came up through the folk clubs.”
Radcliffe’s weekly Folk Show on Radio 2 is a staple part of the station’s programming, much loved by its audience and a key place to hear a wide range of voices. But it wasn’t also so. When the BBC announced a year ago that Radcliffe would be taking over from Mike Harding (who had spent 15 years presenting the hour-long slot), long-term listeners voiced their disapproval. Harding himself went public with his grievance, saying that he was “not leaving the show of my own volition”.
So, was it daunting slipping into the seat of a much-loved broadcaster”
“I can understand [why Mike felt like he did]. And that’s a tribute to his passion for the job. There is no personal beef between Mike and I, and I did write to him to say I never once lobbied for his job….But you don’t get shows forever. Nothing lasts forever. If you do the job I do, I’ve had a one year contract for the last 25 years. You don’t own these shows, everything changes. But I can understand Mike’s anger and I will be angry when they take it off me.”
Until that happens, Radcliffe will continue to take the Folk Show seriously: “It’s an important task really, we’ve only got an hour a week so we try and play a blend of new and old. It’s about getting the balance right on a weekly basis. You do feel like you’re doing something that is part of the fabric of the land that you live in.”
It’s fair to say that Radcliffe is one of the most recognisable Northern voices on the radio, but he firmly opposed to the idea of being a “professional Northerner”.
He explains: “As a Northerner, I’ve just never felt the need for anywhere else. I love London but the North to me is about doing things for ourselves, we are not waiting for someone from London to give us permission. Tony Wilson forged that in me. He really believed in this part of the world, not that it was better but that it was our home and we didn’t need to go anywhere else.
“And we embrace high and low culture in the North West of England. Everything I have ever needed is here. I don’t feel anti-Southern, I just feel happy and self-contained. Having said that, there is a North/South divide, no question.”
And, on that note, Radcliffe beetles off to prepare for his afternoon show on 6music.
By Helen Nugent
The Homegrown Folk Festival runs from October 17 – October 19, 2013 at The Met in Bury. For more information and ticket sales log on to www.homegrownfolk.co.uk or call the Box Office on 0161 761 2216.