Backstage with the ringmaster


Later . . . with Jools Hollandhas become an institution, with millions of fans worldwide. Its execution is like a ballet, its atmosphere a mini festival. What is its magic formula, writes CIAN TRAYNOR

ON A DARKENED set in London’s BBC Television Centre, PJ Harvey is cradling an autoharp. A diminutive figure dressed in black, she stands apart from her band to create the shimmering chords that open her new album, Let England Shake. It sounds and feels mesmeric but as the final notes ring out, they settle into silence. There is no applause.

The handful of seats across from her are empty, save for a production member affixing Later. . . with Jools Holland stickers to empty beer bottles.

It’s the second day of rehearsal for programme four, series 38 of Later. . .and the crew behind the cameras – most of whom have been here since the show began in 1992 – has seen it all before. As a sponsor-free music showcase broadcast around the world, Later. . .has become an institution. It catches the greats before they go (Johnny Cash, Solomon Burke), helps break new artists (KT Tunstall, Norah Jones) and tries to capture the rest at their peak, always spinning the camera from one song to the next.

Jools Holland, the show’s ringmaster, is tinkling his piano into tune in a corner of the room, unnoticed by the studio around him. Smacking his hands together in satisfaction, he rises to duck out between the curtains, traipsing past the walls of circuit boards leading to his dressing room.

He does not appear to be a man under pressure. There is no urgency to suit up, slick back his hair and oversee the one-hour show that’s about to be recorded for Friday and the 30-minute live broadcast that will be watched by millions. Nor is there any alarm that, any moment now, Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith will knock on the door to rehearse a song they’re expected to perform together for the first time.

Instead Holland’s busy amusing himself with YouTube clips.

“I’m better if I’m spontaneous,” he says, scratching his head and letting his suede boots kick out. “I suppose it’s because I’m a jazz musician. Van Morrison once said, ‘I never play the same gig twice’ – and it’s true. If I had a script, I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be natural. This way, you never know what’s going to happen.”

The danger of that approach materialised three weeks ago. While appearing on Later. . .,jazz icon McCoy Tyner became so immersed in his performance that he seemingly forgot he was live on air. As time ran out, Holland was reluctant to interrupt (“I couldn’t tell him to shut up. It’s McCoy Tyner!”) even though Elbow were poised to close the show with a 35-piece choir. Holland eventually “compromised” by rousing the audience into applause, allowing the cameras to cut away – though not in time to stop the show overrunning.

That a jazz trio could appear alongside a chart-topping rock band in the first place reflects the show’s ethos. Holland believes musical taste is no longer the “tribal” matter it was decades ago and that, today, people prefer to pick and mix. Later. . .exists to satisfy that inclination.

“It’s about trying to capture whatever music we have in the world each week, giving people the opportunity to see things they won’t be able to elsewhere,” he says. “That means putting new bands alongside a great legend, like Ringo Starr tonight. You also want an emerging artist that’s not necessarily well-known outside of their field, like the Unthanks and their Northumbrian folk. But it’s not just a conveyor belt of ‘there’s three minutes, finish your song, here comes the next one’.

“To do it right you have to love the music and the people playing it.” Back on set, executive producer Mark Cooper is eyeing a potential problem in the distance: his colleague Alison Howe and 20-year-old singer Ed Sheeran are having a hush-toned discussion. It could be nerves, he says, or the dreaded last-minute change of song. In reality, Sheeran is relaying his excitement at being flown in with three days’ notice.

Newcomers like him have grown up watching Holland introduce their favourite bands and when that arm finally points towards them, it has the potential to be a defining moment both for the artist and the programme. As the ones assembling each show’s line-up, Cooper and Howe are hoping the acts can rise to the occasion.

“Sometimes it can be very early for them and they can appear nervous,” says Cooper. “Laura Marling was 16 when she was on and she stared at the floor through the performance, which was entrancing, but she was visibly terrified. Adele was also a teenager and you could see her breathe a sigh of relief after getting through it. That’s part of the drama. Some of their careers will take off two years down the line and some will never take off. But you do it in the spirit of hopefulness because fundamentally you believe in them. What happens to them once they’re on is down to the viewers.”

As Cooper and Howe take seats in the back of the control room, they describe preparing each show as if they were compiling a collaborative mix tape, balancing a sense of discovery with familiarity. They treat finding the right acts as a fulltime job, taking in concerts and scouring the media until enough possibilities are accumulated.

Fortunately for them, the show’s track record translates into pulling power: hopeful gaps are left in touring schedules and shows are cancelled to secure an appearance. Even Swedish pop singer Lykke Li, who has postponed the end of her tour due to injury, is not missing out on her slot tonight.

“Committing to one act, even an established artist, two months in advance feels like a big responsibility,” says Howe, a former producer of John Peel’s. “The minute you make that first booking, you start to define what happens that week. There might be someone who deserves to be on but, because of the way the show shapes up, they don’t fit in. It’s the most rewarding and difficult part of the job.”

It’s not, however, the music equivalent of fantasy football. For the first five years, Cooper felt the show was going to collapse each week, the stress of it permeating his dreams. Now he relates the near-misses (Smokey Robinson turning up 45 minutes into recording) and last-minute pull-outs (James Blunt replacing Pete Doherty) with relish.

“It’s not really a television show,” he says. “It’s like a mini festival observed in real time. You set everything up, put it in order, but then it has to fly on its own terms. People can’t hide here; they can’t lie.

“It’s just them – often exposed, operating on a tightrope – and the audience warms to that.”

Then there’s the reason musicians hold Later. .. in such reverence: the sound quality. In a cramped mixing booth next to the control room, an armchair is left empty for the artist or their engineer to sit in with sound supervisors Tudor Davies and Mike Felton. It can be an intimidating distraction to find Liam Gallagher and an entourage of seven standing over your shoulder, Davies says, especially when the cameras are synced, lyric by lyric, to each song and the sound levels have to be mapped accordingly.

“It’s like a ballet out there,” says Felton, his gaze fixed on the screens of tiptoeing cable handlers and swooping camera cranes pirouetting in unison. Down below, 150 audience members are filling the gaps around the show’s circular floor plan while an MC whips up their applause, assuring them they have the hottest ticket in the world.

Finally, it’s time for the “opening groove”: a simple riff decided on the spot and passed on until every act has joined in, the cameras whirling around to keep up with Holland’s introductions. Whenever one band performs, the others become part of the audience – creating an unexpected togetherness, despite the disparate styles, and an added scrutiny. Apart from a misfiring lighting desk, Friday’s pre-recorded show develops almost exactly as it will appear on air – an esoteric mix with broad appeal – but as the show goes live the acts seem to raise their game, battling to leave a lasting impression.

And with that, it’s a wrap. At 22:35, the lights brighten, the audience races to the cloak room and the bands disappear backstage. By the time they emerge, the set – which has been up for less than 48 hours – is almost dismantled. Holland is halfway to his car, the producers are eyeing up their wish list for next week, and the show rolls on.

Later. . . with Jools Hollandis on BBC 2 at 11:50pm tonight