a very public sandwich

Radio This lunchtime I ate a very public sandwich.

The Manchester International Festival began last night and to celebrate, a special episode of Radio 4’s Front Row programme was recorded at the radio theatre on Oxford Road. In the email ticketing solicitation, it was explained that Victoria Wood, Paul Heaton and other guests 'to be announced' to would be appearing and since said Manchester International Festival also includes the live Doctor Who performance piece The Crash of the Elysium I decided it was worth a punt to see if one of the guests 'to be announced' would be someone related to that.

Doors were due to open at half twelve and I decided to do some shopping beforehand, the usual haunts, HMV (for this week's sale), Vinyl Exchange, Fopp (not in that order) and Marks & Spencers in my on-going search for the perfect jumper. Lately I’ve been watching The Killing and so at present my perfect jumper is influenced by that Danish crime drama which is admittedly probably a bit too chunky-knit for this time of year.  Everything was carefully timed out, how long each shop would take, how far the distance between each.  Manchester is probably my second city now and not Paris as I'd previously planned.

As a side note, in the post-Lovefilm, post-Spotify era, visiting the music shops is a depressing business, especially that HMV where the specialist music section has been evicted from the basement in favour of games and a console playing zone (a kind of modern amusement arcade with passwords instead of a change machine), and finds itself stuck at the back of the ground floor, classical, jazz and world all crammed uncomfortably in together. Vinyl Exchange too has lost some of its thoroughgoing nature. With less cds being sold because of downloads, there are less cds also being sold on, so once full racks are now half empty, especially in the soundtrack section.

The non-usual haunt and my timing downfall was That’s Entertainment, a branch of which has opened opposite the HMV. Apparently opened by the previous owner of Music Zone and stocked, according to the counter clerk, with the cds and dvds which have sat in their warehouse for seven years, this offers a history of the mainstream for one, two or four pounds. In the post-Lovefilm, post-Spotify era this still somehow seems expensive, plus with my collection, it’s difficult to even find something I’d want. I’m always second guessing myself. Do I really need a blu-ray of The Fugitive?

After what seemed like an hour, though probably more like forty-minutes I walked out having paid first with dvds of WarGames knock-off Eagle Eye (Rosario Dawson) and Pans Labyrinth and the second soundtrack album for Moulin Rouge (the one with songs actually taken from the soundtrack as opposed the remixes which turned up on the first).  I was now running late, time management in tatters. After glancing through Marks and Spencer and not finding the jumper I was looking for (no chunk-knit) I decended into the basement and bought the sandwich, Wensleydale cheese and carrot pickle, once I'd convinced myself the scary red traffic lights on the packaging had to be an over exaggeration.

Then I was walking. Walking as fast as my thirty-six year old, decrepit before their time legs could carry me.  Up Deansgate past the burrito shop that for the first time in ages doesn't have an employee outside giving away free samples, across Albert Square (well more like round Albert Square since this has become Festival Square and is filled with giant wooden structures) and up Oxford Road (or street – the signs are contradictory) until I reached BBC Manchester and see dozens and dozens of people piling in. I’d obviously underestimated Victoria Wood’s pulling power and had been running later than I'd previously supposed.

On entering the foyer, us audience members were each given a number. I was 177. By the time I reached the auditorium it was mostly full. After a brief conversation about the extent to which someone could be sitting in an empty chair, I noticed a block of about twenty free seats at the front, just off to the side, a few yards away from the broadcasting tables, fanned out with blue table cloths and large microphones.  I sat there or rather I sat there after conscientiously checking with a guide that I could sit there.  I’d be watching the programme with some of the faces of the guests in profile but it was still a better view than for some.

I had hoped that the rest of the block would fill up, but it wasn’t to be. As people arrived they preferred to take up residence right at the back and so I was a bit stuck out.  Like a lemon. This is not the kind of thing which usually bothers me. If I’m alone, I always sit near the front of the cinema, front row too for lectures, so why not the front row for Front Row? At which point I realised I hadn’t had time to eat my sandwich and my tummy was rumbling and a rumbling tummy was probably not what the Radio 4 audience would want to hear after having just eaten dinner themselves this evening.

After a bit, a producer walked up to the microphone at the front and told us we had time to go to the toilet of we needed to, which of course means everyone wanted to go to the toilet, including me. I won't give you those details but on my way back I asked the producer if this was a no-food zone and he said, no it was quite alright, so long as I wasn’t eating during the programme. So I sat and pulled my sandwich out and slowly began masticating whilst reading a magazine, Doctor Who Magazine with its poignant Nicholas Courtney tributes.

A minute or two later, the same producer approached a microphone at the front and began the process of warming up the audience. He asked if anyone had come far. Someone shouted York which did seem far until someone else mentioned Gloucester and just to see Victoria Wood. Fans, eh? All the while I’m working my way through the first half of the sandwich, trying to finish it before the programme started, probably barely tasting the cheese and chutney and barely paying attention to what was going on around me.

All the while the producer was talking. I think I heard him ask us to turn off our mobile phones (already done). That we should relax (I was). That someone had even brought their lunch at which point I became very aware of the sandwich I was holding which was just a few centimetre away from an open mouth filled with saliva and I was especially aware of the three hundred odd pairs of eyes now all looking in my general direction, the producers body turned in my direction.  This seemed like a good moment to blow everything out of all proportion.

People giggled. “I’m hungry” I think I muttered, but not really knowing how to react. It wasn’t until he mentioned it that I properly realised that because I was sat so close to the front opposite the rest of the audience, everything I’d done could potentially have been watched by people looking for someone to watch in an otherwise quite boring room and as I continued chewing, out of the corner of my eye I could still see people looking over. A girl on the front row kept grinning at me. This was the most public sandwich I'd ever eaten.  I felt like a performance art piece. “Man eating sandwich.”

Happily by the time I’d finished ingestion, the crowd had been distracted away by the appearance of presenter Mark Lawson. Regular readers will know this is the second occasion on which I’ve been in the same room as the man, having found myself discussing a work at FACT Liverpool with him and his colleague on the opening day of last year’s Liverpool Biennial.  It hadn’t occurred to me he’d be at this despite being the show's primary presenter and happily he didn’t have time to recognise me or congratulate me on my clever observations (!) of the Tehching Hsieh piece.  Perhaps I'm doomed to just keep inadvertantly meeting Lawson at arts festivals, rather than interview me about having done something useful.

He introduced himself and explained who the guests would be. Victoria Wood talking about her new play, Paul Heaton chatting about his new song cycle, playwright Charlotte Keatley reviewing the Bjork concert that opened the festival and poet Lavinia Greenlaw on her audio artwork which allows visitors to Manchester Picadilly station, via headphones, to eavesdrop on the imagined thoughts of their fellow passengers.  No one from Doctor Who then, but there was no denying, when they were ushered out, Wood’s star quality and the excitement of being in the same room as Heaton whose music I listened to growing up (and indeed saw on sale earlier in That’s Entertainment for a pound per cd).

Then Mark surprised us all by asking the audience to sing the theme tune to The Archers (Barwick Green). It was, he said, because having presented almost a couple of thousand editions of Front Row live (he gave us an exact number but I didn’t have a pen), he needed that music to get him in the mood. And we duly acceded with a mass sing-song, that was accurate enough to even included the uncomfortable climax when Arthur Wood’s composition fades out halfway through the next verse.

Then we were off and the results can be heard on the BBC website. The short version is that whilst Wood has written a musical number set in a Berni Inn, both Heaton and Keatley admitted to having had their first job in said defunct restaurant chain.  It was an unexpected reminder of when I was a child visiting the Berni Inn near the Pier Head, their steaks a real treat at a time when our family was relatively poor.  Someone's uploaded a photograph to flickr although it's from well past its heyday.  It seemed more luxurious when we visited, taking a window seat so that we could look out across the Mersey at night.

Lawson’s timing was impeccable. Having presented all of those episodes live he’s clearly very adept at knowing how to pace the content, giving each of the guests equal measure.  I couldn’t see a clock anywhere so I have to assume he instinctively knew when half an hour had gone by. He didn’t even take advantage of the recorded nature of the programme and let it go on longer. Front Row is half an hour of arts programming and that’s what we got. 

Between the news and The Archers each night on Radio 4 is a trailer for the upcoming Front Row.  This is read in live most nights, but it was to be recorded as well, with all of the strangeness of talking in the future tense about a programme we'd just heard.  Lawson joked that perhaps we should now improvise the news too until one of guests noted the bulletin would probably end with an Andy Murray update at which point some of us shouted “Go, Andy”. I was apparently the loudest because Lawson, Victoria Wood and the rest of the guests looked over and suddenly I had the attention of everyone again.

It was time to go.  Most of us made for the exit, but a fair few people made forVictoria Wood and autographs.  But I still had business.  As you can see, one of the guests was artist Lavinia Greenlaw who has an audio installation piece at Manchester Picadilly station in which the thoughts of fellow passengers are hinted at through headphones. Deciding that I had to at least enjoy something of the festival, I headed back up to Oxford Road station and bought a one-way ticket across town.

On arriving back where I started from, I set about finding the booth on the main concourse that Mark Lawson mentioned.  I found the booth. Then I found the dates printed on the booth:

"2 - 17th July".

Time had finally gotten the better of me.  Since the Front Row had been a recording, and it would be broadcast this evening, Audio Obscura would be open the day after listeners had heard about it.  I had become caught in the limbo between the two. I was tempted to recreate the experience on the way home, deliberately eavesdropping on other passengers in a similar way to Greenlaw's audio recordings (though obviously without the telepathic aspect), but decided that I'd already been in enough trouble that afternoon.

Oh well. Perhaps there’ll be a podcast.

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