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.’
Is it possible to belong to a gang of leather-clad bikers and stay true to the principles of Freemasonry? Adrian Foster summons up the courage to meet with the Widows Sons on their own turf and find out for himself
In a bleak, concrete-walled car park at the rear of the Masonic Hall in Goldsmith Street, Nottingham, a group of leather-clad bikers are relaxing next to their silver steeds. They have not stopped off for a break on their way to a rock festival, they are in fact Freemasons who have just presented a cheque to The Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. They call themselves the Widows Sons.
For the uninitiated, the Widows Sons Masonic Bikers Association (WSMBA) is an international association that is open to Freemasons who enjoy motorcycling and have a desire to ride with their fraternal brethren. Though not a masonic order, the WSMBA serves as a recruiting drive to help raise awareness of Freemasonry while attending public motorcycling events, supporting Craft lodges and actively raising funds for charities and good causes.
Among the motley crew assembled today is Peter Younger, President of the Northumberland Chapter of the Widows Sons, together with Justin ‘Jay’ Waite and Chris Bush Jnr, Vice President and President of the National Chapter of the Widows Sons, respectively.
‘My association with them started when I was on the internet and I googled “Freemasonry and motorcycling” to see what came up,’ explains Jay. ‘I discovered a website that Widows Sons’ founder member Jon Long had set up, emailed them and we arranged to meet. I went out on a ride with them, had a really enjoyable day and saw that they were involved with a lot of good work for charity, so I asked there and then whether I could join them. Foolishly, they accepted me, so here I am today,’ he laughs.
MERGING MASONIC INTERESTS
Jay emphasises that the WSMBA is not a masonic lodge, although it has aspirations to form one in the future. ‘What we are is an association of bikers who are all Master Freemasons. We all belong to different lodges and we carry masonic insignia on our leathers and clothing. But when we attend our lodge meetings we all dress as you’d expect us to and wear our normal lodge regalia. Widows Sons has members as far afield as Land’s End and Aberdeen and it would be very difficult to get us all together in one place for meetings.’
Peter Younger reveals tentative plans to establish a bikers’ lodge and that the Northumberland Chapter of the Widows Sons is building up funds to enable this in the next two to three years. ‘We have had informal discussions at Provincial level and they have no objections to the idea. I started the Northumberland Chapter, so this could be my next project. I can see Freemasonry swinging more in the direction of shared interest lodges. The article in Freemasonry Today about the Morgan Lodge is a good example of this.’
But is the notion of bikers as Freemasons a contradiction in terms? ‘I’m sure people would think we’re worlds apart because I’m here dressed in biking leathers, not a suit,’ answers Jay. ‘But motorcycling is a fraternal pastime and in the biking world we refer to one another as brothers, and the two associations build bonds of friendship between their members. Both bikers and Freemasons do a lot of charitable work and I’m certain there are other overlaps too.’
Chris Bush agrees, adding: ‘It was my father who introduced me to motorcycling and Freemasonry. We are two of the remaining seven founding members of the Widows Sons (UK), which had its first meeting in February 2004 here in Goldsmith Street.’
Peter Younger admits that there is still work to be done in convincing some of the non-biking masonic fraternity. ‘It’s been a bit of a learning curve,’ he says. ‘If we’d tried to set up the Widows Sons fifteen years ago it might not have had the positive reception we get today. But the benefit is that it’s providing a new, younger face. Freemasonry is very good at hiding itself away – we hide behind doors that you have to knock on to get in, but if more people had a clearer idea of what we do they’d be queuing up to become masons.’
Peter believes that Freemasonry needs to be far more open. ‘There’s no good reason why it can’t be – I don’t think anyone in Freemasonry would say they are ashamed of what they do. I proudly wear the square and compasses on my lapel as a Freemason and I am glad to be associated with the Widows Sons,’ he says, making the point that there are golfing, fishing and shooting societies, so why not a motorcycling society?
‘We’re ordinary people who have pastimes and hobbies just like anybody else. I once heard a great saying by Woody Allen that “tradition is the illusion of permanence”. Tradition has for too long been the scapegoat for people in Freemasonry who don’t want things to change. People hide behind tradition because they’re not willing or courageous enough to try something new. I feel we need to break that pattern and new associations should be formed. Giving a public, modern face to Freemasonry is one of the most important things Widows Sons can do.’
Force to be reckoned with
The Widows Sons chooses to raise funds for The Royal British Legion (RBL) because many of its own members are forces veterans. ‘It’s a charity that’s very close to our hearts,’ says Jay, who approached Bob Privett from the RBL’s Poppy Appeal in Nottinghamshire in 2010.
‘We raise over £500,000 each year for the Poppy Appeal and spend a similar amount on the welfare of ex-servicemen and their dependents,’ explains Bob. ‘The RBL will be spending £50m over the next ten years on a new Battle Back Centre for injured servicemen returning from military operations.’
Bob admits that The Royal British Legion tends to conjure up images of old soldiers on parade. ‘This perception leads the public to assume that we are there only for old soldiers,’ he says, ‘but already this year we have dealt with 20,000 cases from the Afghan and Iraq war zones.’
Letters to the Editor - FreemasonryToday No.17 - Spring 2012