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.’