Artist News Awards

Young Fathers win the Mercury Prize

By | Published on Thursday 30 October 2014

Young Fathers

So, the ever masterful CMU Editor Andy Malt let me leave early yesterday to attend that Mercury Prize show in Camden and eat all the free food that came with it (“what a dessert!”) on the strict condition I file a very comprehensive report of the entire Mercury Prize operation. So here goes.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK with an agenda to privatise a string of state-owned businesses, many of which had been brought into national ownership under previous Labour governments. High up on that agenda was telecommunications. At that point domestic telecoms were run out of a division of the Post Office, while the also state-owned Cable & Wireless had operations abroad, mainly in Hong Kong.

An act of parliament was passed in 1981 setting the privatisation of C&W into motion, while concurrently spinning off domestic telecoms into a stand-alone entity called British Telecommunications, which was quickly pencilled for flotation on the London Stock Exchange in 1984. With a key aim of the Tories’ privatisation plan being the creation of competition in sectors previously dominated by state monopolies, ministers encouraged other parties to enter the market, going head to head with what would become BT plc.

And so the aforementioned C&W teamed up with British Petroleum, which was finding petrol a bit dull, and Barclays Bank, which had good money to burn, and formed Mercury Communications Ltd. Mercury was the Roman god of communications, see? The new company set about establishing various telecom-style ventures, plonking odd-looking phone boxes on the high street, giving Phil Collins a cash boost by syncing his music to invigorating footage of dirty cables being pushed into the ground, and getting into the phone card business big time.

Though the whole venture was hindered somewhat by every single person in the country (outside of Hull, obviously) having BT-connected phones. And for some reason a ‘type ten digits into your BT phone every time you call to access the Mercury network’ plan never really took off. But Mercury buttons started to be added to handsets, and those phone boxes always stood out, which meant, for a telecoms network nobody used, Mercury nevertheless enjoyed a pretty high profile. And even more so once mobile telecoms gained momentum in the mid-1990s, Mercury having won the rights to run one of the new ‘personal communication networks’.

And then… hmm, actually, I’ve just done a word count and I’m thinking perhaps this report is a little too comprehensive. I’d blame Malt for that. Maybe I should speed things up a bit. OK, here goes…

Mercury Communications had a huge disadvantage because of the totally dominant BT. So they recruited an ambitious marketing team. And they did some quirky art and music stuff. Which led to them sponsoring a new music awards initiated by the then boss of Virgin Records, Jon ‘Webbo’ Webster. It took their name. But then Mercury got sold. And the brand was dumped. But the awards lived on. 22 years and counting. Last night Scottish hip hoppers Young Fathers won it. See, I can do concise, you just have to ask.

See you in February for my comprehensive coverage of the BRITs. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph…