A Look at Inside the Freemasons
Inside the TV series that goes inside the United Grand Lodge of England
By Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR
Sitting with me at lunch as we were planning a Masonic project, a Brother pulled something out of his briefcase and handed it to me, “Here… take a look at this and tell me what you think of it.” I took it and found myself looking at a DVD case — Inside the Freemasons. I almost felt as if I was holding contraband; and in a sense I was. This was the much-ballyhooed Sky TV production about the United Grand Lodge of England not intended, initially at least, to air in the US.
Sky TV billed the series as a documentary to “discover the truth behind the ancient rituals and closely-guarded practices of the world’s oldest social network, taking viewers exclusively behind the scenes in the run up to its 300th anniversary in 2017.”
Excited about the prospect of possessing this forbidden fruit, I scampered back home and popped it in my DVD player only to get the message, “Can’t Operate Disc.” Uh-oh. Not only is it not meant to play in the US, it’s coded so it won’t play here. Contraband, indeed. Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. When I tried this in my computer’s DVD drive, it played (caveat emptor – in case you’re thinking of purchasing the DVD, this doesn’t always work).
Well, problem solved, popcorn popped, easy chair reclined, I was ready for the adventure.
The pre-release buzz about this five-part series indicated it was going to be a classier, more accurate assessment of Freemasonry than the run-of-the-mill sensationalism we usually see about the Brotherhood. Unquestionably, it was. However, the producers still could not resist claiming they would “lift the veil of secrecy” and “reveal what really goes on behind closed doors.” Not so much — If anything the producers went out of their way to respect the privacy of the degrees, visibly closing the doors on the viewer more than once. I’m no expert on UGLE Freemasonry but for ceremonies they show – installations, dinners and other meetings – corresponding events are open or not considered “secret” in my jurisdiction.
The show also promises “to reveal what it means to be a modern day Freemason.” In this vein as we watch Brothers in pursuit of various aspects of Freemasonry, from being initiated to attaining high office, we also see them interacting with their families, jobs and hobbies. The show contrasts the “stuffed shirt” aspect of Freemasonry with Brothers engaged in farming, sky-diving, motorcycling, boxing and such. We even see the consecration of a Lodge exclusively for footballers (you know, the thing we in the US call “soccer”) — again, an open ceremony over here.
Mainly recorded at Freemasons Hall in London (Covent Garden), headquarters of UGLE and the “spiritual home of Freemasonry,” the series is peppered with Masonic tidbits, mostly light-hearted, where a narrator asks something about the fraternity and a Brother responds. As an example, in one of these scenes (which almost look like outtakes) the narrator asks, “Tell me a surprising Masonic fact.” A chuckling Brother responds, “There are no goats involved.”
There are poignant moments as well. In one such scene a Brother shows a picture of himself and his wife smiling arm-in-arm at a Masonic function. Just seconds after the photographer snapped the picture, his wife collapsed and died of a heart-attack. The Brother talks about the support he and his daughter have received from the Masons after the devastating event.
While watching, US Brothers can’t help but compare US customs to those in the UGLE. Most notable to some may be the formality of dress in England compared to the ultra-casual attire one finds in the US. The impeccably-dressed UGLE Masons somehow exude an air of courtesy and respect for each other that jeans and T-shirts can’t match. To others, the biggest contrast may be the free-flowing alcohol at UGLE Lodge functions.
A scene that is sure to send many US Brethren reeling is one in which a Mason explains expenses to a prospective candidate. “So,” he explains, “our subscription per year is £215. There is also a Provencal Grand Lodge Registration fee of £25, and then there’s a Grand Lodge Fee which will be £31. There is a one-off fee of £111 plus the subscription of £190. As a Mason we expect some monetary contribution to our charities and also then the dining cost; We don’t eat for free, unfortunately… so the dining meal is generally £24… £23… depends on the menu. If you want wine on top, that’s generally about £5 or £6;” And all this was said to a prospect who, as a student, was getting a discount. So just to get in, not counting meals and donations, that’s a total of £572 or about $750. It is unclear if the £190 subscription is annual but the subscription of £215 amounts to a minimum annual dues of $282. My Lodge dues are $46 and that comes with the right to gripe about them being too high.
Viewers will also notice scenes where some Brother’s faces are blurred so they will not be recognized as Masons. Things aren’t so open in England as they are in the US.
Throughout the five parts the viewer follows Brothers in their various Masonic and non-Masonic activities as they prepare for and complete initiations, dinners, meetings and fundraisers. All of it leads to “Annual Investiture,” the most important meeting of the year, with the Duke of Kent, Grand Master of the UGLE, presiding.
For the record, here is a brief description of what is in each episode:
Episode 1: A Quarterly Communication; a candidate preparing for his initiation and Brothers practicing for the degree; installation of a Provincial Grand Master; a festive board.
Episode 2: A candidate preparing for the Fellowcraft Degree; snippets of the candidate being questioned in the Second Degree (something akin to our proficiencies), with the unprepared candidate stumbling through his responses; a Lodge-sponsored boxing event which raises £8,000 ($10,500) for charity.
Episode 3: Planning for a Quarterly Communication; a candidate preparing for his Master Mason Degree; a Masonic Ladies’ Night including a traditional “grand march”; a look at the Widow’s Sons motorcycle club led by Peter Younger, whose wife recently passed away at a Masonic event; a Quarterly Communication and festive board.
Episode 4: On-the-street interviews garnering public comments such as, “I can’t imagine what crazy things happen behind those doors”; the issue of Freemasonry as a men-only fraternity; a Masonic ladies’ event with the Lodge’s “First Lady” as the featured speaker; scenes from a well-known rapper’s second degree at Chelsea Lodge for entertainers; the Consecration of a new music-themed Lodge.
Episode 5: Freemasonry’s “battle plan” to attract younger members; preparation for and the Annual Investiture; events leading up to the consecration of a Lodge themed for football players and enthusiasts; the grand entrance of the Grand Master (Duke of Kent) at the Annual Investiture for which doors are closed “out of respect for the Duke of Kent.”
There is much more to see in this series which, in my opinion, will be enjoyable and educational for Masons and non-Masons alike. Freemasons will find many of the scenes familiar and very much like Masonic activities in the US. Other scenes will be a learning opportunity as we experience the light by which other Brothers work.
If you’re interested in purchasing the two-DVD set, it’s available for about $20 (US) here: http://bit.ly/2v4ejbL (Don’t forget, if you purchase it the discs may not work in your DVD player). If you live in a region eligible for Sky TV and are a subscriber, you may watch online here: http://bit.ly/2teEhMs .