Archive for category Music
It’s too early to know what’s been lost, what’s been saved. It’s too early to know what started the blaze. All we know is that a beautiful place has been ravaged by fire, and that not only those whose city it graces but all of us who care about history and beauty feel a sense of shock and loss.
The great cathedrals were intended to inspire a sense of worship, a turning of the heart and the mind to God. For me, what they inspire is certainly awe, but awe of the human beings who imagined and then built something so extraordinary. Without any of the knowledge we now have of materials science, of engineering and physics, they built something that has survived (and survives still) for centures, that has outlived wars and revolutions, and has remained (and will remain still) a place of contemplation and stillness.
A place of Christian worship has occupied this site since probably the 4th century. Notre Dame itself dates from the 12th century – obviously since then there have been alterations, additions, refurbishments, renovations and repairs. The flying buttresses were added in the 13th century, and then strengthened again in the 14th. The Cathedral suffered damage at various times – Huguenot riots, the Revolution, the street fighting during the Liberation. The spire which collapsed in the blaze yesterday was from the 19th century.
That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars. And although some speakers, by their own free judgment, because [they are] able to see only a few things easily, may say that some other is more beautiful, I believe however, respectfully, that, if they attend more diligently to the whole and the parts, they will quickly retract this opinion. Where indeed, I ask, would they find two towers of such magnificence and perfection, so high, so large, so strong, clothed round about with such a multiple variety of ornaments? Where, I ask, would they find such a multipartite arrangement of so many lateral vaults, above and below? Where, I ask, would they find such light-filled amenities as the many surrounding chapels? Furthermore, let them tell me in what church I may see such a large cross, of which one arm separates the choir from the nave. Finally, I would willingly learn where [there are] two such circles, situated opposite each other in a straight line, which on account of their appearance are given the name of the fourth vowel [O] ; among which smaller orbs and circlets, with wondrous artifice, so that some arranged circularly, others angularly, surround windows ruddy with precious colors and beautiful with the most subtle figures of the pictures. In fact I believe that this church offers the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul.”— Jean de Jandun, Tractatus de laudibus Parisius[
For me, Notre Dame has other connotations. In this place, inspired by this place, composers such as Léonin and Perotin wove extraordinary, other-worldly sounds with human voices, using the acoustics of the cathedral to worship God in song. The idea of polyphony was regarded with suspicion by some – the fear was that the listeners would be swept away by the beauty of the sounds and forget to take heed of the words:
Bad taste has, however, degraded even religious worship, bringing into the presence of God, into the recesses of the sanctuary a kind of luxurious and lascivious singing, full of ostentation, which with female modulation astonishes and enervates the souls of the hearers. When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of voices … whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. Such is the facility of running up and down the scale; so wonderful the shortening or multiplying of notes, the repetition of the phrases, or their emphatic utterance: the treble and shrill notes are so mingled with tenor and bass, that the ears lost their power of judging. When this goes to excess it is more fitted to excite lust than devotion; but if it is kept in the limits of moderation, it drives away care from the soul and the solicitudes of life, confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels.
John of Salisbury (1938) . Pike, Joseph B, ed. Policraticus, sive de nugis curialium et de vestigiis philosophorum [Frivolities of courtiers and footprints of philosophers: being a translation of the first, second, and third books and selections from the seventh and eighth books of the Policraticus of John of Salisbury]
It is deeply touching that the response of Parisians to the sight of this place, so deeply a part of their (and our) culture and history, engulfed in flames, was to sing.
• «Tous les yeux s’étaient levés vers le haut de l’église. Ce qu’ils voyaient était extraordinaire. Sur le sommet de la galerie la plus élevée, plus haut que la rosace centrale, il y avait une grande flamme qui montait entre les deux clochers avec des tourbillons d’étincelles…»
Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831).
One is not, sadly, surprised to note not only an outbreak of ‘whataboutery’ (as if those of us who care about the damage to this beautiful place must therefore not care about, for example, the burning of black churches in Louisiana) but a rush to blame, to line up the usual suspects. I won’t dignify the latter with any further words.
Notre Dame will be rebuilt. Notre Dame will survive. Notre Dame reminds us how extraordinary human beings are. That we can imagine and create something like this, envisage something bigger and finer and more beautiful than we have ever seen and then make it reality. That we can hear the way sound echoes in the vaulted roof and creates harmonics, and compose music – and systems of notation which enable us to see and study and play that music today – to glorify God with many voices weaving together. Many voices, making harmony. That we could do those things must surely give us hope for humanity.
Family circumstances make it unlikely I will have time to do my usual detailed breakdown of my favourite TV programmes, books, music and so forth for the year just about to end. I managed the film review, but for now, I will make do with mere lists, and hope to have time at some later point to talk a bit more about why.
TOP TV – not ranked in any way!
- Derry Girls
- Black Earth Rising
- They Shall Not Grow Old
- No Offence
- The A Word
- Killing Eve
- A Very English Scandal
- Star Trek: Discovery
- Agents of Shield
- The Bridge
- The Walking Dead
- Doctor Who
- The Cry
- Secrets of Cinema
- Black Hollywood
2018 in Music
- Songhoy Blues – Resistance
- Bjork – Utopia
- Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet – Illuminations
- Kamasi Washington – Heaven & Earth
- J to Z (BBC Radio 3)
- Tosca (Opera North)
- Don Giovanni (Opera North)
- Madama Butterfly (Opera North)
- Salome (Opera North)
- Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita (Music in the Round)
- Kiss Me Kate (Opera North)
- Silent Night (Opera North)
- Terry Riley – In C
- Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint/New York Counterpoint (Music in the Round)
- Steve Reich – Different Trains/John Adams – Fellow Traveler/John Zorn – Cat o’Nine Tails/Tanya Tagaq – Sivunittinni /George Crumb – Black Angels (Ligeti Quartet)
Books of the Year
- Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13
- Naomi Alderson – The Power
- Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know
- Thomas Mullen – Darktown
- Cath Staincliffe – Girl in a Green Dress
- Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk
- Lawrence Wright – The Looming Tower
- Stephen King – The Outsider
- Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho
- Sarah Hilary – Come and Find Me
- Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race
- Stephen King & Owen King – Sleeping Beauties
- Eva Dolan – This is How it Ends
- Robyn Hollingworth – My Mad Dad
- Paul Dobraszczyk – The Dead City
- Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
- Caitlin Moran – How to be Famous
- Henry Marsh – Do No Harm
- Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale
- Dervla McTierney – The Ruin
- Keith Richards – Life
And a mention also to the Crucible Theatre production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to Philippe Sands’ superb podcast, The Ratline.
Thanks to all who shared these delights with me – the usual suspects (Martyn, Arthur, Viv, Ruth, Liz, Jane).
So, I was challenged to post on Facebook ten albums that have significance, in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on my rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain.
Well, I can’t resist this kind of thing. But I do want to explain. So here they are.
NB these are not the ten best albums I’ve ever heard. Not my ten favourite albums. Just ten albums that have somehow or other stayed with me, that I’m always delighted to hear, that led me on to other things, or took me back to somewhere special.
- Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic (1974)
Marshall Hall student residences, Sheffield City College of Education, 1975-77. My first encounter with the Dan, pretty much. And still my favourite ever Dan album. Infused with jazz, explicitly in the Ellington cover, ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’, and ‘Parker’s Band’, less overtly in the Horace Silver bass pattern on ‘Ricki Don’t Lose that Number’. At the same time, superlative pop/rock, ‘complete musical statements within the narrow borders of the three-minute pop-song format’, according to Rolling Stone. Impenetrable, ambiguous lyrics, which still deliver a hell of a kick. Fave track? ‘Any Major Dude‘.
Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
2. Osibisa (1971)
Criss-cross rhythms that explode with happiness. For me, hearing this some time in the early 70s was connecting with part of my own past, my childhood in West Africa. Living pretty much on the campus of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology, where my father taught, we heard the highlife music wafting over from the student residences. A blend of Latin and African sounds, made for dancing, it was infectious stuff. But I’d forgotten those sounds until Osibisa. They weren’t all Ghanaians but their roots were in a highlife band, The Star Gazers, featuring Teddy Osei (sax), Sol Amarfio (drums) and Mac Tontoh (trumpet) who went on to form Osibisa in London in 1969. Joining them were band members from Grenada, Trinidad, Antigua, Nigeria, and another couple of Ghanaians. It wasn’t ‘authentic’ but then neither was highlife. Music can’t be kept pristine and pure, it is promiscuous, one form instinctively bonding with another to create something new. And it’s portable – the music of Africa crossed the Atlantic on the slave ships and interacted with the music that it found there. Osibisa brought the music of Ghana back to me and today, all these years later, one track especially brings back not just those early years but our family home in Nottinghamshire. Our house was called Akwaaba – ‘welcome’, in Twi which is the official dialect of Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana.
3. Kirsty MacColl – Kite (1989)
Whenever I post anything about Kirsty I get such an outpouring of love in the comments. From people I knew adored her, and people I had no idea would feel that way. It’s more than the music – we respond to a sense of who she was, that she wasn’t and couldn’t be ‘plastic’. Before Kite I’d heard, obviously, ‘Chip Shop’ and her cover of ‘Days’ and although I’d liked her voice, I wasn’t expecting something this powerful from her. Apart from ‘Days’, there aren’t any covers here, it’s all her. She managed to attract brilliant musicians to work with her – and everyone who did seems to have loved her to bits. Even Morrissey, in all of his petulant and quarrelsome – and lengthy – autobiography doesn’t have a bad word for her. I always loved the story of her making music with Keith Richards and telling him he was playing something wrong. She was tough and vulnerable at the same time, her voice was sweet and strong, her words were funny and heartbreaking. If I have to pick one track from this, it will always be ‘Free World‘.
4. King Crimson – Red (1974)
This is seriously heavy. It’s said to be one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums, which kind of makes sense. Whilst Crimson are obviously prog, they transcend the stereotypes of the genre, and this album in particular is grungy, particularly on One More Red Nightmare. Crimson was a constantly mutating ensemble, in which the only constant was Robert Fripp. This particular band comprised Fripp on guitar and mellotron, Bill Bruford on drums and Jon Wetton on bass and vocals, plus Crimson alumni David Cross (violin), Mel Collins (soprano sax) and Ian McDonald (alto sax). This was to be the last Crimson album for seven years. Next up was Discipline in 1981, with Fripp (obv) and Bruford plus Adrian Belew and Tony Levin. Top track – ‘Starless‘. It’s bleak and beautiful and kind of terrifying.
5. Motown Chartbusters Volume 3
I bought this for pennies from someone in my class at school. A great big hefty slice of vinyl, already a bit crackly. Packed with classic Motown tunes, by their greatest songwriters (HDH, Whitfield & Strong, Smokey, Marvin, Stevie, Ashford & Simpson amongst others) and their finest artists (Temps, Four Tops, Marvin, Smokey, Stevie, Supremes, Isleys and more). I know and love every note on this album and always will. But in the end there’s one that just floors me every time, Diana Ross & the Supremes – Love Child. This is a classic story song, a story not so far from the real lives of many of the Motown stars, poverty, single parenthood, and the shame of being both poor and illegitimate. Diana may not have been the best singer on Motown’s roster but her voice could burn and yearn nonetheless. Where I lose it is the coda. Diana soars with ‘I will always love you’, whilst the backing singers (apparently not Cindy and Mary on the recording) provide an urgent counterpoint with ‘wait/wait won’t you wait now/hold on/wait/just a little bit longer.’ It’s pretty much damn perfect.
6. Flobots – Fight with Tools (2007)
The first thing I heard from the Flobots was ‘Handlebars’. I can still remember how it affected me, the lyrics and the instrumentation – not just the usual guitar, bass and drums, but viola, cello and trumpet. It gave me goosebumps. In the years when I was running regularly, Flobots were my ideal soundtrack. No matter how tired I was, how daunted by the distance still to go and the steepness of the hill ahead of me, the combination of passionately political lyrics and tight urgent rhythms powered me onwards. There’s always a sense of hope in the words of their songs, a sense that however crappy things are (and lord knows they’ve got crappier since 2007) there is and always will be resistance, people who will man the barricades, who will refuse to shut up.
We are building up a new world
Do not sit idly by
Do not remain neutral
Do not rely on this broadcast, alone
We are only as strong as our signal
There is a war going on for your mind
If you are thinking, you are winning
I’m picking ‘Anne Braden‘. This epitomises their politics, I think. It celebrates a white woman, from the Deep South, who always knew that there was something wrong, and who threw in her lot not with her ‘own people’, but with the oppressed. She was tirelessly active in the civil rights movement and anti-racist politics throughout her life, facing arrest and the constant threat of violence. She believed that there was ‘another America’, and we have to hang on to the belief that she was right.
7. Le Mystere des voix Bulgares (1975)
This was originally released in 1975 on a small record label, and might well have been forgotten, had Ivo Watts of 4AD not heard an audio cassette of the recording and tracked it down. It was re-released in 1986 and had a tremendous impact. From the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, who contributed the most to the album, the Trio Bulgarka emerged, and worked with Kate Bush on her Sensual World album in 1989. She said that ‘it was something strange to feel this very strong female energy in the studio. It was interesting to see the way the men in the studio reacted… Instead of just one female, there was a very strong female presence.’ What struck me so forcibly when I first heard it was the harmonies. A cappella vocals can always tingle my spine whether it’s The Sixteen doing Allegri’s ‘Misereri’ or The Four Freshmen doing ‘Their Hearts were full of Spring’, but these are not just spinetingling but weird and unsettling. Especially “Sableyalo Mi Agontze” (Заблеяло ми агънце) [The Bleating Lamb].
8. Songhoy Blues – Soubour
I’ve written often about my love for the music of Mali. It’s the birthplace of the blues, and its music never fails to move me, emotionally and physically. These young musicians grew up not only with the astonishing legacy of Malian music – the genius of Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Toure – but also the music that had emerged across the Atlantic, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, inheritors and interpreters of the sounds that generations of Africans had taken with them on the slave ships. Their music has also been shaped by the threat posed by IS affiliates to that incredibly rich culture – see the documentary They will have to kill us first, and Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film, Timbuktu. Hard to pick one track, but for today at least, I’ll pick ‘Petit metier‘.
9. Alice Cooper – School’s Out (1972)
Summer of ’72, my French penfriend, Catherine, was visiting. She brought with her the sound of Claude Francois and Michel Sardou, and went home with singles from Hawkwind and Alice Cooper. I’m somewhat surprised I was allowed over to see her the following year… Not everything that I loved back in the summer of ’72 has stood the test of time, but this one has. And particularly Alice’s appropriation of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in ‘Gutter Cat vs the Jets‘. The Alice image never appealed to me especially, but the music did and does. If I was asked to pick ten musicians Alice would never make the cut (soz Alice) but every time I hear this album I’m reminded of how it galvanised me back then. It also reminds me of the polarisation of music back then. Of my school friends, most listened to Motown, Northern Soul, Ska and reggae. Others listened to Deep Purple, Zep and Alice. I never quite got the hang of which gang I was supposed to be in, because I loved all of the above. Still do.
10. David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973)
Well, obviously there would be Bowie. I could have picked ten albums just from his lifetime’s output. But them’s the rules. Aladdin Sane is an album that surprises me every time I hear it, there are details that I didn’t recall from so many previous listenings. And there’s Mike Garson’s fabulous piano on the title track, amongst others. When Bowie died I reminisced about ‘Time’, and how when we played this album at home we had to ensure we were within arm’s reach of the volume control in case of sudden parental proximity when Bowie got to the v v rude bit of the lyrics. Tough to pick just one track from this album, but I’ve settled on ‘Lady Grinning Soul‘, which is another that features Garson.
Ten albums, from the thousands that have found their way on to our record player/CD player/cassette deck over the years. They’re weighted towards the 1970s, which I guess is inevitable. My teenage years, when my musical tastes were forming, freeing themselves both from parental influence and from the tribalism of my peers, trying things out and finding out what moved my feet, my hips, my mind and my heart. That process has never stopped, but it was at its most intense then. I carry with me the earliest music I heard – a kind of mash-up of the Goldberg Variations with E T Mensah & The Tempos, probably – and there was a gradual immersion in the world of pop and rock when we returned home from West Africa in the late 60s. All of those sounds are still part of my listening world, and I’ve added music from all around the world, and ‘classical’ music that my parents weren’t into (late 20th century stuff, and opera), and jazz and, well, a bit of everything really. And there’s a world of music out there that I don’t know, and that I might love if I get the chance to listen. So ten albums is daft and arbitrary but if you made it 100 albums it still wouldn’t be adequate.
“The world without music? It would be like a prison, right?” (Garba Touré, Songhoy Blues)
It was a good year for superheroes. Most specially because of Wonder Woman, not because it was the best of its genre this year necessarily but because for the first time with a superhero movie I didn’t have scroll through hundreds of images to find one where a woman was centre screen, in charge. I wrote about the film, how it made me feel, the exhilaration of seeing all the tropes I love about superhero movies but with a woman, a glorious, magnificent woman, where usually there is a man, or mainly men (quite possibly glorious and magnificent in their own right, but still).
I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warming to it despite a phase when I wearied of some of the schoolboy humour, until I realised what that was telling us about these lost children, and how they were forming a strange, new family. There was plenty of daft humour too in Thor: Ragnarok, as one would expect given that Taika Waititi was directing (responsible for last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople and for What we do in the Shadows). And it was perhaps a sign of changing times (and not a moment too soon) that Valkyrie is played as a cynical, world-weary, boozy mess who comes through when she is needed, such a male archetype. As well as obviously kicking ass in a most splendid way. Spiderman: Homecoming was charming, funny and really used the notion that Spidey is an adolescent boy, cleverly and with heart. Logan, though, of all the films that belong broadly in that genre, was the one to break your heart. With gripping valedictory performances from Jackman and Stewart, and a mesmerising and terrifying one from Dafne Keen.
Star Wars is not so much my thing. I did enjoy the first trilogy, albeit critically, but I never felt them to be mine, and I have never even seen the prequels (nor do I intend to). But I loved The Force Awakens, and I loved Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi before long.
War for the Planet of the Apes was brilliant – referencing Biblical epics, Westerns, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and probably other genres and specific films as well, whilst maintaining the power and emotional heft of its predecessors.
My efforts to find an image for each film in which a woman is prominent were doomed in the case of Dunkirk. That’s fair enough, given the premise, I didn’t expect women to feature other than in traditional roles – as nurses, or serving tea and jam sandwiches. There has been a more serious issue raised, that of the absence of non-white faces. I don’t honestly believe this was a deliberate whitewashing, nor do I accept that just because Farage liked the film it was a pro-Brexit parable. But it would have taken very little to ensure that there were visible representatives of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, or the lascar crewmen on British merchant vessels that took part in the evacuation. They were there, and this could have been conveyed without changing the basic structure of the film and its deliberately narrow focus on a few of the rescued and rescuers. But having said that, whilst watching the film such considerations never crossed my mind. I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
The opposite for the next two movies – three women foregrounded in each of them. I wrote about Twentieth-century Women for International Women’s Day,
and Hidden Figures we missed at the cinema but caught on DVD – uplifting and inspiring even if, oddly enough, the sexism and racism they encountered was actually ramped up for the benefit of the story. Who would have thought that could ever be necessary?
Baby Driver was beautifully described by Empire as:
not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.
Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
La La Land inspired me to write about musicals. It was gorgeous and delightful and poignant and much more that I wanted to say was expressed so well in a piece on the marvellous That’s How the Light Gets In blog.
And one more cinema outing, a rather lengthy but entirely captivating one, for Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. It is what it says, a journey and a personal one at that, through French film from Tavernier’s first childhood moment of enchantment, on through the decades as he goes from a kid in the audience to a film maker himself. I believe there’s a follow-up in the making, bringing his journey more up to date, to which I will happily commit as many hours as it takes, as soon as it’s out.
Mind you, speaking of French cinema, I should really note that we did go to see Elle. However, my feelings about that film are so predominantly negative, that despite my overwhelming admiration for Huppert, and despite moments of brilliantly black comedy, I shall pass over it without substantial comment.
On to the smaller screen.
As always a good deal of crime fiction. The dramas noted below are not an inclusive list of what we watched. There were others that were workaday, or that strained credulity with plot craters and characters who behaved with a stupidity that was at the same time predictable and utterly inconsistent with what we already knew of them. I’m not going to name the guilty parties, just those that we were gripped by and that managed to avoid the worst clichés and pitfalls of the genre.
Sherlock: The Final Problem certainly didn’t give us genre cliché. What it all meant, and indeed, whether it meant anything at all or was just a clever game, is uncertain. The Guardian‘s reviewer was a bit cross about it, but identified two main strands in the narrative:
One was a subtle, beautifully crafted backstory about Sherlock’s childhood. The other was a fun if unfulfilling gameshow of wild hypotheticals, where everything was at stake yet it often felt as though very little was.
It was frustrating and baffling but it didn’t make me cross, I was perfectly willing to believe both that it did mean something and that it was just a fascinating puzzle that I would probably have no chance of unravelling.
Line of Duty series 4 was just superb. Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley was absolutely compelling, and the plot twisted and turned as we were made to question everyone’s motives and integrity, at least briefly. It had the classic LoD set pieces in the interview room, plus shoot outs and chases, and a plot that at least started to weave together strands from series 1-3, whilst leaving plenty to look forward to in series 5, which cannot come around too soon for me.
The Missing had only one character in common with series 1, the grizzled detective (Tchéky Karyo) who I was very glad to spend another few hours with. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were both excellent, as always. The narrative begins, in a sense, at the point that one might expect it to end, with the return of their missing daughter. Of course, it’s not that simple, it’s complex and agonising, and unexpected.
Broadchurch 3 was much better than 2 (which I quite enjoyed at the time but actually struggle to recall what it was all about, really, apart from Joe’s not guilty plea). The handling of the rape case was generally excellent even if the resolution left a few dangling plot threads that didn’t quite make sense. Julie Hesmondhalgh was wonderful, as were, obviously, Tennant, Colman and Whittaker.
Strike was an excellent adaptation of the first two of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike novels. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were perfect in the lead roles, and I look forward immensely to the adaptation of the third and any future novels in the series.
I Know Who you Are was a fairly bonkers Spanish series in which most characters were pretty despicable, and one of the two genuinely sympathetic people didn’t make it out alive. The only morality that prevailed was Family and within that there was a hierarchy of loyalty – to attempt to murder one’s sister in order to protect one’s son was seen by most characters (including the intended victim) as pretty reasonable. It was all thoroughly enjoyable.
Unforgotten 2 was profoundly different, as Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar unpicked another cold case. They are both deeply sympathetic characters and the whole thing is imbued with a kind of compassion and empathy that draws in the damaged people whose lives have been twisted in various ways by the past crime.
Rellik very cleverly subverted the way in which the detective story must follow a retrograde narrative path, starting with the crime and working backwards, by starting with the crime’s (apparent) resolution and working backwards and backwards, until in its final episode it leapt back to the beginning/end and a shocking dénoument. The structure took a bit of getting used to and never quite stopped being unsettling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It was produced by Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) and featured, amongst other excellent performances, the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as an early suspect.
Witnesses was the second series of the French crime drama starring Marie Dompnier. This one also stars Audrey Fleurot, who we know from Spiral, and whose return in that series we look forward to impatiently. Witnesses was compelling and baffling and ended most enigmatically (none the worse for that – I’d rather have honest to goodness open endings than ostensibly tidy endings that actually leave loose threads all over the place).
Fargo 3 brought us not one but two wonderful female cops. Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). And not one but two Ewan McGregors, as he plays twin brothers. One David Thewlis was more than enough, however – his villain was quite the most revolting, viscerally unpleasant character I’ve seen on screen for some time. That’s a compliment (I think) to the writing and the acting. Lord knows where this one is going next but we’ll be more than happy to go along. Fargo also introduced the wonderful phrase, ‘unfathomable pinhead-ery’ into our vocab, for which we are truly thankful.
Telly sci-fi had an altogether brilliant year.
Agents of Shield had an outstanding season with a multi-layered narrative that messed with our heads and our hearts. Beautifully played and written, and quite breathtaking.
Orphan Black reached its fifth and final season, having maintained its form throughout the four years that it has been running. The weight of the series is carried – seemingly effortlessly – by the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who plays not only various clone ‘sestras’ but at various times plays one of them masquerading as one of the others. It’s dazzlingly done. It also stars the rather wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs S.
We’re not far through Star Trek: Discovery yet, but from episode 3 on were hooked. Yes, OK, that coincides with the arrival of Jason Isaacs, but it’s not just because Jason Isaacs. Sonequa Martin-Green is excellent, as is Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman as cadet Tilly. It’s visually brilliant, and the plot is loaded with moral ambiguity from which it does not flinch. It promises much and we look forward to it developing further.
I remain loyal to The Walking Dead even though no one could claim that it’s unproblematic. The tone and pace are extremely uneven and it depends far too often on (a) plot armour, (b) magically inexhaustible ammo and (c) people who we know are capable of good judgement behaving with unfathomable pinheadery. Nonetheless, I cannot envisage giving up on it. I have to see how this plays out – and there are episodes which grip and compel and convince.
Possibly the only one of my top TV shows which features in the critics’ lists is The Handmaid’s Tale. I also read the book for the first time, as part of my 60 books in 60 days challenge. So much has been said about the series that I don’t feel I can add anything especially insightful – it was horrifying and terrifying and brilliantly done.
And of course there’s Doctor Who. I wrote about the (to me, brilliant) news that the next Doctor will be a woman. Nonetheless, much as I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role I will need to grieve first for Peter Capaldi’s doctor, who I have loved – and for Pearl Mackie who has been a wonderful companion. PC’s final series was excellent, and the finale was heart-stopping and moving.
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor
Three docs worth mentioning. Suzie Klein’s Tunes for Tyrants explored 20th century music in the context of Nazi and Stalinist oppression. She’s an excellent presenter and the material – and the music – was fascinating and powerful.
Bowie’s departure from this dimension was – for me amongst others – the greatest loss of 2016, a year of losses. Bowie – the Last Five Years brought us the final phase of that extraordinary story, as he worked on his last two albums, and the stage musical Lazarus. We were reminded, as if we could forget, not only of his talent, but of his humour and intelligence, his warmth and wit. And that last body of work is not only a worthy finale to his career but imbued with a sense of mortality and the fragility of life.
Neil Brand is one of my favourite music-explainers. Charles Hazlewood and Tom Service have got that nailed in terms of classical music but for the music of stage and screen, for the popular song, Neil is your man, and The Sound of Musicals was a delight.
We loved Poldark, and not just for the scenery.
The Replacement was a bit bonkers but both Vicky McClure (see also Line of Duty) and Morven Christie (also in The A Word, series 2 of which isn’t covered here only because it’s yet to be watched) were excellent.
And another favourite of mine, Suranne Jones, was magnificent in series 2 of Doctor Foster.
We got to see Jodie Whittaker pretending to be a doctor in Trust Me. Plot holes a-plenty (unless they’re just an indication of a second series coming up?) but well done, and well played by JW – looking forward to her being a real Doctor shortly.
Homeland was on excellent form, with the dynamics between Carrie and the new female PotUS adding a new dimension to the plot.
And Spin took us back into the shadowy world of French political manouevering.
It wasn’t all screen based culture. I made several visits to Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North productions, some of which I reviewed for The Culture Vulture (see the Reviews page of this site, which also features my review of the Sheffield Crucible’s production of Julius Caesar). I also saw at Leeds Grand a magical production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, at the Crucible, an intense Desire Under the Elms, and in the Crucible Studio various splendid Music in the Round chamber music concerts.
So, thanks to all who’ve shared these delights with me. Liz, Viv, Arthur, Ruth, Aid, Dad, and of course him that I’ve been watching telly and going to the pictures and going to gigs and plays with for >40 years…
The release of Sgt Pepper’s Hearts Club Band, fifty years ago today, is one of those moments in musical history. So much has been written about the album over the years since. But this personal account, from Mike Press, is for me the perfect tribute to Pepper, to what it meant and what it means, and to the power of music. Thanks, Mike, for letting me share this.
My Mum, my Dad, Sgt Pepper and me – Mike Press
Unusually, I remember exactly what I was doing 50 years ago today at around 6 pm.
It all began with She Loves You.
My Dad ordered it in advance of its release and picked it up from the Record Room in St Albans on his way home from work on the day it came out. And he did the same with every Beatles’ release up to the White Album. It was a family ritual. Part of this same ritual was that we would play the new record over and over at least six times as soon as he got home (to be honest, it was six with a single and at least twice with an album). She Loves You was a revelation, in part because after we’d played it half a dozen times he says “right, shall we play the B side now?”. THERE’S A B SIDE??? You mean they actually give you another song for free? I was stunned with both the concept and the clear generosity of the recording industry, which was perhaps one reason that I gave them so much money in return over my extended adolescence. In this case the B side was even better than the A side.
Thursday the First of June 1967 was just another school day at Fleetville Junior Mixed Infants. We were coasting down towards the end of our primary schooling with the first year of Grammar School just a few months away. Dad and I had been Beatles fans since their first hit. He bought all the records, which we played relentlessly the day they came out, and every so often he’d say “fancy a Beatles’ session?” and we’d play the whole lot in one go. These sessions often drove my Mum to distraction. Mind you, she had a far better grasp of the interpretation of the lyrics than either of us did. When she first suggested that Ticket to Ride was about the Isle of Wight ferry I remember us firmly dismissing this as the overly literal interpretation of a geographer. When John Lennon was asked some years later what the song was about he replied that it was about a friend who ran away to the Isle of Wight.
He drove home from London and stopped by the Record Room, a small shop on Chequer Street run by Mark Greene. Donovan, The Zombies and others reckoned that his was the best record shop outside London. Back then we didn’t have chain stores, we just had people who loved music who simply wanted to share it, and make an honest profit in the process. He knew his music, did Mark, and over the years a fair bit of my pocket money went over his counter. He sold records, and around the corner his brother Sol ran the town’s drapery business, both playing up their Jewishness to give their shops a real character and passion for what they sold. Mark had a humour that was so deadpan that you often weren’t sure if he was quipping or just naive. Like the time a couple of years later I went in to buy John and Yoko’s first album. He scoured the shelves, went down to the cellar, was clearly rattled that somehow it had been misfiled, and then shouted over to his assistant “Mac, I can’t seem to lay my hands on Two Virgins.”
So the old man got home from Mark’s shop with a record in a brown paper bag.
I distinctly remember taking the record out of the bag. It was the most beautiful and wonderful object I had ever held. This was no album cover. As you opened the then unique gatefold sleeve, it suggested opening a door into something unearthly and wonderful. A front cover which immediately engaged my Mum and Dad into a competition on who they could recognise, a back cover with – again uniquely – all their lyrics, and the inner gatefold with the fabs in all their acid drenched glory. Then there was the insert of cutouts, and the inner sleeve, normally white, which was presented in washes of pink.
My Dad took out the record, placed it on the platter, lowered the needle and we listened.
Well it was twenty years ago today…
I simply cannot describe the sense of wonder, of illumination that I experienced as we listened. The next week Kenneth Tynan in The Times described it as the high water mark of human civilisation. At the time people suggested that he was perhaps over egging it a bit, but in retrospect I think we can probably all agree that he’s broadly right. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa and the the Brandenburg Concertos – if not actually just a wee bit better. The sixties were a rollercoaster for all of us, but especially when you were a child. From She Loves You to A Day in The Life. Four years. Culture has never moved with such a frenetic pace or passion.
It was a record that was liberally peppered with wonderful characters, all vividly portrayed. There was Billy Shears, the Sergeant’s bandmates, Rita being tempted with tea, the girl meeting a man from the motor trade, the poor guy who didn’t notice that the lights had changed. And to this very day every time I meet somebody called Henderson I have to bite my lip not to ask how Pablo Fanque is.
I remember my dad saying many years after that first listening that Day In The Life was the best song of the century – and he was a Sinatra fan. Phil Collins said that the song helped him to learn how to drum, because of Ringo’s complex fills – so there is a downside to the album after all. But my first listening of it I remember as a surreal, cinematic experience.
We got to the end (and of course the enigmatic final groove). He didn’t need to ask. Flip over, and back to the start. And again.
That record taught a ten year old to always push the boundaries, to break rules, to take people on journeys, to turn people on, to try to be the best you can be. And with the encouragement of my folks that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.
Nothing musically has ever bettered that evening with my Mum, my Dad, Sergeant Pepper and me.
A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’. As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.
I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies. But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing. And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.
Obviously there are variations on the genre. To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song. In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra). In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.
So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.
Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think. The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic). But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.
From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft. Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time? But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget. The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer. He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.
There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.
There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific. 1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The theme of interracial relationships isn’t handled as it would be now, of course. But it’s handled. And back then, Rodgers and Hammerstein took an enormous risk in including a track which seemed to present a challenge to ‘the American way of life’. There was huge pressure to take the song out when the musical was staged, especially in the southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” And that song, those words, are powerful still.
And then there’s West Side Story .
Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever. Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction. The tunes, the moves, the words.
DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.
If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.
An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide. It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot. Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members. This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.
And so to La La Land.
The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film. But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references). The director has said that he wants to “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”
The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:
A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.
Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works. Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)
What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows? I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage. Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’. The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.
The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power. We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this. Which is why we need it.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus)
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times. But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.
We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear. That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman. What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations. If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too. That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.
It’s not enough, but it’s vital. Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;And I was filled with such delightAs prisoned birds must find in freedom,Winging wildly across the whiteOrchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;And beauty came like the setting sun:My heart was shaken with tears; and horrorDrifted away … O, but EveryoneWas a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)
I’m very conscious that I’ve watched very few of the series which are getting the Best Of accolades from the quality press. Some of them are sitting on our BT Vision box waiting to be watched, others we didn’t catch on to until they were underway and so are now waiting for the repeats.
Some of what we did watch was old stuff, the crime series that circulate on the Drama channel or ITV3, of which the best was undoubtedly Foyle’s War, for its meticulous attention to historical detail and the wonderful, understated central performance by Michael Kitchen.
We came late to the Scandi party, having missed The Killing altogether, and caught up with the Bridge only on the most recent series, but did enjoy Follow the Money (financial shenanigans), Blue Eyes (politics and right-wing terrorism), Trapped (murder, human trafficking and a heck of a lot of snow). And whilst we wait for Spiral to return, we saw its late lamented Pierre being an unmitigated shit in Spin.
We enjoyed the latest series of Scott & Bailey, Shetland and Endeavour. But the prize here goes (again) to Line of Duty. Vicky McClure and Keeley Hawes were both formidable and the tension brilliantly ramped up.
The Returned returned. Series 2 was as full of mystery and atmosphere as Series 1 and thankfully did not feel the need to offer tidy solutions. It left loose ends, but in a way that suggested the cyclical nature of events rather than anything that could be resolved by a third series.
Orphan Black’s penultimate series was as always thrilling and funny and complicated, with Tatiana Maslany triumphantly playing multiple roles, with such confidence and subtlety that I still occasionally forget that it’s all just her.
The Walking Dead ended its last season on a horrific cliffhanger, and the opener was pretty grim as well. I have doubts about the series – it is inevitably repetitive: our group finds what looks like a haven, the haven is compromised/invaded, a few of our lot are offed, a few new bods tag along, and on they go to the next apparent haven. The big shift is that as the series have progressed, the greatest danger is no longer from the walkers, since their behaviour is predictable and the survivors have developed effective tactics for defence and despatch, but from other more ruthless survivors. This is interesting territory (the walkers themselves are pretty dull, after all), but I’m not convinced by the way the writers are handling the current storyline. And they’ve shown a worrying tendency to make people act out of character, to do utterly stupid things that they know are utterly stupid, in order to move the story along. So, the jury is out, but I will be watching, whatever.
We also thrilled to The Night Manager, London Spy and Deutschland 83, and to the latest adaptations of War and Peace, and Conrad’s The Secret Agent.
The A Word was wonderful – I know that parents of autistic children had some quibbles, particularly about the way in which children who are ‘on the spectrum’ so often are shown as having special abilities, like Joe with his encyclopaedic knowledge of 80s pop, which is not always the case. But this was the story of one child, and his extended family. The performances were superb, the writing subtle and nuanced, and the image of Joe marching down the road, earphones on, singing ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ or ‘Mardy Bum’, will stay with me for a long time.
Raised by Wolves had a splendid new series, and then was inexplicably and inexcusably cancelled. Still hoping that Caitlin Moran’s crowdfunding project gets sufficient support to bring it back.
Normally my TV of the year would include Doctor Who, but we’ve had a hiatus this year, and will have to wait till Christmas Day for the special, and then 2017 for a new series (and a new companion). Meanwhile there was Class, on BBC3, which got off to a promising start, but as I’ve only seen 3 episodes so far, all comment and judgement is reserved until we’ve caught up.
At the theatre this year we saw two Stage on Screen performances at the Showroom – the Donmar Warehouse production of Liaisons Dangereuses, with Dominic West and Janet McTeer, and Anthony Sher’s magnificent and heartbreaking Lear.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen at the Lyceum Theatre in Pinter’s No Man’s Land were deeply unsettling as well as darkly funny.
And we saw a glorious reimagining of The Duchess of Malfi, transported to West Africa, as Iyalode of Eti.
Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre – Andrea Chenier, Giordano’s French Revolution tale of loyalty and revenge and love. And a glorious Puccini double bill – Il Tabarro, and Suor Angelica.
Of course there was Tramlines, about which I have rambled euphorically already. There was also Songhoy Blues in a Talking Gig, performing (and talking) after a showing of the remarkable documentary They will have to Kill us First, about the repression of music in Mali by Islamist extremists. Malian music is something else I have rambled euphorically about, and Songhoy Blues in particular.
Two gigs in the Crucible Studio, the first under the auspices of Sheffield Jazz – The Kofi Barnes Aggregation, a collaboration between two splendid, but very different, saxophonists. And the Unthanks were as spinetingly and goosebumpy and lump in the throaty as I could have imagined, whilst being, in person, down to earth and funny and delightful.
Of course the year began with, in the space of just a couple of days, hearing the new CD from a musician whose music has been part of my life since I was a teenager, and then learning of his death. David Bowie is far from being the only important musical figure to pass away this year – indeed, that great gig in the sky is looking pretty crowded now, with Prince, Leonard Cohen, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, Sharon Jones, Mose Allison, Pete Burns, Prince Buster, Gilli Smyth, Alan Vega, Dave Swarbrick and George Martin, to name but a few, rocking up over the course of the year. But Bowie was the one who meant the most to me.