TV: Single Father Episode 2 BBC Scotland

I remain a little conflicted about Single Father having now watched the second episode. Is it really about bereavment or is the accidental death of mother of three Rita the starting point for a mystery story?

In this episode Dave (David Tennant) starts digging around in deceased Rita’s personal diaries searching for the identity of the father of his former girlfriend’s first daughter (who also lives with the rest of family). And – as with all good dramas – Dave is going to get more than he bargained for. And we know that because of the “Next Time” sequence at the end of the episode. (What on earth did we do without the ‘next time’ bit – oh yes, we had cliffhangers … I remember now.)

The simmering tension between Dave and his former girlfriend Sarah (Surrane Jones) reminds me that this is a romance (the programme description on the BBC website makes it clear what this story is: ‘relationship drama’). On that basis I find myself left wanting, possibly because I’m still expecting this to inform me about some of the emotional responses and thought processes experienced during bereavement.

At the moment it feels like we’re focussed more on a love story than on grappling with something really quite difficult and hugely challenging. It might be that I only have these expectations because of the links on the programme support page taking visitors off to bereavement support.

It’s a point picked up on the BBC’s TV blog about Single Father. Writer Mike Ford provides a description of the inspiration behind the drama but the lack of detail on how it was research leaves that bereavement box unticked for me. A commenter on that blog had this to say:

… after watching i feel it was wrong in so many ways …. was it written taking in real life feelings and aspects from families who have ACTUALLY lost people-mothers, fathers, wifes, husbands. OR was it written by someone who wants to write a drama that ‘he’ thinks will make people cry and feel sorry for them!??

Another commenter – ‘Widower’ – went further to explain what points had been missed in reflecting the experiences of those who have suffered sudden loss.

Is it the age old question of it not being possible to reflect a common experience? That we all would behave differently in a myriad of different circumstances? Possibly.

Having said all that, the characters are hugely engaging. Dave’s sister is – frankly – a judgmental pain in the backside. She would get my back up. Thank God her husband Robin (played by the brilliant Mark Heap) provides a convincing conscience. He also gets one of the most touching lines in the entire episode: “Can we also have the dog?”

On a personal level, I can’t stand the character of Sarah. As a viewer I keep pushing her away, in the firm belief that she is risking what little stability Dave might be able to claw back amongst the fallout. Mind you, there is another way of regarding her: she might actually be offering the very stability he needs. Is that a sign that us (the viewers) are still grieving for Rita – wanting her back? If it is then maybe within the conceit that is TV, maybe it does tackle bereavement. I could just do with a bit more – something a bit weightier – I suppose.

:: Read reviews of Episode One and Episode Three

BBC Symphony @ 80: Maida Vale Studios

Formed in 1930 and based in Maida Vale studios in West London, The BBC Symphony Orchestra – along with a great many other orchestras like the City of Birmingham Symphony, Halle and London Philharmonic – is part of the fabric of the UK’s orchestral scene.

But is its longevity something which inevitably results in us taking its existence for granted? How does the band operate today in what is a considerably more competitive world than when it was first established? And, with a more fragmented listening audience, how does the Symphony Orchestra maintain its distinct proposition?

I put these questions to General Manager Paul Hughes when I met him earlier this week. Listen to our conversation recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios here.

Listen: Interview with BBC Symphony Orchestra General Manager Paul Hughes

Should the Doctor’s mortality be sacrosanct?

A little bit of me died when I read Emily Barr’s Guardian piece revealing how the BBC had ditched the idea that the Doctor’s lifespan of twelve regenerations. It means the Doctor can go on for ever now. Surely that’s a good thing, isn’t it? A few days on, I’m still grappling with the idea.

Schedules, overnights and profits have won over editorial. Execs are pounding their fists on the table (insert your own shameless cliche at this point). ‘This programme is popular. So lets make more of them. Let’s keep on making more of them. Let’s never stop making more of them.’

So I'm immortal now, am I? Er, thanks.

Blaming the business types for the decision to extend Doctor Who’s longevity by making the central character immortal is all too easy.

In the media world, the ‘them and us’ feeling is still rife despite the efforts of most liberal thinking, well-balanced individuals leading us into ‘the third way’ of web, tv and radio experts all working together in some rare kind of Utopian reality. Cynics and well-adjusted individuals outside of the media industry may also join in a chorus of “they’ve just got no idea, have they?” too.

Inherent in such a passive aggressive response as this is one of the challenges a TV programme like Doctor Who increasingly has to grapple with however.

Doctor Who’s current popularity is rooted in TV history. Here is a programme which bridges generations. Parents who who watched it when they were kids, now marvel at their own children’s enjoyment of the programme. It’s the kind of TV which enables the distribution of unconditional family love across generations. Doctor Who is public service in so many different ways.

For those who don’t have children, won’t have children and who – by extension – continue to keep their inner child alive and well, there’s the potential opportunity to carry the torch. They’re the fans of the show who combined their aspirations to work in the media with their love of the programme. They were the ones who maintained the Doctor’s existence when the BBC axed it in the late eighties to pour money into EastEnders. The Doctor rose up figuratively speaking in the Big Finish audio dramas after his tragic exit from the TV screens. Those producers were keepers of the flame. And one their key selling points was that they were fans themselves. They secured their core audience before they’d committed anything to tape.

Some of those same fans now occupy roles in the production of the TV series. It’s that key element which maintains the delicate link between fans of the old series and the new. If there’s a little bit of us – a little bit of the old series – still in existence in the present production then all is well. Those hardcore fans will still continue to advocate the new series. The PR ecosystem is maintained.  That in turn annotates the deep love for the programme – the slightly darker side of fandom. Long term fans of the series feel like they ‘own’ regardless of the BBC owning the trademark and now producing it for TV.

It’s that sense of ownership – real for many, yet preposterous if held up in a court of law – which makes the decision to do away with the Doctor’s mortality a difficult thing to swallow. In one fell swoop, ties are cut with the past. Late night imaginings of wannabee creatives indulging in their own plotlines, planning their own shots and dreaming about their own ‘final Doctor’ are now redundant. The jeopardy inherent in the entire proposition has been thrown away. Discarded. Deemed irrelevant and unworkable. Doctor Who could go on for as long as Last of the Summer Wine. It has no end … potentially. Defenders of the faith wince and suddenly become aware of a distinct shortness of breath.

Old Cybermen were said to be 'shocked' to learn of the Doctor's immortality

The flip side is that for TV execs working in a considerably more competitive world, not being hemmed in by impending death of a show the pressure can be put back on the writers for more plotlines rather than having to come up with another blockbuster idea for a vehicle. But its a double-edged sword and in choosing the blunt side are us pedants being forced to grab sharp side instead? To be suicidally brutal about this, is there contempt in the decision?

It depends to what extent as a viewer you crave a present day realisation of the yesteryear joy you as a fan derived from the programme. The reality is that Matt Smith and future actors (or) actresses will never meet that expectation. Things will never be as good as they used to be. Fact.

And, by bemoaning the loss of his mortality are we denying future youngsters the opportunity the same joy we had as youngsters ourselves? Any member of Doctor Who officialdom finding themselves having to defend the decision will surely rely on the justification.

For the record, it’s a sincere one too. After all, what was the BBC to do exactly? By sticking to the Doctor’s 12 regeneration limit, you’re committing yourself to only a couple of actors more to play the role and the series’ certain death at the end. The jeopardy which tugs at every fans heart-strings is exactly the same thing which causes schedulers migraine. It’s a considerably more competitive media world than it was in Doctor Who’s first 25 years.

But the decision has implications for people who come up with ideas.

To remain true to its core fan base – the fan base which could be argued to have brought it back – there needs to be a convincing explanation of the passing comment made by the Doctor about his lifespan in the spin-off series Sarah Jane Adventures. If that explanation isn’t clever and engaging it won’t fuel future imaginations.

And if that happens the Doctor will live on in the same kind of hell Lord Borusa did at the end of The Five Doctors (see this video left for the clincher in The Five Doctors from the mid-eighties). In that story Borusa – Lord President of Gallifrey, the Time Lords home planet – sent the Doctor in all his incarnations to overcome battles so that Borusa could claim the grand prize – immortality. In claiming it Borusa learnt exactly what it meant: “To lose is to win and he who wins shall lose”.

Who wants to be immortal? The challenge ahead is to show the advantages.

Opera: Joan Sutherland dies

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that opera legend Joan Sutherland has died at the age of 83, after a long illness.

I met Joan Sutherland when she led a Bel Canto masterclass course at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies (now known as the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme) back in 1996.

It was a major affair for the Britten-Pears School. We were anxious to make sure her stay was a pleasurable one. We anticipated a diva and made arrangements accordingly.

When she arrived it was Joan Sutherland clear that our admirable preparations were fundamentally unnecessary. She wasn’t the archetypal diva we assumed someone with an international career such as hers would be. We relaxed almost immediately. We felt at ease. She put us at ease.

She was in fact utterly charming, hugely self-effacing and as a result a joy to be around. Yes, the post-graduate students attended their classes with a mixture of fear and awe. But that was always going to be the case. The overriding memory of those 10 days fourteen years on is simple. Her poise combined with an easy personable nature made her a joy to be with and an inspiration to all. The mark of a true professional.

Sutherland recently featured in an hour long BBC Four documentary entitled “Legends – The reluctant Prima Donna” about her early career in London. As patron of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, she presented the prize at last year’s competition.

Music: BBC SO Neruda Songs Barbican

The opening concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Friday 1 October 2010′ had a strong programmatic thread running through it. And like all good concerts, the programme spoke on more levels than merely just quality of the playing or the interpretation of the music.

The concert’s undeniable success was in spotlighting two different takes on death. Wagner doesn’t so much confront the darkness so much as embrace it. His obsession with love and death summed up exquisitely in the Prelude and Liebstod from Tristan and Isolde.

But Wagner’s music – all encompassing as it is – is hugely self-indulgent, or at least feels that way. At other times the composer’s willingness to be public about the intensity of his emotions in his music can feel intimidating. I’m getting close to loving Wagner. I haven’t quite got to that point yet.

In comparison, the second work on the programme by Peter Lieberson was a stark contrast in terms of intimacy. His setting of five sonnets by Pablo Neruda, as beautiful and moving as it was manageable in terms of scale. Scored for voice, strings and harp this was a slightly less enormous kind of love.

The work didn’t suffer because of it. More, on a first listen – this was the UK premiere – Lieberson simple yet effective settings touched deftly.

Soloist mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was a great choice. Her rich, engulfing tone combined with the orchestrations of Lierbson’s music created a sound world difficult to leave behind, reinforcing both composer, his muse, the work’s initial performer and the intensely personal sentiment. A rare achievement for a piece of contemporary music.

Here’s an audioboo during the concert interval.