TV: Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe

I sometimes see Charlie Brooker walking up and down Wood Lane. I don’t stalk him, you understand. I just observe him from afar and when I do so I make a mental note, there goes an absolute god and he’s a year older than I am. 

It is because the man has the ability to pinpoint exactly what it is we all think about any particular given subject which gives the man his seemingly universal appeal. Though we know he’d balk at the idea, we’d all quite like to have the opportunity to invite him round for dinner, have him sit in the corner of the living room and prod him every time we feel the need to have a heated discussion brought to an end. He has that ability Brooker, you see. His full stops are reliable. What he says goes. 

Such was the experience I had on Friday night, sitting and watching the second episode in his latest series Newswipe. Me and a friend (who, it has to be said, often displays some quite unnerving similarities with myself) were entering into a third round over the recent death of reality TV star Jade Goody. 

My friend was vehemently opposed to anyone showing any sorrow about her recent passing on account of her flagrant exploitation of the media. I, on the other hand, preferred my usual confessional style. Yes her life was a bit of a strange one and yes she was part of the industry, but when the time came I did feel sorry she’d passed away and whatever media sins she might be perceived to have committed, I was prepared to forgive her for them the moment she breathed her final breath. 

Opposing counsel was having none of it. One side of the living room got louder and louder whilst I broaden my shoulders and looked down my nose. I was sure a supersillious tone would win the day. “I’m OK with feeling a slight sadness she’s passed away,” I said, “It reminds me I’m a decent human being.”

I didn’t sense the argument was won, if indeed there was an argument to win but I figured it was over. I was wrong. 

Minutes later, the difficult to fathom opening music of Brooker’s Newswipe had started up on TV. The assembled audience sat and listen to Brooker’s assessment of user generated content and the death of Jade Goody. After what amounted to the most appropriate, fitting and sincere tribute of the reality tv star, my friend was heard to say “OK Jon. Now I get it. Yes I see what you mean.”

I suspect it was the sequence when Brooker brought his audience’s attention to the fairly severe opinions the general public were sharing on the BBC website which sealed the deal. They were, as I’d seen the day she’d died, really quite unpleasant. 

What was impressive was the effect Newswipe had, something the man himself may need to get used to. Brooker is in serious danger of carving a niche in the very industry we’re all watching him critique. Soon he’ll no longer just be a broadcaster, critic, comedian, writer and columnist. He’ll be a journalist too.  He seems to be making a pretty good stab at interpreting the world at the moment.

Missa BBC SO Storgards Tiensuu Kriikku

A cracking concert on Friday 3 April 2009 given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall.

The brass section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra made light work of Magnus Lindberg‘s fiendish writing in the UK premiere of his work Ottoni. But it was a performance swiftly eclipsed by the surprisingly fresh rendition of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.  The success of the performance was in no small part to the obvious mastery the string section has attained for bringing the demanding Barbican acoustic alive. Of particular note was sweet sound of the firsts during the fourth variation. Repetition of standard repertoire needn’t be a by-word for dullness, as the string section proved on Friday night.

The real revelation however, was Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku‘s London premiere of Jukka Tiensuu‘s clarinet concerto Missa.

Was it Tiensuu’s concerto or the brilliant Kriikku’s? Sometimes it was difficult to tell for sure. Kriikku’s mastery of the instrument was awe-inspiring, especially a seemingly long sequence in which he effortlessly demonstrated circular breathing and apparent ease delivering all manner of harmonics at the top of the instrument. This was a jaw-droppingly brilliant performance.

But the real orchestral highlight was hearing the puddles of sound created between clarinet soloist and the woodwind section behind him which acoustically transformed the interior of the Barbican into a cathedral like structure by way of the echo effect the orchestration had.

Hear the concert in Performance on 3 on Wednesday 8 April 2009 at 7.00pm and for seven days after broadcast.

Richard Sambrook to the rescue

During an uncharacteristically relaxing weekend, I settled myself to a serious going over the Observer newspaper and associated printed material whilst consuming numerous cups of coffee and munching on various high-calorie, low-fibre fast food meals.

It wasn’t long before I found myself fuming at Barbara Ellen‘s dismissal of the forthcoming National Portrait Gallery Gay Icons exhibition (yes Barbara, not all of us jump up and down excitedly about the prospect of disco balls and handbags and that *doesn’t* make us dreary and academic) and at Nick Cohen’s criticism of the BBC and it’s priorities regarding serious journalism

With bile rising, it took all my self-control (and a considerable amount of persuasion from my partner also sitting on the sofa and observing how much nicer I am to be around when I am relaxing) not to reach for my laptop and start penning something in response. 

One of the key reasons I didn’t was because I don’t necessarily feel myself equipped with sufficient information to offer a well-researched response. More importantly, I’m not really senior enough at the BBC to deliver a suitably well-scripted and fair response either. It would only get me into trouble. I’d already fallen foul of one BBC / Proms fan who took me to task about me and my thoughts about music in opera. I also couldn’t be bothered thinking it would probably cause more trouble than it was worth. 

No problem though. Richard Sambrook, Director of Global News has committed his thoughts in response on his blog instead thus freeing up more thinking time for me to devote to responding to Barbara Ellen. 

Take my advice, it’s probably not a good idea to read any kind of opinion piece over a weekend if you’re trying to relax. It will only end in tears, or at least some mild heartache.

TV: Lost World of Communism (3/3)

Like episode one, the concluding episode in this brilliant documentary series made for uncomfortable yet informative viewing.

Gone are the sanitised history lessons from school and in it’s place haunting images of what life was really like for a handful of people in the Romanian dictatorship during up to the fall of communism.

Banning abortions and implementing a regime of regular pregnancy checks seemed unpallatable, accounts of how some desperate women carried out their own abortions even more so. The policing of banned words by Romanian communist censors at a comedy perforamance may have given slight relief, but the realities of life on peasants forced to leave their homes in the country as villages were demolished, only to be moved into substandard living in the cities left a bitter taste in the mouth. Repatriots were forced to pay rent on properties not suitable for human habitation with money they didn’t have. Little wonder the country revolted against its dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.

Documentary makers didn’t hesitate from going further, providing a first-hand account from Captain Ionel Boeru, the paratrooper who brought the captured Ceauşescus to the court and remained with them during their trial and execution. 

clip3The footage made for grim watching. In their final moments before being executed, did they need to be manhandled in the way they did? Was Elena Ceauşescu justified in screaming being tied up was unnecessary? Did we really have to watch their final moments alive ? At this point in time they were two old people and looked it. If they knew they were going to die, was it shameful ghoulishness to record their guilty cries? And … did we need to see their bodies slumped in the courtyard after the firing squad had done their work?

The answer was an emphatic yes from the contributors who appeared in the documentary. Captain Ionel Boeru stood in the courtyard where the dictator and his wife fell to the ground. “He [Nicolae Ceauşescu] got exactly what he deserved. I still think that”.

A new regime needed to make it clear they were in charge. Daniela Draghici explained how she had seen the footage on TV in 1989 adding, “we couldn’t get enough of it … to make sure it was really happening, that they were really dead.”

Tioday’s audience needed to see it now, no matter difficult the visual imagery was. This was real history laid bare. Sometimes, history books and Wikipedia entries can’t illustrate the realities of a period in time like video footage can.

That footage – with all it’s gruesome detail – is available on YouTube. Just search for Nicolae Ceauşescu and you’ll soon find it. Having watched LWOC it’s obvious why it was so important it was made available on Romanian TV in the early days of the 90s.

But does it fulfill the same need on YouTube as it did back then on Romanian TV? If the final point of the documentary rings true, maybe there is an element of a generation needing the next to be reminded of what a dark time in the country’s history has passed and what musn’t be visited again. It could however be quite ghoulish. The hit-rate certainly gives that impression.

The episode (like the rest of the series) doesn’t pull any punches either. The paratrooper revisits the courtyard where the Ceauşescus fell to the ground. Alternatively, go for the slightly more edited version (but no lesson challenging to watch) via the DVD of the Lost World of Communism out on April 13. Education at it’s best.

Juliette BBC SO Belohlavek Martinu

If Martinu was still alive and I had the opportunity to meet him, I reckon I’d probably quite like him. Just look at a picture of him. He looks like he was a nice kind of sort. I’ve no real idea, of course. To judge someone solely by my emotional response to a photograph of someone is a classic and quite literal illustration of judging a book by a cover. This is not to be encouraged.

However, there’s another reason (equally shallow) I reckon I’d quite like him. The music he wrote made him sound like a good bloke. He understood about music and it’s place. He got the balance right.

I’m basing this on one single concert performance of Martinu’s opera Juliette given by a small but perfectly formed and exquisitely able cast of soloists, the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra last night. Given that I went to the Barbican Hall in central London expecting to hear a programme of orchestral work by Milhaud, I can also confirm that attending performances of unknown works by personally unknown composers needs both an element of surprise and an open mind. Those two things alone will guarantee the right mindset.

The friend I was accompanying had already had the presence of mind to do a small amount of research before the performance thus making tackling the ridiculously long queue for the programmes a pointless affair. “Read this,” she said pointing to the synopsis at the bottom of the page.

Michel Lepik, a bookbinder from Paris, is dreaming. Finding himself in a small harbour town he sets out to look for a woman (love interest Juliette) he’s absolutely convinced he met three years before. The only problem is, everyone around him can’t remember anything beyond ten minutes in the past. After a search he finally finds her spends a bit of time trying to persuade her into remembering memories of their time together and then when provoked proceeds to shoot her. He only sees her again when he’s approaching the end of his dream in the “Central Office for Dreams”. The nightwatchmen is encouraging Michel to leave (if he stays past his allotted time he’ll stay forever). Will he stay or go?

“Bonkers, isn’t it?” she said looking back at me. We laughed. It did sound rather odd.

And yet, the moment conductor Jiri Belohlavek struck up his baton, Martinu’s music transfixed. Stunningly effecient in his writing, Martinu’s style was established within the first five minutes of the work. This was cinematic writing, tonal and lush. Great swathes of sound painted with broad brushstrokes designed to compliment the action implicit in the vocal lines of the over-worked soloists.

The action got cracking soon too and despite being sung in French (Martinu was Czech by birth and had originally written the performance in his native tongue later choosing to translate it to French when the Nazi invasion of his homeland in 1939 made the likelihood of further performances in Czechoslovakia extremely low) the audience was guided through the plot by the reassuring presence of a surtitle display at the back of the stage. Without it things would have been very tricky to follow indeed.

As a performance there moments during the first act when the otherwise brilliant William Burden playing the lead role of Michel was drowned by the orchestral sound. But this might well be the only criticism which could be levelled at what had quickly become clear was a hugely engaging dramatic work brought to life by the cast.

Concert performances of opera are perhaps the fairest way of judging too. All too often a composer, his work and the cast will be judged indirectly by the stage production. If the visuals aren’t right then any failings in performance normally overlooked are amplified.

Strip away the stage production to the core requirements – the characters occupying their own individual space on stage with a suggestion of a costume and acting as much as they need to – and attention is focussed on the things which matter: the action and the music. And when audiences are focussed on the action and music, the composer’s has found his short cut to the brain. The audience will be putty in his hand.

Credit must go to the small cast of performers some playing multiple roles in the opera. In opera there’s a judgement to be made on acting as well as singing ability and in this performance it was very difficult to find fault with either in anyone’s contribution. Aside from the glossy perfection of Magdalene Kozena’s Juliette and William Burden’s effortless Michel, Andreas Jaggi’s postman, clerk and police chief were hugely entertaining.

Mention must also go to members of the BBC Singers Olivia Robinson (3rd Man), Margaret Cameron (2nd Man), Michael Bundy (Grandfather) and Lynette Alcantara (Young Sailor) who, frankly, need to be brought to the front of the stage more often. Competent performers with adorable voices.

It is perhaps the fact that I can’t recall much of the music (other than the fact I rather liked it) which speaks the most about Martinu in the final analysis. If a composer can write a score in such a way that the music doesn’t dominate then he’s ticked one very big important box. Clearly Martinu had a realistic understanding how important he was. I do admire that character trait in an individual.

Broadcast information

BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a recording of this performance on Tuesday 31 March at 6.30pm. The broadcast will be available for a further seven days.

Cast (in order of appearance)
Michel William Burden tenor
Little Arab/1st Man/Bellhop Anna Stephany mezzo-soprano
Old Arab/Old Sailor Zdenek Plech bass
Bird-Seller/Fortune-Teller Rosalind Plowright mezzo-soprano
Fish-Seller/Grandmother/Old Lady Jean Rigby mezzo-soprano
Man in Chapska/Father Youth/Convict Frederic Goncalves bass
Man in Hat/Seller of Memories/Blind Beggar/Nightwatchman Roderick Williams baritone
Police Chief/Postman/Clerk Andreas Jaggi tenor
Juliette Magdalena Kozena mezzo-soprano
3rd Man Margaret Cameron mezzo-soprano
2nd Man Olivia Robinson mezzo-soprano
Grandfather Michael Bundy baritone
Young Sailor Lynette Alcantara mezzo-soprano