Review: Our Classical Century, Gershwin Discovery Concert, and The Prince and the Composer

I was dubious about Our Classical Century when I attended the launch event a few weeks back. I couldn’t really discern the impetus for the season, beyond it being a way of bringing Radio 3, BBC Two and BBC Four closer together and providing genre-based content to populate the new BBC Sounds world.

What I saw of the opening episode of the Our Classical Century series and what I heard from the panel discussion at the launch raised more questions about the season’s over-arching editorial strategy. Skepticism led me to conclude that the year-long classical music features and documentaries season was probably not made for people like me.

Our Classical Century is the BBC answering calls for classical music outside of the Proms season to be better represented in terms of scope and quality. In that respect, it’s a good thing. But, it also illustrates the fundamental problem the broadcaster faces. By advocating classical music to new audiences the BBC necessarily has to create programming that appeals to the widest possible not-necessarily knowledgeable audience.

That means the end product will always fall short of the kind of content classical music buffs will naturally seek out, because it’s sharing knowledge buffs already know. Just by virtue of the programme being made by the BBC, people like are always going to be disappointed it doesn’t go far enough.

It certainly can’t be said to be dumbed down programming, not by any means. But, there are moments in Our Classical Century feels as though it’s been pulled in so many different directions at the commissioning stage, that in the end there’s insufficient time available to go in deep.

I’m still not entirely convinced about co-presenter Lenny Henry’s contribution to the programme necessarily works either. I get why he’s there, but there are moments in his everyman role when his presence on-screen actually feels a little awkward. The energy returns whenever Suzy Klein appears. No surprise, Klein is an experienced broadcaster. Unexpectedly, Henry’s delivery feels a little too earnest.

Based on the first episode, the Discovery Concerts that compliment the four-part Our Classical Century series promise to be a more fulfilling watch.

A lot of this is down to the format: an unashamed visual programme note providing historical context, and spotlighting detail in the work, before a live recording performance of the work in question.

In the case of the opening episode – George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – the detail revealed around the opening clarinet solo and writing for saxophone trio felt like the right amount of under-the-bonnet stuff to satisfy people like me and feed the curious and the unfamiliar. That the programme didn’t shy away from spending 45 minutes analysing it this way was a real boon. Presenter Josie D’Arby is particularly good too, combining genuine curiosity with an infectious warmth. She is adept at establishing great rapport on screen that looks authentic.

The BBC has also repeated John Bridcut’s documentary about Prince Charles’ love for the music of Hubert Parry – The Prince and the Composer – from 2016. It’s always a pleasure to hear John’s voice –  and his eye for visual storytelling makes for compelling viewing. I had no idea until I watched this documentary that Hubert Parry wrote any symphonies. As Prince Charles points out in the documentary, that means there’s a wealth of unfamiliar music to explore for the first time.

Our Classical Century continues until June 2019 – broadcast dates available on the BBC website.


Unexpected Pleasures #3: Jamie’s Money Saving Meals

While The Chap does some weekend work, I have control of the Sky+ box. Jamie’s Money Saving Meals produced by Fresh One for Channel 4 has momentarily distracted me.

The programme has only just made it to the ‘Unexpected Pleasures’ list. Jamie Oliver’s ‘bish, bash, bosh’ presentation style is now out of date. That cheeky Essex box enthusiasm is no longer infectious; it’s as though he thinks he’s talking to children. Jamie luv, we’ve all grown up a bit. That and the slavish attention to proving that yes, you really can make tasty food on the cheap makes the programme heavily over-engineered.

But in its favour and ultimately what makes it a pleasure is that the programme doesn’t hang around. Numerous good recipe ideas which succeed in reaching the ultimate lifestyle programming-goal: watching a variety of seemingly simple meals come together makes me the viewer think “Oh, I must try that tonight.”

I had no idea you could blitz frozen prawns and squid in a blender without doing serious damage to the blade. Sweet and sour fish balls for tea tonight then.​

This blog is also available on the BBC intranet, Gateway. 

Nice One, Mr Hall Sir

People who know where I work and in what department maybe surprised to learn that I had little idea that BBC DG Tony Hall’s announcement today was coming.

I knew there was something in the offing, but I didn’t know it was a 20% funding increase in arts programming on TV, or there was an commitment to live performance ‘relays’ on TV from across the UK.

Good news. I feel like I’m being catered for and I’m fairly confident I won’t be talked down to either.

I can’t wait to see what the commitment delivers.

Britten’s Endgame / John Bridcut / Crux / BBC

John Bridcut’s much-anticipated second documentary entitled Britten’s Endgame about Benjamin Britten focuses on the last years of the composers life, analysing the music of the period and detailing out the composers ill-health and eventual death.

Brimming with personal anecdotes from a variety of contributors including Colin Matthews (Britten’s assistant), Derek Sugden (Snape Maltings Concert Hall designer), Sue Phipps and for the first time, Rita Thomson (the composer’s nurse), the documentary should at the very least warm the cockles of any Aldeburgh fan’s heart. These are some of the last remaining individuals who had personal connections with the man and who can as a result throw light on what he was like and how he worked. Similarly, John Shirley-Quirke and Dame Janet Baker’s recollections are valuable and entertaining.

John Graham-Hall reprises the role of Aschenbach in a special series of extracts recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra for Britten’s Endgame.

The explores Britten’s last full-scale opera Death In Venice, and cuts first hand accounts with a studio-based part green-screen performance of extracts from the work with John Graham-Hall playing the lead role Aschenbach accompanied by the BBC Concert Hall conducted by Paul Kildea.

Many of the more amusing anecdotes present in the documentary have been heard before – most recently during Kildea’s recent discussion with Nick Higham at Southbank during The Rest is Noise Festival Britten Weekend. Similarly, the drawn-out coda detailing Britten’s failing health borrows heavily from Humphrey Carpenter’s similarly detailed account published in 1992. By the end of the two-hour documentary – it probably could have been an hour and a half – there was a real sense that there is really very little else to discover about Britten and as a result very little to say about him either.

Endgame – despite its musical backdrop and beautiful photography – doesn’t live up to its sister documentary Britten’s Children. But there’s some previous unseen footage of the composer, Pears and Aldeburgh which delights and a good serving of audio featuring the man himself which is engaging too.

Britten’s Endgame is broadcast on BBC Four during the weekend of 16/17 November 2013

This review was based on a public viewing at the BFI in mid-October 2013. Further theatrical screenings are scheduled in November, including one at Aldeburgh.  

Unexpected Pleasures #1: Harvest and The Mustard Car

Amid the seemingly constant need to raise awareness of the latest new piece of output, the serendiptious nature of TV and radio consumption can still throw up some unexpected pleasures.

First up, the last episode of Harvest was informative, entertaining and brilliantly shot. Inserts with the biology expert were inventively directed; linking pieces with presenters Philippa Forrester and Gregg Wallace (especially the one with Wallace sat in the background chewing on cherries while Forrester is up close at the camera with a bee) were warm, sincere and often amusing. The programme didn’t patronise. Mind you, I’m not a farmer…

… But, I am from Suffolk. That’s probably one reason why The Mustard Car (produced by Justine Willett) – a reading a of a Blake Morrison story set in a close-knit rural Suffolk village – resonated. The line about Southwold being full of holiday properties bought by city-types made me laugh, although I suspect you’d have to come from East Suffolk to understand the reference. Lovely stuff. Wish I’d caught the rest of the Tales of the East series.

This blog is also available on the BBC intranet, Gateway.