31 July 2007

The Proms are great... shame about some of the audience

Went along to The Proms last week - although it's mainly rock'n'roll that is in the spotlight whenever music is discussed on giroscope, I'm partial to a bit of the old classical (most of it, anyway). Prom 18 was the one we went to - Delius's Song of Summer, Tippett's Triple Concerto and Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 5. All the pieces were great and well performed. The Delius and Vaughan Williams pieces were pastoral and quite approachable (an avant garde composer and contemporary of VW once dismissed him as 'cowpat music' but I do think that's very unfair). The Tippett was a much more '20th century' sounding piece - dissonant, challenging, not taking it lying down. As the reviews on the BBC site for this Prom show, some people in the audience found the juxtaposition of two different styles of composer too challenging to take. For example, here's a review by James Dixon:

First, Delius. A magical piece, which should by rights be a Proms staple. Then Tippett, and the problems began. I don't know if new Proms controller Roger Wright reads this page, or if anyone in contact with him does, but if so can I tactfully suggest such sharply juxtaposed programming has long outstayed its welcome. I have tolerated some pretty bizarre clashes in the past - Maderna and Tchaikovsky, Nancarrow and Bernstein - but this really was the worst yet. I am nearing 40. I have had time to work out roughly what I do and do not like. Having struggled with Tippett in the past, I decided to give him one last go, but like fellow critic 'Steve', I found the only pleasure came from the realisation I need never suffer this arid chaos again. I believe the majority of the audience felt likewise. The applause spoke of admiration for the soloists' technical accomplishment, but little else. Faces of bemused disappointment predominated in the bars during the interval. Genuinely catholic (schizophrenic?) musical personalities in the Rattle-Kenyon mode are very rare, and this policy of 'you can have your Beethoven when you've eaten up your nice Birtwistle' is patronizing in the extreme.

What's "patronizing in the extreme" is the suggestion that the Proms audience is too bone-headed to appreciate more than one style of classical composition on the same night. Why don't people like Mr Dixon and 'fellow critic Steve' go home and listen to Classic FM or their Haydn box sets if they don't want to hear something innovative? Who says Birtwhistle is the thing you have to sit through in order to listen to Beethoven? For me, it would probably be the other way round. Birtwhistle is certainly not an easy listen, but I'd rather stick my head in the washing machine than listen to an early Beethoven symphony. I would also advance the thesis that the washing machine has somewhat more musical merit than early Beethoven. And where the hell were these 'bemused faces in the bars during the interval'? I think it was only people who'd looked at the prices - £3.90 for a can of draughtflow Guiness ferchrissakes! Now that is the real outrage.

Four days earlier, the European premiere of Brett Dean's Vexation and Devotions, paired with Beethoven's 7th Symphony, attracted similar criticism on the BBC site. This is a fantastic piece which uses recorded messages from call centre phone lines - "your call is very important to us... please hold" juxtaposed with some harmonically challenging orchestral and choral lines to make a statement about the sheer insanity of modern living. The most amusing review I found wasn't even about the music - it was about the way the orchestra and conductor dressed:

Proms 13 and 14.Musicians' dress is not unimportant in the presentation of music at public performances. Sadly, the dreary black shirt and black tie of the BBC Symphony Orchestra detracted from their superb perfomance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, - a situation made worse by the conductor, (David Robertson) with his lack of even a black tie to his casual black shirt. If his orchestra is made to dress properly in white shirt and tie, why can't he?

The Haydn concert the very next day saw the choir, orchestra and soloists superbly dressed in white tie for men, and black dresses for ladies, with the lady soloist in a beautiful concert gown, with a sparkling necklace. Oh dear, what did the conductor,(Sir Roger Norrington) wear? A crumpled black jacket buttoned up to the neck - (no tie of course) - which he immediately tore open three minutes into the concert. Most concert-goers expect a dress code befitting the grandeur of Classical music. Why do conductors arrogantly scorn the dress code of their musicians? What are they trying to tell us, and why should they be allowed to do so? While I'm at it, please put the BBC's magnificent Symphony Orchestra back again into formal evening dress with white tie and tails?

I give up, I really do. The Proms - Great concerts pretty much every time, but can someone do something about some of the audience?

22 July 2007

In praise of Paul Giamatti

Feeling a bit guilty about not posting anything for 10 days so let's go for two in one night. Irregular but prolific...

I always dig 'in praise of...' in The Guardian. This is a paragraph they have at the bottom of the comment column where the leader writer offers a good word in support of something - or someone - they think is worthy of such positive analysis. Partly I dig it because one of my friends writes some of them, and he did perhaps the greatest ever 'in praise of' - on the live Guilty Pleasures concert that BBC London DJ Sean Rowley put together at the Hackney Empire back in April.

Anyway, if I was in the lucky (unlucky?) position of having to write an 'in praise of', it would have to be the actor Paul Giamatti. I've watched one and a half films with him in the lead role this weekend - American Splendor, which a mate of mine was kind enough to lend me on DVD, and Sideways, which is currently on Film4, and he is absolutely brilliant in both of them, in completely different roles. This is the kind of versatility that all actors probably should be in command of, but sadly very few are. It's kind of weird that I've never noticed Giamatti in any movie before this - even though he's been in loads - but then I'm extremely unobservant, so that's probably it.

American Splendor deserves a blog post all of its own - and indeed there is a strong argument for setting up a 'reviews' site to allow me to write at greater length (and in a more structured manner) about some of the key films, records etc of the current and previous eras. The site would be very old skool - the sort of thing that was springing up on the web in 1995/96. If I get round to it it'll be a great project. But you should give Splendor a shot if you're looking for a genuinely off-beat and original film which is nonetheless very accessible. Fantastic stuff.

Sideways, based on the 60% or so of it that I've seen, is interesting because it's the first film I've seen which offers a detailed treatment of what it's like to be a wine buff. It's not a film about wine but the mechanics of wine tasting play a key role. It's obviously a key influence on that BBC documentary that featured Oz Clarke (the Paul Daniels of the wine world) and the guy from Top Gear - May? [can't remember his first name. Sorry but whenever I think about Top Gear I feel a strong urge to go out and purchase a rifle just to kill or maim Jeremy Clarkson. Then I remember that sadly, this isn't the USA.] The Clarke/May documentary was surprisingly good, mainly because Clarke was an unbelievable prat and May just wanted to drink some bloody wine. He couldn't stand Clarke's bullshit and he was right. If May was in charge of Top Gear rather than Clarkson and they made it a programme about what the best wine for drink-driving was, it might be worth watching. Just.

Anyway, Sideways has given me the idea for a nice little British movie which I'm sure I could get Lottery funding for. The plot would be quite similar to Sideways except that instead of California, we're in East Anglia, and instead of visiting vineyards, we're going to breweries and beer festivals. Best of all I already know about half a dozen people who would be perfectly cast for a film like this as they would essentially be playing themselves. How do I apply for Lottery money for such a project?

19 July 2007

Blowing back on politicians and dope

Another stage in the ongoing saga over politicians admitting they smoked dope at university a couple of days back... Jacqui Smith, Alistair Darling, even the notorious Opus Dei plant Ruth Kelly had been at it once upon a time.

Contrary to popular belief it was possible to go to uni in the 80s/90s and not smoke gear... based on my experience it just depended who you hung out with really. If you were with a reasonably relaxed crowd who weren't either people who never left the bar (the darts team?), postgrad South Africans who were never off the rugby pitch, or the square science students who used to pack their own lunch box to take to the lab every morning, there was normally a plentiful supply of drugs, both soft and indeed hard, available.

Even if you hung out with the smokers you could 'just...say...no' in the Patrick Bateman sense. One of my mates at uni - let's call him Thomas Jerome Newton on account of his David Bowie fixation - simply refused 'a toke' for 3 years straight. He just didn't want to know, and in retrospect, I salute his courage and indefagitibility. For TJN, it simply wasn't a part of The Good Life in the way that hard drinking, or sugar free Tab Clear (a well known soft drink of the time) was.

So it wasn't inevitable to end up with a spliff in your hand, but I must say it was extremely enjoyable. Which is why all these politicians saying "I smoked it... it was wrong... I regret it... I am a terminally boring asshole who would probably lose an election to ITV Digital's 'Monkey' [sadly missed!] under a fair electoral system" are taking out of their bottom.

Why can't we have a sensible conversation about cannabis use in this country (or most countries?) Why is the government looking into reclassifying dope from class C to class B?

We're told it's because super-skunk, or whatever hydroponic concoction is avaiable on the street, is 40 times stronger than the stuff these ministers were smoking in the 70s and 80s. Personally I can well believe that prolonged exposure to the really heavy stuff could be hazardous to mental health. But if alcohol was a banned substance (and I'm sure some ministers would love to ban it), we'd be having exactly the same conversation. There would be super-strength spirits, illegally distilled in labs, doing the rounds. They'd be several times stronger than the homebrew cider that ministers were drinking in the 70s and 80s, and we'd be looking to reclassify alcohol to class B...

The long and the short of it is that these bozos are too thick to realise that it is the illegality of marijuana which causes super-strength derivatives to be doing the rounds. If the stuff was licensed and produced on a commercial, quality-controlled basis, reasonably priced, no-one would bother with skunk (except maybe as a home growing project.) We'd be better off because we wouldn't have to live in fear of being charged by the police for smoking a plant which can be grown wild in any British garden. The government would secure a wodge of tax revenue. And the consumer would be guaranteed a quality product.

I just wish some politicians would have the guts to campaign for full legalisation. There may be some doing that in the Lib Dems or maybe on the libertarian right of the Tory party - I don't follow the debate closely enough to know - but we never seem to hear from them when the matter is discussed in the news.

With the debate over drugs as dumb and ludicrous as it is now, is it any wonder 40% of the population don't bother to vote?

13 July 2007

F*** the Queen

So the BBC edited some footage of a documentary in the wrong order to make it look like the Queen walked out of a photo session after she was asked to remove her tiara.

Who gives a damn? Documentaries are always edited in post-production. In any case whichever way the footage was edited, her majesty comes across as a complete cow - totally out of touch with reality. But what do we expect from someone who never had to do anything to get where they are, but is just there by accident of birth? The idea that the controller of BBC One should resign over this is totally ridiculous. If the BBC had any real balls it would tell the Queen to f*** off. But of course since being neutered in the wake of the Hutton Report, with the resignation of Greg Dyke, the only Director General in decades to fight openly on behalf of BBC workers and BBC viewers, it's been a shadow of its former self.

If the Queen had a shred of honesty and integrity she would resign immediately - as would anyone in a position authority who hasn't been democratically elected to it. Imagine it - a "Cut the Crap" day. All these unelected SOBs - monarchs, CEOs, religious leaders, Gordon Brown? All forced to ratify their positions via the popular vote.

Many people criticise the monarchy on the grounds that it's an overhang from a medieval, undemocratic age - which is true - but then we only live in a democratic age in a very limited sense. We get the opportunity to vote for bland corporate-friendly leaders every four or five years, local politicians who are indistinguishable from each other, and MEPs we never hear anything from. Meanwhile many of the most important decisions are taken by unelected international bodies like the WTO and the European Commission, and multinational corporations that no-one ever voted for. Sounds rather feudal to me. Maybe an absolute monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship is the most conducive form of government for capitalism. The Chinese government certainly thinks so.

I do not recognise the Queen as the legitimate head of state here, and if I was asked to attend a function at the Palace (very unlikely) I would write back saying so. I don't want to meet these people and I don't want to associate with them. They can piss off as far as I'm concerned. If only the BBC had the courage to use this incident to start a real debate on the future of the monarchy...

04 July 2007

Spin That Wheel - Blairites Get Real

Partly this is a post title I've been wanting to use for ages...

...but the thought has been increasingly occurring to me - isn't it great that we don't have Tony Blair on the box every day now?

It will obviously take several months before we can know whether Brown is really going to be able to win the next election - initial evidence suggests he can, but then initial evidence suggests that estate agents are trustworthy people who will Do The Right Thing by you. The poll bounce is interesting as it's something that was predicted to happen if Brown had managed to replace Blair at the height of party discontent over the post-Iraq fallout, in late 2003, but Brown didn't want to split the Labour party (the charitable interpretation), or he bottled it (my interpretation).

Since 2005, though, most of the opinion polling has suggested that there would be no 'Brown bounce' - in fact, if anything, Brown would go further behind.

This has proved completely wrong. Many of you will be sensible and wise enough not to take any notice of opinion polls - you will remember 1992, a few old stagers may even remember 1970. But for the weak-willed, obsessive and candy-starved among us they are bread and butter, the political equivalent of London Lite free newspaper. And it is highly amusing that Labour has gone 3-4 points in front on some polls.

BBC Political Research Editor David Cowling says in the aforelinked article:

I have yet to find anything Labour did between January and June this year that satisfactorily explains, to me at least, the eight point improvement in their standing on the NHS.

Er... Tony Blair getting the hell out of No 10 maybe?

It would show real balls, or indeed semi-recklessness, were Brown to exploit this poll bounce by going for an autumn 2007 election, with the Tories still having no real policy platform to speak of besides a commitment not to abolish grammar schools but they might build a new one in areas which already have them if people really really really want it. Or something...

Strangely enough, I think that going to the country early - by Spring 2008 - would be a good option for Brown. Because if the poll lead were to continue into, say, autumn 2008, it's quite possible Cameron might face a backroom coup of the type that did for Iain Duncan Smith back in '03. And if he did it's probable a hard-right challenger like David Davis could take over - and he might be harder to beat than Dave. Yes, I know the Tories failed twice on a hard-right agenda with Hague and then Howard, but it could be third time lucky. There may just be enough nutters worried about immigration/high taxation/overweaning government to vote in a Tory on a hard right extremist ticket'. Call it 'the Sarkozy Effect'. Or, perhaps we remember Britain, 1979? With enough nutters worried about immigration/high taxation/overweaning govt? As a friend's dad once said about Star Trek, "it could 'appen".

Just to get back to the title of this post as I've gone on long enough... there's been a refreshing lack of Blairite voices saying how bad a job Brown is doing, "we told you you'd miss Tony when he's gone", etc. Maybe "we're all Brownites now", as they say. But this is just some advice for the Blairites I know are hiding out there someplace (in the form of a 'free verse' poem:)

'spin that wheel - blaiRIGHTS get real'

by Seth B Ramal (with royalties donated to Technotronic).

**New for 6 July: battlestarred, URLed remix version** after worries about the impact of senseless profanities on pensioners, and remembering the Nixon tapes.

the wheel hath spun,
and yer man hath frakked the frak off
(as Malcolm Tucker would say.)

(as Nathan Barley would say:)
so keep your orifice backed up
jump-shift to blair MK2 - dave ca"MORON".
(which is where you sensible, friendly people should have been in the first place).

[Ah, that feels better now.]