Category Archives: entertainment
Today’s obituary: Denis Norden. A name that hasn’t been heard so much of late, but was big in my formative years as half of a comic duo, Muir and Norden. Although their main works were before my time, the pair were, to my schoolboy self, the Grand Old Men of (light) entertainment on the radio. The quiz/chat show “My Word” (and to some extent its lesser twin “My Music“) – in which the two were lead panelists – was something my parents would have on around teatime, and that I enjoyed too. Light entertainment with wit and erudition.
It was My Word more than anything else that first got me hooked on speech radio. Maybe indeed radio in general: I don’t have a clear memory of what came first between that and starting to listen to broadcast music. I *think* My Word came first, some years before I had my own radio on which I could listen to music.
In recent times (hmm, in fact probably most if not all my adult life) I’ve most often thought of Muir&Norden when the BBC give us mindless and ugly drivel in the name of attracting a younger audience. The underlying assumption seems to be that young implies mindless, and it’s one of the things that makes me want to shout at the radio: no, you attract young people by putting on good shows – like Muir&Norden did, and like some of today’s entertainers do. And you accept that young people may naturally listen to less radio than old codgers not because they want to be treated as morons but because they have busy and active lives.
RIP one of the last surviving public figures to have influenced my schooldays.
Tonight was our last evening singing for the Rambert Dance Company. It’s been a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard work, particularly in the rehearsal on Monday, when the musical director gave us a gruelling but instructive hard time.
I’ve enjoyed singing Goodall’s music. Alas, from down in the pit we see nothing of the ballet above, and comments from the audience suggest it was worth going to. But on the first night (Wednesday), we got complimentary tickets for the other two pieces on the programme. Their rendition of Saint-Seans’s Carnival of the Animals didn’t do very much for me, though I guess that’s my ignorance of ballet showing through. The final piece was an electronic score with the merest hint of Stockhausen but also of his more easy-going followers from the pop world. If you strip away the fact that it’s built from electronic noises, musically it was a very gradual atomic transformation that could be traced back a lot further: the way Bruckner slowly builds a symphony from tiny fragments springs to mind. It had no musicians, only a tape, and a disturbing somewhat nightmare-ish theme. I did find that fascinating, and enjoyed the work.
Yesterday night we got the additional highlight of an after-show meal at the Positano restaurant. It firmly reconfirms my view of Positanos as one of Plymouth’s best restaurants. The other evenings we’ve had just a drink or a basic meal afterwards.
If you’re a brit, you can’t’ve missed the news. For others, they’ve just announced the death of Humphrey Lyttleton, chairman for over 30 years of the popular radio show “I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue” (ISIHAC), among other things.
ISIHAC was a cult, introducing into our culture (or should that be subculture?) the game of Mornington Crescent, the esteemed Mrs Trellis of North Wales, the ever-lively Samantha, etcetera. It was characterised more than anything by the banter of a team of veteran comedians, coordinated (in the manner of expert cat-herding) by Humph. Banter that was at once witty and lighthearted, outrageously rude, and just like banter within the family. I think that last may have struck the strongest chord with many listeners, including Yours Truly.
I shouldn’t think they’ll try to revive ISIHAC under another chairman (if they do, they’ll surely re-brand it). But the good news for fans is that there is another show where the spirit of ISIHAC lives on, with its own brand of irreverent banter, often only slightly gentler than ISIHAC. Radio 4’s Gardener’s Question Time stands out as rather good entertainment even for those of us with no garden, nor knowledge of or serious interest in gardening. And its chairman Eric Robson has a definite touch of the Humph about him.
What is Welsh music?
At a superficial level, it’s a great tradition of male voice choirs, and some lovely traditional ballads that most of the world thinks are English. Anything more?
When the Independent Ballet Wales come to perform a new work The Bride of Flowers (google finds the story here), based on a story from the centrepiece of Welsh culture The Mabinogion, I was interested to see what they’d make of it. But Welsh music it is not: the score is by a young English composer Eleanor Turner, and draws heavily on English and other European traditions.
Having said that, the work as a whole is quite stunning and individual. It’s a fine story in best fairytale-ballet tradition. The scene and lighting were gorgeous, and when characters were transformed to and from birds (the eagle and the owl), it was done with a stunning shadow-play that brought forth audible gasps from the audience. The dance seems to grow from the scene and (often very subdued) light, and the blend of the visual, the music and the dance formed an organic whole that was more than the sum of its parts. At its best it was almost like the childhood wonder of a new sensory experience.
I’m completely ignorant of the technicalities of dance, so it’s only the music I can really describe. The composer was also the harpist, and the centrepiece of all the music. With her were a violin, a cello, and a solo Tenor voice. It sounded much bigger than a four-person band, but was alas recorded rather than live, perhaps due to budgetary constraints.
After a dark and evocative start, the second scene was the first of several to take a very traditional and derivative form: a theme and variations in the pure classical tradition of Beethoven et al. The theme was The Ash Grove, probably the only genuinely Welsh tune in the whole score. Overall, the major influence was the English tradition of the first half of the last century, particularly Vaughan Williams and Holst. But in a darker and more sinister scene we hear something that’s more Stravinsky or Ravel. And in the second act, a scene that’s pure Italian bel canto: Bellini or Donizetti. Not to mention the voices of Britten and Schubert in the two tenor songs!
Yes, that’s a lot of patchwork, and that kind of thing usually brings out the cynic in me (and if I’d heard the score in isolation, I’d probably not have been so impressed). But Turner is far more than a pastiche: her music has a life of its own, and adds something to all the ingredients. This is a young composer who has achieved a high level of mastery and musicianship, and has many years ahead of her to develop her own voice and individuality. I shall watch with interest.
 I’ve even seen “all through the night” taught as english!
 I didn’t hear Tchaikovsky in the music, yet I found myself humming Swan Lake on the way home by … hmm … evocative association?
 Must re-read The Owl Service – this is the same owl.
Apart from seeing the parents and visiting the US embassy, I got three nights out last week at Brighton Festival events.
First up was Dido and Aeneas at the Dome, performed by a group called (IIRC) the New London Consort. They were musically proficient and featured 17th-century instruments, and in part authentic style. But in this work for mostly-female cast (it was originally written for a girls school where Purcell was music master), they took the unusual step of recasting a lot of it for male voices. And not just countertenors, either! Call me old-fashioned, but I find a baritone sorceress mildly disconcerting. The production was billed as semi-staged, but the action was very weak, and they’d have done better to abandon any pretence at staging and just give an honest concert performance. Fortunately it was musically much stronger.
Second was King Arthur (yea, more Purcell) at the Theatre Royal, this time by a group called Armonico Consort. Actually, calling it King Arthur was taking rather a liberty: they’d created their own show, just using Purcell’s music (which was much cut, and rearranged). But the show was good in its own right, and I enjoyed it much better than the previous show, despite the musical standard being a little more uneven.
Third was The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, in translation), also by Armonico at the Theatre Royal. This was an interesting and enjoyable production despite the horribly banal translation and a musically very uneven performance. On the good side, Tamino, Pamina, Papageno, and most of the minor parts were well on top of their parts and much enjoyed. Unfortunately I couldn’t say the same for the Queen of the Night (decent top Fs, but with a faint hint at a flo-jo in the high coloratura, and an intrusive vibrato) or Sarastro (inadequate lower range, and got hopelessly behind the orchestra in “Isis und Osiris”).
The production was (as it must be) very funny. The character of Papageno was noteworthy: in place of the fairytale birdman, we got the kind of rough fellow who you might think twice before daring to ask to put out a fag (in a nonsmoking area of course), or who might be found on a building site wolf-whistling passing girls. It worked. It might’ve worked even better if they’d cast a professional comedian in the role. Also noteworthy were the three boys, who were (unusually) cast as trebles rather than adult sopranos (unfortunately they didn’t blend, and in consequence sounded rather painful).
In addition to some cuts (which avoided the cut feel of the King Arthur), they’d made efforts to politically correct it. The misogeny was there but much toned-down, and the racism was altogether gone (which pretty much loses the Papageno-Monostatos scene altogether).
The BBC puts out a great deal of deeply unfunny crap in the name of comedy. And the occasional comedy that’s worth listening to (mostly the News Quiz).
I’ve just finished listening to Mark Thomas on Radio 4 (“my life in serious organised crime”). He’s not a name I’m familiar with, and in the 11pm slot I come to it with low expectations. And I was splitting my sides with laughter. This man is brilliant!
I’ve no idea if he’s got enough material in him to make more than a one-off show, or if he’ll tend to repeat the same joke and deteriorate. But on today’s evidence, I hope we’ll get to hear more of him!