Here’s a little sweet doddle while I struggle over a few more involved postings (not all of them to do with my beloved John Wilson), which I hope to finish by the weekend. Cabin Pressure is one of the funniest, most cleverly-written sitcoms on BBC Radio and it doesn’t hurt that two stage/screen veterans with the most gorgeous voices and perfect comedic delivery are top of the compact cast list. I’m sharing this episode because it starts off with a demanding conductor and a paranoid bassoonist on board the tiny chartered airplane—and as always, of course, Glinka’s overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmila.
Stephanie Cole, creator John Finnemore, Roger Allam, and Benedict Cumberbatch perform Cabin Pressure for a live BBC studio audience.
Dearest John Wilson, Conductor, it makes me happy to be in your audience and I don’t require you at all to be in mine—mostly because, as Mister Grumble just pointed out, my flicks would probably give you a heart attack. And hand to God, I do not want to add to your anxieties in this, your time of transitioning.
It also makes me doubly happy that you’re going to be concentrating more on The Classic Repertoire this season, although it means leaving your faithful John Wilson Orchestra fans for a time. (I’m in your fan club because Claire’s a nice lady and she asked me twice, so I’m there up close noting people’s disappointment that you and your orchestra won’t be touring your native country this year.) Because when you’re not touring with American film music on the program, you’re not on the podium making the kind of quasi-witty comments that would make even me wince, and I used to be Arthur Godfrey’s gag man back in the fifties.
Now, Voyager (1942): Bette Davis as brave Charlotte Vale and Paul Henreid as her handsome weenie of a lover in this BBC Saturday rainy day movie I’ll bet John saw when he was a kid and couldn’t make head nor tail of—except for the music. That’s Charles Gerhardt conducting the Max Steiner score, including the Warners Bros studio theme, which Steiner also wrote.
On that note, I just want to let all of you know that I realize that it’s not hard to find me. Really. I’m in freakin IMDb. I don’t even have to fill you in on what my screen name is because IMDb seems to have switched pretty much every one of my credits back to my legal name anyway, so it would be kind of pointless… All right. It’s Simona Wing. My castmates in my first movie, Dork & Sindy aka Playthings, gave it to me, and I consider it quite a lagniappe. Mister Grumble used it for my character’s name in his first novel (Tales from the Last Resort, Brave New Books, 2002) and no one has been able to get better use out of it since.
I have pleasant memories of that shoot. For one thing, it was shot in Marin County. In Sausalito! In a house overlooking the Bay. Do you see in that pic those houses up in the hills? The white house above the red roof, that’s where we shot.
For another thing, Craft Services was fantastic. You could graze all day and this being a feature film there was lunch served from chafing dishes too.
And it was a friendly, clean shoot. Does anyone here who saw the flick remember what I was wearing before the guy in sunglasses growled into my breasts, stripped me naked and threw me into the hot tub? That white blouse, that long black skirt, those pumps? That was my secretarial outfit, the one I wore a few months earlier when I worked for Rouben Mamoulian. Practically every freakin day, I was that poor (took Sunset bus to foot of Schuyler Road, got off, wearing sneakers climbed hill, at Mamoulian’s door removed sneakers, put on pumps which I carried in my handbag). I remember I had one line which has since been coming back to me regularly, because whenever I run into an occasional fan, he (and it’s always a he) tends to quote it to me:
“Marin County been bery, bery good to me.”
Now, you have to be a real Saturday Night Live geek to recognize that line, and I’m not going to decipher it for you. But I suppose this showed people I could do voices, because I got a lot of work from this film, almost all of it involving fakey foreign-sounding accents. Like Fatima, woman of Borneo, in the hardcore version of Sadie Thompson. I’m not kidding.
There must be something in the English character that enables the better artists among them to depict situations of unassuming, steady bravery with superior deftness, which is probably why their World War II pictures are better than ours. One of them, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (20th Century Fox, 1958), doesn’t technically qualify either as a UK picture—Fox produced it; or as a WWII picture—it’s set during the Sino-Japanese War of 1938; but it does have unarmed peasantry scattering to the hills under Japanese gunfire, which is a theme that ran through my mother’s life starting with Pearl Harbor and ending in March, 1945 when American troops marched through the rubble-strewn streets of Manila, hunky victorious good guys. My mother’s first teenage romance was with a private in the 1st Cavalry Division named Kelly, come to think of it.
Now, when I refer to better artists of English character I don’t mean the film’s producer, director, writer (American, American, American), or stars (Swedish, Austrian). But it’s because of: one, the true-life heroine the story was based on; two, the location shooting; three, the non-lead casting; and four and most importantly, the music, that I think of Sixth Happiness as an English film. The true-life heroine of the story was English-born, not to mention the film has Snowdonia standing in for the daunting terrain around Yangcheng and pretty near the entire Chinese heritage population of Liverpool standing in for Chinese nationals, with supporting roles portrayed by stalwarts of UK stage and screen. This is the first thing I ever saw Burt Kwouk in.
But to the music. This is not Malcolm Arnold’s finest score—Bridge On the River Kwai (Columbia, 1957) really is a superior composition—but it rates higher with me becauuuse, you guessed it, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness has a gorgeous Love Theme, which you can hear below as the Royal Academy of Music performed the suite back in 2014. You’ll also hear the bright, high fanfare brass that Arnold used in a few other of his movies, River Kwai and the one below, for examples. Also, I’m starting to develop a theory to satisfy myself that certain intervals, played with conviction, are the real sinews of English music: they make for that sound of “rightness”, which you can take one way or another, depending on the mood—or your mood, for that matter. Sixth Happiness has plenty of those.
Besides the satisfying fanfare brass, Sixth Happiness shares with the satirical The Belles of St Trinian’s (British Lion, 1954) a bit in the score where there’s a song meant to be sung by children—in Sixth Happiness it’s “This Old Man”; in St Trinian’s it’s the school’s hilarious “Battle Cry”. I’m not posting the lyrics here, so click on the link in red to listen to those cheerfully bloodthirsty oaths. But can you imagine what a liberating tonic this ferocious roar from the depths of The Untamed Female Soul was to a little girl in the Catholic part of Minneapolis, watching this on Saturday matinee TV (a tonic, incidentally, I would not imbibe again till I heard Bernadine Dorhn mouth off a few years later)—?
Here’s the BBCCO doing the St Trinian’s suite at the Proms (Timothy West, narrator) bringing back almost all the familiar, funny-music leitmotifs to smile at, like George Cole’s character’s “Flash Harry”, a loping, rattling kind of tune (although lamentably there’s no sign of Joyce Grenfell’s scurrying “Ruby Gates”) before returning to that ghoulish school pageant march, lyrics I believe provided by Arnold himself.
In contrast, “This Old Man” is meant to be a “found” song, purportedly a children’s counting song, heard on the playground since the 19th century, and in a way that’s right, as the first time I heard “This Old Man” was on the playground—but only because it had become a hit on US radio first in 1959. It’s still impossible for me not to hear “This Old Man” and not think of the climactic scene in Sixth Happiness: the hundred children crossing the Yellow River into safe territory, ragged and exhausted but alive, marching into the unoccupied city to cheering crowds, loudly singing this song. Invariably it brings tears to my eyes, immigrant daughter that I am, and I remember the first time I watched—and heard—this film on TV with my mother, my mind nearly forming the question I never asked her, not then, not ever: “What happened to you in the war, mom?” Because the music was so ravishing, the love story was so satisfying, and my mother just wanted to enjoy an Ingrid Bergman film.
Most people* seem to discount the idea that Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho is actually a near-perfect work for strings (given that it was written exclusively for strings anyway) and that, given the right setting, is a very listenable chamber piece that doesn’t need to reference the film. Here’s the Tippett Quartet performing this arrangement by Richard Birchall at Kings Place, 2011.
John Mills, Jeremy Isaac, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, and Bozidar Vukotic: the London-based Tippett Quartet.
* Like Mister Grumble. This is the secondmost heated debate** between us: whether or not movie music (for narrative films not musicals) can be considered truly concert-worthy.
** (The most heated debate between us is whether Oswald did it or not. This one gets us both really het up, as one of us has a slight connection with the actual case.)
PS—Because I just noticed that the leader of the Tippitt Quartet (circa 2011), John Mills, is also the leader of the John Wilson Orchestra to date, I’m giving this posting a john-wilson tag.
Patrick: This is Irina, the performance artist from Praha.
Maureen: Yes, I think we know where she comes from. Does she normally wear that?
Irina: I wear very little. There is a saying in my country, “Music is like the body. The more it is exposed, the more it can arouse.” Another expression we have in Czech, “Music is like sex—if we do not have it, WE DIE!!!”
Maureen: (alarmed) Sex. She said sex!
Irina: My music is like my sex. It come from the dark inside of my wooomb of my sex! Yearning to receive the seed of the dark black innards of my inward being… Dark, black, and hot, they copulate in the tone of the music of the fire that meets and heats, and in the heat is born the sacred coming of the sex of my body, is sex and my body is music, on and in, and in and on, my body is the sex of my heat, and my music, my heat, my body is on…
Irina: Of course. Always. Or as we say in my country, “[something-something-something-sex in Czech]”… Now I tune and prepare. (plays violin, orgasming loudly to music)
Maureen: Well, that was quite unusual.
Irina: (panting) Thank you.
Patrick: Um, did you actually achieve…?
Irina: (more panting) Orgasm? Of course.
Maureen: So, any other questions you’d like to ask, Patrick…? Any tips? Sorry, the producer’s flashing me. (in headset) Yup! Sorry? Yes yes, I know, well, he’s had her on, it wasn’t my idea…
Patrick: I did not get her on! I was under the impression we agreed we needed an example of the solo fiddle…
Maureen: Yes yes, you would like a fiddle wouldn’t you? (in headset) Yes, yes, all right. (hangs up headset) I’m afraid this is the BBC and we can’t have people having orgasms on it. Can we, Patrick?
Patrick: (deflated) No, no, I’m afraid not.
Maureen: (to Irina) So please leave. Now our next guest…
If you could, my bonny John Wilson, imagine me wearing a Maria Clara (like great-grandmother Aberin below) and you wearing a barong, I’d be singing you this song:
Verse: Sa buhay ko’y labis Ang hirap at pasakit, ng pusong umiibig Mandi’y wala ng langit At ng lumigaya, hinango mo sa dusa Tanging ikaw sinta, ang aking pag-asa.
Refrain: Dahil sa iyo, nais kong mabuhay Dahil sa iyo, hanggang mamatay Dapat mong tantuin, wala ng ibang giliw Puso ko’y tanungin, ikaw at ikaw rin
Dahil sa iyo, ako’y lumigaya Pagmamahal, ay alayan ka Kung tunay man ako, ay alipinin mo Ang lahat sa buhay ko, dahil sa iyo
“Dahil Sa Iyo” Mike Velarde Jr music (1938), Tom Spinoza, lyrics Cora and Santos Beloy, vocalists Tri-World Records (1964)
My mother’s lola, my great-grandmother, the spitting image of my mother the way Georgiana Drew is the spitting image of Drew Barrymore. I have no documentation for my assertion—my family’s house and possessions were completely destroyed during the Japanese Occupation. But whenever we came across this picture in the media—in an article in Time, for example—my mom would always point her out and tell me the story of how my great-grandfather came over from Ireland and, upon discovering he was meeting fellow Catholics in a sea of Asians, stayed, changed his name from O’Brien to Aberin, and married the local beauty. How the Dutch photographer found her is anybody’s guess.
My bonny John Wilson conducted this overture, along with William Walton’s Symphony no.1, on 21 September 2019 at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester (broadcast on the 24th followed by 30 days of streaming, till 23 October). Only thing I know about Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904 – 1987), that old Communist, is his “Comedians” Suite—which John may very well end up doing sometime, if he hasn’t already—and the dauntingly massive bildungsroman Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland, who also wrote the original novel the opera Colas Breugnon is based on. (Never finished Jean-Christophe, may yet. Let you know.) This piece is typical of the kind of repertoire John is getting known for: bright, busy, theatrical, uncomplex, and quite entertaining.
It was also pleasing to hear the BBCCO playing under John’s baton a creditable rendition of Walton’s first and most frequently programmed (as a matter of fact, Petrenko conducted this in London back in March) and recorded symphony. This is a good gig for John, the first concert of the season at Bridgewater Hall. Quite an honor, in fact.