Back in October, on extremely short notice, my brilliant, bonny John Wilson substitute-conducted the state-run radio orchestra of Ireland, RTE, in a program of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor, and Dvořák’s quite listenable Symphony No. 8 in G major.
Pinch-hitting for a sick colleague in Glasgow a month later, John conducted Brahms’s Haydn Variations, as well as Dvořák’s crowd-pleasing Symphonic Variations.
But it’s John’s performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings that really made me sit up. Written by Benjamin Britten for his live-in sweetie Peter Pears—who sang it in 1943—Serenade, with its unlikely musical combination, is a remarkably rich work, just the kind of music that John should be involved in at this point in his career. Of course he conducted it splendidly in Glasgow. BBC Radio 3 is streaming the program for the next couple of weeks.
I was twelve when The Forsyte Saga (all 26 episodes available here) was first shown on American TV and I thought it was the coolest series ever.* It was about a large, rich and, though unconnected, influential family living in late-capitalistic England circa 1879, who keep getting into pretty heated conflicts with each other—which at the bottom are really about, more or less, the value of art and the inner life vs commerce—all the while being beautifully attired and beautifully well-spoken. Hearing this royal fanfare from “Halcyon Days” that opened the show was enough to get me all excited with anticipation on a Sunday night, but it wasn’t until last year around May when I finally discovered the composer of the piece, Eric Coates, plus the rest of this ravishing movement, when I fell in love with conductor John Wilson and developed a raging need to get close to the music he’s close to.
Soames, The Man of Property, Noted Art Collector, and about as Mr Wrong as you can get, mistook his wife for a soulless mannequin and, in novelist John Galsworthy’s sardonic words, “asserted his marital rights and acted like a man” in this scene, in which the BBC made shocking good use of Nyree Dawn Porter’s lovely embonpoint.
*In fact it got me to read the entire cycle of nine novels the series was based on; finished them when I was thirteen. Dinny Cherrell’s my favorite character.
Sarah Millican first. I swear, I tried listening to this fast-talking comedienne from nearby South Shields the middle of last year but could not keep up with her pace or her accent. Later I started watching old episodes of Auf Wiedersehn, Pet but it’s just so…masculine, you know? Which I suspect pretty much defines Geordie culture anyway… So I started alternating watching that show with When the Boat Comes In, which was more successful for me, as the estimable Northumbria-born actress Jean Heywood provided a good model of what a feminine northeast accent sounds like. After her it was a snap to follow Millican.
Second, The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s Star Trek-like TV series. Like the 70s folksinger says, “I’m a stoner, I’m a trekker, I’m a young sky walker…” So yeh, I’d be interested in watching this show just to see if it measures up to the standards of my youth. Unfortunately, none of MacFarlane’s projects (except for pre-2013 Family Guy) ever sound interesting enough for me to overcome my intense personal dislike for him. So…maybe later. I did, however, listen to the show’s theme music, which was written by Andrew Cottee, the same young man who wrote some arrangements for The John Wilson Orchestra over in England. The theme does everything expected of it.
Third, Get Carter, 1971, starring Michael Caine and the City of Newcastle. Made this movie last on my list because it deserves two paragraphs, being the British noir classic that it is…
Sidebar: As we all now know from film school, existentialism is the engine of noir, which means that petty details like Michael Caine speaking in a thick Cockney accent* when his character’s supposed to be from Newcastle-upon-Tyne oughtn’t to matter to the sophisticated auditor. But I had a problem. I’m sorry. A year and a half ago I wouldn’t have cared, one Brit being the same as any other. Then I fell in love with John, a Low Fell lad, and individuality suddenly became a very important thing to me.
The Movie Overall: Not quite sure why the filmmakers transplanted novelist Ted Lewis’s story from his original setting in Lincolnshire (Lewis’s birthplace), to Tyneside, but since it’s the classic story of the Anti-Hero’s Revenge, which works anytime, anyplace, it does fine here. Michael Caine’s a little podgy but quick with his reflexes and still a treat for the ladies. Lots of sex and violence, lots of local atmosphere, local faces, and landmarks like Tyne Bridge, the Newcastle Racecourse and, of course, the carpark across the Tyne River.
The Carpark in Gateshead Scene: By a stroke of luck Get Carter is being streamed on Criterion this month so I watched the entire movie, then to make sure, watched the carpark scene twice more in order to understand why it so sticks in the mind. Because it does, you know, even though I’m not a fan of movies like this. I guess it’s because there’s rather a high elegance to this scene that contrasts with all the mundaneness and phony poshness around it… Very arty, but a genuine statement. Or maybe it’s just because I like watching Michael Caine get all riled up.
The now torn-down carpark at Trinity Square in Gateshead in this famous scene was a dreary piece of English Brutalist architecture that, according to its creator Rodney Gordon, was never meant to stand the test of time anyway. That’s the theme to The Orville above.
*I understand that a stage version of Get Carter was recently performed in Newcastle, with Carter’s accent spoken correctly.
20 November. On this day in 1999, 20 years ago, at 6AM, my bonny John Wilson made his first appearance on BBC radio when the morning show played his 1997 recording for Chandos of “The Tempter”, a theatrical music piece by the nearly forgotten, once wildly popular, Welsh-English composer Sir Edward German (1862 – 1936), whose reputation John in his career has done a lot to restore. No, really. I’m into theatrical music so I should have known about this chap years ago, not just about Arthur Sullivan. So thank you, John, for Edward German. (I think you do a nifty Nell Gwyn Overture too.)
John was 25 when he conducted this, and even then showed his flair for dynamic, theatrical pieces.
That snooty critic fart Andrew Sarris once mock-praised my old boss Rouben Mamoulian for his early cinema innovations that never quite caught on. But for me this scene in Love Me Tonight (1932) is memorable—never seen a filmed musical number take the straight-into-the-camera point of view for first the singer then singee. It’s just adorable, and I don’t think any other director has done this.
Above Jeanette: That’s the 1932 Victor recording above of Chevalier singing “Mimi”, with the Paramount Studio Orchestra conducted by Nat Finston.