Monthly Archives: June 2014

An international birthday party




Among  televised live rock concerts, Live Aid in 1985 is remembered clearly and discussed frequently, but the next big one, the anti-apartheid benefit in June 1988, also at Wembley Stadium, London, around the time of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, is now often forgotten.

Partly perhaps because there were other high profile TV concerts focussed on Mandela.  One at Wembley Stadium on Easter Monday 1990 to celebrate his release from prison, at which he spoke; another, a smaller musical event at Trafalgar Square in 1996, where he again spoke.  As the political battle of which these concerts were part has long ago been won, they tend to blur together in the memory.

One of the significant musical elements of the 1988 event was a varied white/black/ African performance line-up, which contrasted doubly with Live Aid in giving attention to less famous artists and providing music other than British/American pop and rock.

Most of the established white acts who did take part at the Mandela event had already shown public support for social and political issues, like Sting, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, George Michael, the Specials and UB40, and they mostly played songs which had a particular relevance to the day’s purpose rather than merely being greatest hits. Among the black artists, Tracy Chapman gave a performance which sustained her career for years afterwards, and was followed later by Whitney Houston, officially second on the bill after Dire Straits, and impromptu guest Stevie Wonder.

The event was more politically contentious than Live Aid, as demonstrated by the fact that it was billed as the Freedom Fest for the more sensitive US TV networks. On the day, I remember being rather annoyed to hear pro-Mandela comments inserted somewhat clumsily between or within songs  – until I later learned that this was a deliberate strategy by artists to ensure their expressions of political support were less easy to censor.  The day was not totally free of celebrity self-indulgence and back-patting, but seeing the above poster displayed in the Manchester People’s Museum brought back happy memories of a good musical day, and a period both of clearer political ideals and a more engaged popular music industry.


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The Spanish subversion of Buñuel


Last June, Leaf Collecting added a post about the poet Lorca. Today, by coincidence almost exactly a year later, we give some attention to one of his Spanish contemporaries, the film director, Luis Buñuel.

How British television’s treatment of cinema has changed is shown in clear relief when you consider how the programmers reacted differently to the deaths of two equally famous foreign language  directors, Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman.  When Buñuel died in 1983, BBC2 showed a commemorative season of his films in a prime slot, the middle of Friday evenings, around 8 pm.  At the time of Bergman’s death in 2007, he merited only a few late-night screenings on minority channels BBC4 and Film4. Such was the change in the status and popularity in foreign language cinema within a generation.

At the time when I was gaining my first knowledge and interest in world cinema in the early 1970s, Buñuel’s reputation was probably the highest it had ever been.  This was one of those times when cinema was politically, socially and morally provocative while still holding and building mainstream popularity.  Buñuel had been making films since the silent era, yet his latest work was attracting attention in the manner of a director half his age, starring the established European stars of the day like Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel  and Michel Lonsdale.



The Prado art gallery in Madrid. Buñuel went to university in Madrid and met Lorca around that time.



The statue of Lorca in Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid.


With Lorca, the young Buñuel had been part of a Madrid group of avant-garde artists known as Generación del 27.  His ideas and values were clearly formed by the political and social upheaval in Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War, when the country was divided between the monarchy, the church, the upper classes and the nationalists on one side and the working classes, the peasants and the republicans on the other. Even as a Christian, I can’t resist the anti-clerical attitude of his films, which seems such an integral part of his classical Marxism. It clearly springs from a different and more exotic time and place, when the modern social order and its materialist values were not yet so deeply ingrained.



A colourful exterior in Plaza de Santa Ana.


Buñuel’s early surrealist classics Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or  contain many scenes which can still shock. The former has the razor blade slicing a woman’s eye. The latter includes some fully-robed bishops decaying into skeletons, the couple whose loud attempts at sexual coupling in the mud disturb a formal civic ceremony, the gamekeeper who shoots his own son for a minor misdeed, and the debauched nobleman who looks eerily like Jesus Christ.

Lack of commercial support blunted the edge of Buñuel’s individual vision in the subsequent decades and what films he made, often outside Europe, were of different styles and genres. It was later, when he was, amazingly, in his 60s and 70s, that his work consistently regained that original bite.



Buñuel knew Toledo well, and shot his film “Tristana” there.



A medieval door in Toledo.


In Viridiana, the title character is a former nun who practises the Franciscan ideals of charity towards a group of beggars.  Yet, they respond shabbily to her kindness. They take over the best part of the house for their evening meal one day when Viridiana and her cousin Jorge are out. At the end of the meal they pose together for a photograph in an irreverent spoof of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper and dance to the accompaniment of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. When Viridiana and Jorge return earlier than expected, he is knocked unconscious and tied up while she is assaulted.

Two scenes at the end emphasise Viridiana’s rejection of her previous religious life. The crown of thorns which she kept as a novice is finally burned, and she is shown playing cards with Jorge and his new lover to the accompaniment of jaunty popular music, in contrast to the religious music which accompanied the opening credits.

In  The Exterminating Angel, the Catholic Church is targeted less fiercely than the rich and selfish middle-classes. Servants leave a dinner party prematurely, and, as if in consequence, the guests are not able to leave the house when the evening is over. Nobody outside can get in, even the civic authorities and the army, although there is clearly no physical impediment. Food runs out, deteriorating hygiene is complained about, a pipe in the wall is broken to provide drinking water.  One of the guests collapses and dies, one engaged couple commit suicide. Finally the servants return outside, and the guests are able to regain the will and energy to leave.  They attend Mass to give thanks for their release but now the priest and the congregation fall prey to the same inertia, even while outside  the army are quelling a disorder by gunfire.

In  The Phantom of Liberty, a collection of loosely connected scenes mock the civic and religious authorities and the professional middle-classes in their expensive homes and clothes. A group of monks lead prayers for a young women’s ill father and then play cards with her using religious medals as chips while carrying on an irreverent discussion about the church’s attitude to sainthood. Some trainee police officers behave like school pupils in front of their lecturer, scrawling graffiti on the board before he comes in and pinning a paper figure to the back of his jacket. Party guests openly sit on toilets and talk about excrement and defecation but are coy about discussing food.  A child is reported as missing and becomes the subject of an official police investigation although she is still in the room.  A man arbitrarily shoots passers-by from the top of a city tower block, and then in court, when he is convicted and sentenced to death, he and everyone around him react as if he has been acquitted by congratulating him, chatting amiably and requesting his autograph. A police commissioner excuses himself from the police station for an important appointment which turns out instead to be a game of dominoes in a bar, and he is later arrested for breaking into a mausoleum and for desecrating a grave.

Buñuel’s critical acclaim was boosted by The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1972. He enjoyed the highest production standards for his later films, despite their illogical narratives and challenging perspectives on human behaviour. Today, in contrast, it is annoyingly hard to see many of his films. Long ago, BBC2 did screen Belle De Jour, the story of a married woman’s sexual peccadilloes and fantasies which influenced a later internet and TV project, but it is long overdue rescreening. Nor have I ever seen either that aforementioned Oscar-winner or the final That Obscure Object of Desire. The Milky Way, about two tramps journeying symbolically to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, sounds enticing, too. 

The nearest equivalent of  Buñuel in today’s cinema is possibly his Spanish compatriot  Pedro Almadóvar. It’s certainly not an exact match: Almadóvar rarely shows  Buñuel’s scabrous ferocity. As we were saying at the start, times have changed.



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Too many channels and stations?


Technology has extended and enriched our cultural lives, it is true. NT Live pioneered the screening of plays into cinemas and this extended into opera, dance and visual art. IPlayer allows us to catch up with radio or TV programmes which we have missed. Many free web-sites are as good as any newspaper or magazine. However, I am not convinced that the multiplication of TV and radio stations has brought the same quality which those of us of a certain age enjoyed in the latter part of the last century.

The fashion followed by those in charge of TV and radio stations now seems to be that of narrow niches, rather than that of rich diversity. Sky started the trend with their dedicated TV sports channels and film channels, funded by paying subscribers.  Among ITV’s current channels, the identity for ITV4 (male-orientated sport, drama and films) is a little clearer than ITV2 and ITV3, but how More4 differs from Channel 4 is not always obvious to me. The expected audience for the stations of food programmes and game shows is quite apparent, even if, you feel, they were already well catered for.

I do remember the initial publicity for the channel which became BBC4. Originally named BBC Knowledge, it was trailed as “Everybody needs a place to think.”  Gaining access to it only through Freeview, I did miss some of its formative years. However, I have long shared the view expressed by David Herman that the channel has never built and sustained a clear identity.

That  task will be still harder to carry out now that the channel has been merged managerially with BBC2, and will probably soon be closed, hinted Peter Preston, because it lacks that specific niche and a large enough audience.  To me that would actually be fair: as suggested before, the channel has chosen to omit many types of programme which should be a natural part of its remit, such as serious drama and foreign language cinema.  New BBC4 editor Cassian Harrison seems willing to leave that gap unfilled, preferring more fact-based programmes.

As someone who has spent thousands of hours over many years listening to pop and rock music on the radio, I have never understood the purpose behind BBC’s Radio 6 Music. (After more than ten years, time to drop the redundant “music” from its name, surely?)  A music station which covers exactly the same genres as do Radios 1 and 2. Sometimes playing newer artistes, certainly, but not so methodically that it could be said to be very different from those other two stations.  It almost totally ignores the classical, jazz and world musics of Radio 3.

I admit that I am the only critical voice I have been able to find on the topic of Radio 6 Music. Having survived one closure threat through vocal popular support, it will doubtless continue for some time yet. Surely, though, that broad palette of pop and rock music which most of its presenters offer already could with just a bit more effort be extended to encompass world music and traditional music and the less commercial part of what most of us still describe as “classical” music?

Not that I seek to debase the status of Radio 3, and I know many long-time listeners have argued that changes made to “popularise” it have led to a dilution in the station’s strengths.

As an irregular listener myself, I am probably not its most informed analyst. For example, I was quite comfortable with the move of world music from its scanty coverage on Radio 1 to Radio 3 where it was regularly covered on Late Junction, World Routes, World on 3 and in broadcasts from the Womad festival. I can certainly understand the complaint that an informal presentation style is not the most natural for its music and its regular listeners.  However, I would counter that a high percentage of the composers and works which are sometimes decried as too populist are still unfamiliar by modern radio standards. Added to that, the station presents challenging drama long lost to TV, the stimulating programme which combines both elements in Word and Music and the timeless Choral Evensong. To me, the BBC has other rather more pressing problems than any perceived flaws in Radio 3.

If broadcasting chiefs appear terrified of appearing to be “elitist” and “exclusive”, it is because they are sometimes loudly criticised for being so. Those of us of that aforementioned certain age sometimes forget we are part of the listening generation which welcomed, and perhaps even campaigned  for,  those earlier stages of popularisation.  It could be that regular changes in content, genre and delivery are inevitable stages in broadcasting “progress” and it is only once you reach that certain age that you find them annoying!

As it was technological change which increased hours and outlets of TV and radio broadcasting , so it may be technology which will finally end them. Perhaps, sooner than we expect, the practice of the individual consumer assembling his/her own bespoke channel from separate segments of radio and TV will become the norm, and we will stop recognising individual channel identities.  After all, there has been a loss in the individual identities of newspapers and political parties for some time – try to explain and exemplify to a teenager the terms broadsheet and tabloid, left wing and right wing.  The complaint which was already common when Bruce Springsteen phrased it over 20 years ago – “57 channels and nothing on” – may no longer be heard because the statement will become meaningless.

Although my sense of tidiness feels that our national cultural life would not suffer if we lost Radio 6 and BBC4, I should remind myself that it would not inevitably follow that the better parts of their programme content would transfer to the older channels. The content and presentation which graced the BBC2, Channel 4, Radio 3 and Radio 4 of earlier times have changed forever and will never come back – because we, their audience, have changed forever.


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