Monthly Archives: November 2015

Music for beautiful buildings


A church-going Christian would be used to the practice of ensemble singing alongside prayer and contemplation, but exactly how and when the idea of religious practice blended into artistic appreciation?

Possibly from my earliest TV Christmas carol concerts, and certainly enhanced by discovering Radio 3’s Choral Evensong on midweek afternoons some time in the 1990s. Although that programme broadcasts all year round, it seems particularly suited to the dusky and dark afternoons of autumn and winter, possibly because of the format’s similarity to the Christmas Eve broadcast of lessons and carols at King’s College Cambridge.



The chapel of King’s College Cambridge.


I would agree with Tom Service that the musical pleasures of choral evensong are inevitably associated with the medieval churches and cathedrals which still retain professionally-led choirs able to perform it.  If you love to visit a historic Christian church it’s surely easy to listen to some of the music which has been designed to be sung within it.



The medieval choir stalls at Chester Cathedral.



Sainte Chapelle in Paris.


My most memorable personal experience of attending a religious service involving such a choir was at Mass in the Gothic style (but Victorian built) St Mary’s Catholic cathedral in Sydney, Australia. The music included William Byrd, as I remember.



St Mary’s Cathedral, photographed from a conveniently high vantage in 2000, probably from the AMP Centrepoint complex. The adjoining 19th building century building, contrasting with other larger and newer ones, is the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


Yes, perhaps such music is an old-fashioned taste even for a church-goer, the sort mocked by Philip Larkin in Church Going After all, it is now more often specially planned and performed for secular audiences,  for example at the Three Choirs Festival , rather than as natural parts of the religious life of a community.

I confess to preferring plainchant and polyphony and contemporary composition (which usually requires the skills of professional singers)  rather than hymns from the 19th and early 20th centuries where a choir sings in hearty unison to organ accompaniment just as they might do in your local parish. Probably a bit of snobbery, that. Whichever, you have the strong sense that this is a form of cultural expression which, as the 21st century progresses, will become more rare and select.



The medieval chapel in Iona Abbey.




Somewhere bright and Baroque in Venice, probably the Church of Santa Maria della Salute.



One of the older churches in Jerusalem, St Anne’s near the Pool of Bethesda, built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.



The startling interior of the Church of the Transfiguration, designed in the 1920s by Antonio Barluzzi, on Mount Tabor in Israel.


The website Saturday Chorale  contains a huge treasure trove from all periods and there are extracts of the excellent BBC series Sacred Music with performances by The Sixteen on You Tube.


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Some questions and ideas about the BBC


The Media Show’s special debate on Radio 4 on the future of the BBC included many familiar viewpoints on the corporation’s role, funding and organisation. So it was cheering to hear one contributor, David Elstein, say something which was more unusual: that much of current BBC drama was “low-ambition” compared to that by US producers.

It was an opinion which accords with my own, and challenges the popular one  – created and shared by industry professionals themselves –  that we live in a “golden age” of British TV drama.

Elstein, himself a former producer and executive with various broadcasters, is now the chairman of Open Democracy. By  coincidence, the web-site is currently running its own on-line survey entitled “100 ideas for the BBC”.

Among attractive suggestions from its contributors are that the BBC should make its decades-rich archive of programmes more widely available, perhaps with schools particularly in mind, that BBC4 could be much more artistically innovative, that there might be a return to a proper coverage of literature and of industrial relations and the trade union movement, that the partnership with the Open University be reinvigorated, that excellent local arts events be given a national platform and that the successful 1960s-1980s Play for Today practice of single pieces of drama from individual writers be reintroduced.

Any reservations I might personally express about the present-day BBC are of course the familiar moan of the middle-aged who enjoyed a genuine “golden age” without always appreciating it. But, here goes anyway in order of urgency…  Too much overlap between BBC2 and BBC4;  too much overlap between Radios 1, 2 and 6; the weakness in drama; too much low-quality news; the inflated status and salary of certain “personalities”; and that strange TV creature of the 21st century, the “reality” genre where real people turn themselves into pantomime caricatures and producers make excessive use of drama techniques like camera effects and music enhancement, for example  Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice, Fame Academy,  How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?The Great British Bake-Off, The Choir.

And the things which are still really good? Most of Radio 3 , some of Radio 4 and definitely the  iPlayer facility.



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The march of the women


Shoulder to Shoulder, the great 1974 BBC drama series about the Suffragette movement which is happily available at present on You Tube, has recently been getting some new attention as the antecedent of the film Suffragette.

While Suffragette covers the topic mostly through fictional characters, Shoulder to Shoulder centred  heavily on the members of the Pankhurst family who set up and ran the Women’s Social and Political Union, and on Annie Kenney, the one working-class woman who became a senior figure in the organisation.

Although, in keeping with much TV drama of the period, it employed several  writers and directors, the basic artistic shape of Shoulder to Shoulder was attributed to the trio of actress Georgia Brown, film-maker Midge Mackenzie and producer Verity Lambert.

Many of the plot ideas of Suffragette feature coincidentally in one particular episode of Shoulder to Shoulder, the fifth, entitled “Outrage”. Both feature Emily Wilding Davison and her fatal protest at the Derby horse race in 1913, the authorities’ force-feeding of suffragette prisoners and the extension of the campaign into the working-class east end of London.

Suffragette follows a long tradition of films set in Britain around World War One, such as  A Room With a View,  The Shooting PartyChariots of Fire,  A Month in the Country The Wings of the Dove and Howards End.  An outdoor scene like Derby Day with wide vistas and large crowds in authentic dress is a familiar element of a period drama. The scenes  of violent struggles between the suffragettes and police and of their force feeding in prison are reminiscent of smaller-scale and lower-budget scenes in Shoulder to Shoulder.

Mostly, however, director Sarah Gavron creates a distinctive picture of the London of the period, with use of fast moving camera, close-ups and subdued lighting. Her ending also takes us by surprise. As the suffragettes leave for the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, fiction fades into the real-life footage of the elaborate cortege and the packed streets.  Just as we grasp that this event, with the Pankhursts this time only as spectators, might have been one of the real turning points in the whole suffrage struggle, Gavron adds the Brechtian educational touch of a list of the dates when women in various countries around the world gained the vote.

Shoulder to Shoulder was notable for its championing of the stirring “The March of the Women”, composed by suffragette Ethel Smyth, as its theme music. “Outrage” was an episode where other music was inserted pointedly.  A solo rendition of the hymn “Thy Way Not Mine O Lord” accompanies the actions and funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, who says that she is guided by God in her political action, rather like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. “A Policeman’s Lot” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, incongruous in different ways, suggest both how the suffragette protesters were disturbing many aspects of British conservative society as well as how their actions were becoming as familiar as music-hall songs or patriotic celebrations.

In many places it is Gavron’s restrained use of music which helps prevent the narrative lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama. For example, her single use of “The March of the Women” is a brief acappella snippet in the middle of the narrative.

Abi Morgan’s script for Suffragette presents a cursory snapshot of Emily Wilding Davison as a committed militant who has undergone many prison sentences but, in Shoulder to Shoulder, Hugh Whitemore scrutinises her more closely. She is quiet, solitary, intense, something of a mystic even. A fellow prisoner  describes her as “a real tough nut” with “a look in her eye”. We see her enduring cold water hoses and  force-feeding by nasal tube.  “I feel the influence (of God) very strongly. I never act without it, ” she says. Her contact with Mary Richardson in Shoulder to Shoulder is similar to that with Maud Watts in Suffragette, but, in the former, the actual moment of her death is conveyed only by her imagining the horse’s neighs and hoofbeats and then Richardson’s shocked report afterwards. “She seemed out of place, as if she wasn’t really there ( but) her hand was so steady (and) she seemed to be smiling.”

Whitemore and director Moira Armstrong parallel the real-life death under the hooves of a royal racehorse of the middle-class Davison with the death under a brewery cart of a fictional working-class east ender, Maisie Dunn, who has shown a nascent interest in politics. The news of her death is relayed to Sylvia Pankhurst by her husband. The scene between the two is designed to highlight Pankhurst’s fierce interest in the lives of working-class women, but some of its power now comes from the fact that the husband is played with vivid individuality by the then unknown Bob Hoskins.

On the subject of male actors, the one real weakness of Suffragette for me was the character of the Irish police inspector, played by Brendan Gleeson. It is too easy for the viewer to imagine the pre-production meeting where one or more executives worried that the film needed a male protagonist to make it sellable and Gleeson’s authority figure, experienced in dealing with trouble-makers  in Ireland, seems naggingly similar to the Sam Neill character in TV’s Peaky Blinders. The poor decision is emphasised by the fact that actor and director clearly couldn’t make up their minds whether the character is supposed to be ruthless or sympathetic, and thus confuses the tone of the film whenever he appears.


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