Tag Archives: Radio

Some linguistics research – or perhaps just complaining about the way younger people speak…

 

Words come in and out of fashion. “Groovy” came and went fairly swiftly, “cool” has stayed around longer. Of the many words which changed meanings after medieval times, one of the most widely known is “fond” : meaning “stupid” when King Lear applies it to himself in Shakespeare’s play in the early 17th century, shifting to “affectionate” by the 20th century. I am sure the phrase “disc jockey” which I grew up with amused or annoyed older people who were accustomed to use the noun to describe someone who rode horses. I remember distinctly my surprise the first time I read a sentence including the phrase “spin doctor”, around the 1992 UK General Election, and, coincidentally, also around the namesake US band’s brief fame – and this phrase it is still commonly used.

All this is a prelude to listing some phrases which have become common parlance, even among journalists and broadcasters who are not young, but which sound rather ugly and unhelpful to my ears. Probably many of these usages have emigrated from the USA or Australasia and via cinema and TV – routes of travel heavily used for many years. Of course, such a list shows that the list-maker is more prone to nostalgia and conservatism rather than looking forward in optimism…

Anything which is unlikely or unachievable is now “a big ask” rather than “asking a lot” or “expecting a lot”.

A new feeling or attitude or condition will now “kick in” rather than “take effect”.

If something which needs caution or action is about to happen to you, you now need a “heads-up” rather than a “warning”.

An event which will begin immediately starts “from the get-go” rather than “from the word go”.

A permanent happening or condition is taking place “24/7” rather than “24 hours a day”.

An event will “not happen anytime soon” rather than “not happen soon”. Always used in the negative, this one, so possibly seen just as a more forceful emphasis.

If you are making things difficult for someone, you are “playing hardball” even if you know nothing about baseball.

A cause or practice which you feel strongly about or carry out continually is one you are “passionate about” rather than “dedicated to” or “committed to”, although “passion” is also often used as a euphemism for levels of anger.

Finally, since we’re in constant voting mode, it appears that people rarely now refer to others’ political “principles” or “beliefs”, but you talk about their “ideology” if you want to be pejorative and their “values” if you want to be polite and respectful.

About 20 years ago, the writer and broadcaster Clive James commented on how the word “enervate” seemed to be getting used more often as if it meant an increase in energy and strength rather than a decrease, because its sound, like “invigorate”, suggested such a meaning. He concluded that, if the majority of people come to use a word in one particular way, even if it is the incorrect way, that has to be accepted as appropriate and reasonable practice. A prescient idea.

 

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The world of Winterson

 

Because Jeanette Winterson are I are close to the same age, I can remember the fuss around her arrival on the literary scene. Furthermore, I had a bit more interest in her than in other writers who may be similar but who came later. For example, in 1990, I watched the BBC adaptation of her debut autobiographical novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit, which is the type of “misery” text which I would normally abhor and ignore.

An audience should of course always concentrate on a writer’s work rather than on his/her personality, but Winterson was always a high-profile and intriguing public character. She was overtly lesbian several years before the celebrity of Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay; she was fiercely proud of her regional and working-class roots but equally a successful member of the metropolitan literati from a young age, with her famous friends and partners and homes both in the countryside and in London’s historic and gentrified Spitalfields.

I had not actually read a complete Jeanette Winterson book until her recent Christmas Days,  which alternates 12 Christmas themed stories with 12 pieces of mixed history, personal reflection and recipes of Yuletide food and drink.

One of my two favourite stories is “The Mistletoe Bride”, in which I felt sure I detected similarities with the type of sensual fantasy story Angela Carter wrote in The Bloody Chamber. Interviews from earlier in Winterson’s career suggest she would scoff at such comparisons – she pointedly rejects the term “magic realism” which was often applied to Carter – and indeed it does look as if she was an independent player in such genres as early as her second and third novels The Passion and Sexing the Cherry .   

 My other favourite story is “Dark Christmas” , which seems influenced by the stories of  M.R. James, several of which were dramatized on BBC in the 1970s under the heading  A Ghost Story for Christmas.  It is possible of course that entertainment like that was not encouraged within the highly individual family Christmases which the young Winterson experienced with her Evangelical Christian family.   

Several parts of the book refer to the religious origins of Christmas, and Winterson’s knowledge of (and perhaps even affection for) the Bible shows in some vivid imagery like the animal narrator’s observation of the Nativity in “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me” and the perspective of the Annunciation  from one untitled story on her website:  An unmarried woman sits at a table…The table trembles…As she crouches (under the table) she sees beautiful feet, strong like an animal, bare like a dancer…”

 Until Christmas Days my most recent acquaintance with Winterson was her BBC Radio 4 series in 2014,  Manchester: Alchemical City , still available on iPlayer.

 

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Three photographs which reflect topics covered in “Manchester: Alchemical City”: here, Victoria railway station, below, part of the canal network through the centre of the city, and, at the foot, the interior of the independent Portico Library.

 

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My listening was prompted by a memorable visit to Manchester and I found the programmes overall a stimulating review of history and culture. The title summarises her argument that the people of Manchester have always been gifted with the ability to turn dirt and base materials into gold and riches, whether they were the medieval alchemist and scientist John Dee, the builders of the first ever canal the Bridgewater, the textile manufacturers and traders of the 19th century Cottonopolis, political visionaries like Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, the Chartists and the Suffragettes or Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker religious sect. (Mind you, the argument was stretched too thinly in her episode on popular music!)

Christmas Days led me to Winterson’s own website with its archive of her journalism. To single out only one, her piece about darkness has some alluring sensual details about different physical appetites for this time of year.  

 

 

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The influence of Grunwick

 

Grunwick Changed Me was the title of a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast earlier this year. “Me” was Maya Amin-Smith, a young Asian-English woman who found out only recently that her family members had been participants in the strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London during 1976-1978.  

The title of the programme could have applied, in a lesser way, to me also. All of us are affected at different times in our life by particular national and international news events. Grunwick was certainly one of mine. At university in the mid-1970s I was acquiring a knowledge and interest in politics and current affairs, but my principles and loyalties were still not fully formed.

Trade unionism, while very visible, was often presented very negatively. Since nobody in my family were either trade union members or overt supporters, my own attitudes were heavily formed by fictional representation. In Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront , the leadership of a dockland union branch are a gang of criminals who terrorise the local community and incur the opposition of the local Catholic priest but who are eventually beaten by Terry Molloy’s single-handed violent resistance. In one episode of the post-World War One TV drama When the Boat Comes In, the sympathetic character Tom Seaton returns to work during a strike because of his family’s poverty and illness and is attacked by a group of fellow miners, and has to be helped by the resourcefulness of hero Jack Ford. In both cases individualism is presented as more noble and admirable, and more correct, than collectivism.

In the UK in the 1970s, trade unions had a large membership and were highly active in both workplace and civic space. This was due to, as expressed by Selina Todd in her brilliant political history The People, “the chasm between their high expectations of life in an affluent society, and the reality they experienced on the factory floor”. The employees of the Grunwick factory, mostly female immigrants from Asia, Africa and the West Indies, went on strike in protest about low wages, poor conditions and the right to join a trade union.

The Grunwick dispute was my first clear awareness of secondary picketing. What I remember were the TV pictures and reports of large crowds of aggressive trade unionists, not directly involved in the dispute, being held back by squads of policemen.  One useful nugget from Grunwick Changed Me was that it was the Grunwick strikers who contacted other unions and who were very gratified by the support they received.

In fact, that support from the leadership of the TUC and other unions in the summer of 1977 lasted a short time only. The Grunwick strike finally ended the following year. Contrary to the recommendation of the government-appointed Scarman Inquiry, the management did not agree to union representation and did not reinstate most sacked workers. 

The radio programme definitely came across as, primarily, a family history story, secondly, a story of female and ethnic empowerment, and only, as a distant third, the recollection of a significant event of trade union protest. In that second category, it certainly accorded appropriate prominence to the strike leader Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010 and who I don’t remember reading about at the time.

However, the programme completely omitted one aspect that was widely covered at the time: when three politically moderate Ministers from the Labour government, who were sponsored by the union APEX, were ridiculed for their public support of a violent dispute. The incident was often used against Shirley Williams when she was leaving the Labour party to co-found the Social Democratic Party. The Labour government led by Jim Callaghan was always nervous of supporting trade unions in any disputes with employers: the social changes which would lead to the 18 years of the Conservative government were already in process.

In Grunwick Changed Me, writer/activist Amrit Wilson said that young people now tend to be unaware of radical political history. In fact, said Maya Amin-Smith, people today are perhaps more likely to celebrate the achievements of individual entrepreneurs than of a group of low-paid workers, especially if the battle they fought had been lost. Around the time of the Grunwick strike I was certainly someone who had not yet learned the truth that every right possessed by men and women was one which had been fought for, often literally, from a previous powerful group. Or, if I understood this fact rationally, I certainly did not appreciate exactly what such struggles involved. By the time the miners’ strike came round about six years later, I was more informed and more attuned.

Selina Todd gives due status to the influence of the Grunwick episode in The People. “The Grunwick strikers challenged the assumption that married women, immigrants and young workers were naïve or apathetic… (It) was the first major dispute to involve Asian and white workers and men and women, working alongside each other on equal terms…It marked a radical and hopeful departure in the history of labour protest.”   

 

 Reference:  Todd, Selina (2015)    The People : The Rise and Fall of the Working Class    London: John Murray

 

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No fixed points

 

During the 20th century and into the 21st,  culture in the UK became wider and more democratic, but not necessarily deeper. When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, their audiences consisted of people who had far less formal education than any of us   yet those plays are today still considered mostly too inaccessible to read or to watch. Few people today feel shy at making fun of contemporary art and architecture. My own generation certainly played our part in this decline through our dismissal of classical music and exaltation of pop and rock music from the 1970s onwards. 

Such a gloomy perspective probably springs automatically from ageing. Whatever, Radio 3’s programmes to mark the 70th anniversary of the BBC Third Programme provided several opportunities to reflect back on some of the country’s (and my) steps in the cultural journey. 

One of many intriguing facts which emerged both from the documentary The Envy of the World, first produced for the 50th anniversary in 1996, and the discussion Who Cares if You Listen?, was that William Haley, BBC Director General of the time, imagined that each of the new post-war radio stations would overlap in their content and that people could be coached into listening to the most intellectually demanding material on the Third Programme. Of course, that would have seemed a reasonable ambition then since the mainstream listening of the Home Service and the Light Programme would be regarded today as specialised and not always easy!

Haley’s vision of the Third Programme may now seem grandiose and pompous, but, as pointed out by Jenny Doctor and A.C. Grayling on Who Cares if You Listen?, it was formed from a widely-shared post-war ideal of renewal, building on generations of individual auto-didacticism.  “The war had made a lot of people more serious,” said Etienne Amyot, the Third Programme’s first head of planning. Similarly, Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of the Arts in the new Labour government, believed, as Philip Dodd observed on People Power, that Britain could become “a Third Programme nation”.  

The Envy of the World was able to bring forward several distinguished cultural figures  – playwright Harold Pinter, composer Peter Maxwell Davies, philosopher Bernard Williams –  to reminisce eagerly about the exhilarating education in music, poetry, drama and ideas which they received as regular listeners to the early Third Programme, but they of course were all young at the time, and, when you are young, adventure and experimentation of all kinds comes naturally. As mentioned earlier,  my own Radio 3 listening in the pre-internet age was always erratic, but one programme which I did hear regularly was Critics’ Forum. Acquiring a radio of my own at the age of 17 or 18 in the mid-1970s,  I came across this arts review magazine by accident one Saturday tea-time and was quickly lured by its elevated conversation on books, theatre, cinema, music and broadcasting. Its time slot was inconvenient but I was always happy to catch some part of it regularly even as my activities and priorities changed during its broadcasts of the next 15 years.

Critics’ Forum was produced by Philip French, also a long-time film critic with The Observer. The engrossing Philip French and the Critical Ear  included the snippet that the programme might have continued longer than 1990 but for disagreement between French and the new Controller of Radio 3, John Drummond.  Critics’ Forum was based on a Home Service programme from the 1950s and 1960s called The Critics, and so, as the documentary pointed out, it is apposite that its closest modern equivalent is back on Radio 4, Saturday Review

(Although the premature termination of  Critics’ Forum reflects badly on Drummond, I always associate his tenure as Controller with that great early 1990s initiative of weekends of programmes from cities abroad – Berlin, Minneapolis/St Paul and Prague    which must have been the inspiration for the themed or residency weekends and seasons which have continued on Radio 3 to this day.)

The Third Programme ran for six hours every evening, although that was cut to just three hours in 1957, due to a combination of low audience figures and the then widespread fear in broadcasting circles that the popularity of television was dooming all radio to extinction. Amazing in many ways that the concept of a radio channel dedicated to high culture remained sufficiently strong in the BBC management mind for a full decade more until the more confident days of 1967 and the new stations of Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. 

One of William Haley’s ideas for the Third Programme was that it should have “no fixed points”, no mandatory programme or timing such as for a news bulletin. Each evening was a blank page for whatever the planners imagined, no matter how different to what had been broadcast the night before, and occupying the full six hours with one event or theme if appropriate.

It seems natural now to compare the Third Programme story to that of those later TV channels which were created with smaller and specialised audiences in mind: BBC2, Channel 4, BBC4. Each of these gradually shifted into something blander and less innovative. A neglect of foreign-language and small-budget films and of the famous plays from the theatre canon; a neglect of opera and classical music outside the Proms; a tendency to repeat and recycle the safe rather than the challenging from the archives; factual programmes which adopted a sensational tone and style and which were dominated by the personality of the presenter rather than the richness of the topic; an over-fondness for the history of popular music and TV; a serious over-fondness for the format of the game show.  It has happened to BBC2 and Channel 4 since the millennium, in my opinion, and most disappointingly, to BBC4 within only a few years of its launch.

In contrast, the present-day Radio 3 still bears a good deal of similarity, in the best way, to that original template for the Third Programme. On a few random glances through early Third Programme schedules via BBC Genome, you can find Bach music alongside a Bernard Shaw play Jacobean drama and discussions about contemporary Africa and literature and the visual arts alongside world musicAny evening on Radio 3 this year could have provided an equally invigorating mix.

 

 

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The elements which made this war highly effective if not lovely

 

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One of the dozens of cemeteries of named and unnamed casualties from World War One in northern France and Belgium.

 

The great World War One commemoration machine is never far from view. Recently the Battle of Jutland, imminently the Battle of the Somme. So my very first viewing of Richard Attenborough’s film of Oh! What a Lovely War has been of particular interest.

Joan Littlewood’s original production in 1962 has passed into theatre mythology, a huge influence on a generation of political theatre.

However, it has been suggested that, by the time Attenborough’s film version was released in 1969, the show and its style were already a little out of date. The success of The Great War, the 26-part BBC TV documentary with its detailed use of archive photographs and film, plus the less hierarchical social habits which were developing, had spread a more balanced and more critical, less imperialistic and less jingoistic account of the War.

At that time, too, film producers were often employing black and white film to add authenticity to war stories. For instance, in the heroic epic The Longest Day, the small-scale anti-war King and Country and more conventional masculine dramas like The Hill and Guns at Batasi. Did Attenborough ever consider that treatment, one wonders? 30 years later Steven Spielberg talked about how the decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white relieved him of pressure to make such very serious material too commercial. The Angry Silence, the working-class factory drama which Attenborough produced, had certainly benefitted from the use of black and white. But Oh! What a Lovely War was Attenborough’s first big directing project and he and his co-producers probably felt that colour went hand in hand with the big budget, big stars and a long running time.

It is also interesting to compare Attenborough’s all-star cast with a similar ensemble (including literally many of the same people: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, Robert Flemyng, Edward Fox, Susannah York) at exactly the same time in Battle of Britain, a film with a more familiar heroic tone. When people first went to see Oh! What a Lovely War, did they know how different in content and tone was its source material?

 

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Brighton Pavilion, undergoing refurbishment in 2006. “Oh! What a Lovely War” was mostly filmed in and around Brighton.

 

I think the film today still comes across as a notable piece of work. The more realistic trench locations blend satisfactorily with the metaphorical one of the seaside pier, which is particularly effective in the interior scenes where the hazy white light backdrops the elite power politics at the start and end of the war. That scene near the end where the solitary infantryman is led along the blood-red tape past the armistice partners and is seen by them as a distraction in their important business is no less powerful for being theatrical. In fact, it actually seems more effective to me than the famous finale of the hundreds of white crosses on the green country hillside. Olivier’s unflattering characterisation of Sir John French neatly foreshadows his last film role as the wheelchair-bound veteran in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem.

The use of period songs as ironic commentary was of course the major part of Oh! What a Lovely War. Songs with simple and sweet arrangements like “Bombed last Night”, “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang” and “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum” came across now as especially effective. Another “what if?” muse: might a jagged, dissonant Kurt Weill-esqe arrangement have been more powerful and more in tune (pun partly intended) with Joan Littlewood’s didactic sardonic staging style?

What I actually didn’t know until very recently was that the whole structure of Littlewood’s show derived from a BBC radio programme by Charles Chilton called The Long Long Trail, which also used period songs to tell the story of the war experience from the perspective of the ordinary soldier.

Oh! What a Lovely War has been revived again in this period of World War One commemoration, apparently still to considerable effect. This demonstrates not just how those Brechtian theatrical devices can still work, but also the astonishing staying power of those popular songs from so long ago.

 

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A multi-lingual sign at one of the World War One cemeteries.

 

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A period poster at a former Edwardian music-hall: the Panopticon in Glasgow

 

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Remembering the Rising

 

Nobody now sees Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising entirely in the romantic and heroic light in which it was once presented, even if they respect the great writers associated with it, such as W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. Plenty of information is now available about such features as the fatal and avoidable flaws in its organisation and the number of civilian casualties which resulted.

Heather Jones’ two programmes for BBC Radio 4, The Easter Rising 1916 ,were informative and fair about the actual events of April 1916, but, for me, especially enlightening on the different ways the Rising has been remembered since.

A key role in this has been played by the controversial and divisive but intriguing figure of Eamon de Valera. The one leader of the Rising who was not executed, possibly because he was a US citizen or possibly just due to his good luck; who later undermined the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated by his friend and comrade Michael Collins which led to the Civil War; and who then led Ireland over 40 years as Taioseach and President during a period which is generally felt now to have been one of unhealthy social, religious and cultural conservatism.  

It was de Valera’s anti-Treaty Republicans, the losing side in the Civil War, who “appropriated ” the first commemorations of the Rising, said one contributor, Mary Daly, and it was they  who “claimed the spirit of 1916”.  Over the next decades, as Jones expressed it, de Valera “sacralised the Rising as a way of unifying the Irish people”. Gradually, however, perspectives did shift.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, said Fearghal McGarry, it was the violence of the Rising which was emphasised and criticised, while, in the 21st century, its socialist and feminist elements have been given greater attention.

 

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The Four Courts in Dublin, one of the combat zones during the Rising.

 

In general, the established commemoration of the Rising over the decades meant that the Irish fighting alongside the British during World War One became overshadowed, said John Horne. With subsequent Irish neutrality in World War Two and the later Troubles in Northern Ireland, it became “almost a taboo” to mention it, “a frozen memory” which, he suggested, has only recently become “unfrozen”. Furthermore, the British casualties of the Rising are rarely remembered, with the small memorial in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin regularly overlooked.

The 50th anniversary commemoration of the Rising in 1966 was on a large scale and envisioned by President de Valera as a way to “rejuvenate a nation”. It included what sounds like a fascinating television programme by the national broadcaster RTE called Insurrection, a drama documentary which presented the events over eight nights in the format of news bulletins. An artistic device which was employed around the same time by the Peter Watkins film The War Game and has been recycled in the UK in more recent times, I seem to recall, in commemorating anniversaries in the two World Wars.

 

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The Parnell Monument in Dublin to an earlier Irish nationalist leader had only recently been opened at the time of the 1916 Rising.

 

Several contributors analysed perceived connections between the ostentatious commemorations of 1966 in both Ireland and Northern Ireland with the rise of republican violence in the province from 1968. Terence O’Neill, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was said to have commented that large numbers of nationalists on the streets brandishing Irish tricolours provided unfortunate inspiration for both the nationalist and unionist communities. Margaret O’Callaghan dubbed this period “a pre-Troubles Troubles.” One particular outdoor event of Easter 1966, the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin by an IRA group, can be readily seen now as highly shocking and inflammatory.

No surprise, perhaps, that the present Irish government was nervous at first at how the centenary of the Rising might be marked. The initial publicity imagined a programme which emphasised aims which were inclusive and scholarly, so as not to undermine the political progress of the recent past. However, it was felt that the radical national origins of the Rising could not be ignored and the exhumation and state funeral of 1916 veteran Thomas Kent took place with an oration by Taioseach Enda Kenny which recalled Padraig Pearse’s oration for O’Donovan Rossa.  Jones also highlighted the reconciliatory initiative of a commemoration wall at Glasnevin cemetery which names the dead people of the Rising from all sides.

 

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Kilmainham Jail, where the leaders of the Rising were imprisoned and executed, was closed as a prison in 1924 and in later years became a museum and art gallery.

 

A tangential reference to one of the better-known films set during the 1916 period, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. It was a film I liked much more the second time when I saw it as a lively thriller with some basis in fact rather than an authentic historical biography. I have often wondered if, instead of Liam Neeson, its producers ever considered casting as Collins a younger actor who bears a striking physical similarity to him, who was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, who would in 1995 have also been a reasonably bankable choice, and who would certainly have the acting range to convey fully the complexity and charisma of Collins: Kenneth Branagh. Until I find out the answer to that question, I can acknowledge that their choice of Alan Rickman as Eamon de Valera was definitely a good one.

 

  

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Rhythms through recycling

 

Elsewhere on Leaf Collecting,   I repeated a quote I heard in the mid 1980s from music broadcaster Peter Easton: that if you didn’t like Public Enemy you needn’t concern yourself further with hip-hop music, since Public Enemy were the most creative artists in the genre. His advice was shared by other journalists at the time and followed by many more people than  me:   how could any protest-inclined music fan resist an album entitled It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back?

In those earlier days of hip-hop, any variation between tracks tended to be a variation in the musical samples, as the most recognisable part of the track was usually the old tune which had been “recycled”. For example, the use of Spandau Ballet by P.M. Dawn on “Set a Drift on Memory Bliss”, or of Stevie Wonder on Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”.

The stronger examples recycled other people’s music more subtly. Public Enemy used shrieking backdrops which were widely copied, but some variation came from the more mellow samples chosen by De La Soul and Arrested Development. However, in those 25 years since Public Enemy, it has often struck me how little the genre seems to have developed: lines still shouted, abrupt and staccato and frequently hard to follow, crashing rhymes, propelled by bursts (usually sampled from elsewhere ) of guitar, keyboards and percussion.

Because the musical element of hip-hop is therefore constricted and familiar, mainstream attention has regularly focussed on the superficial elements of what the rapper is saying. How threatening to white people? How sexually overt? How politically challenging? How many references to guns and drugs? How materialistically flamboyant?

Ken Hollings’ programme for Radio 4, Cutting Up the Cut-Up, seemed particularly apposite in the week when Kanye West’s appearance at Glastonbury prompted further argument about the merit and status of hip-hop music.  In the event, Hollings made few points about the sampling of music. He emphasised the literary origins of the “cut-up”, dating back to the Dadaists and William Burroughs,  and concentrated on the spoken word, although one of his contributors did refer to a record by a group called the Black Helicopters which used samples of Kenneth Williams’ voice. I’m sure there have been further examples of imaginative use of sampling by musicians which could have been used. I have a definite memory of a record in the 1990s which inventively used the sounds of striking billiard and snooker balls as a rhythmic backing. And of course there was “19”,  Paul Hardcastle’s now forgotten hit single which used extracts from a US newsreel or documentary.  The information about the youth of US soldiers in Vietnam seemed pertinent at that time of fear of war against the USSR.

The Glastonbury performance of Kanye West, supposedly one of the major pop/rock music acts on the planet, seemed to consist of repeated vocal shouting over chunks of sound recorded from  earlier black artists, like Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone, and without any accompanying musicians on stage to provide performance variation.  Perhaps just another reminder that the artists who are the most celebrated and most commercially successful in any form are not necessarily the most artistically creative.

Prompted by an article by Dorian Lynskey in the Observer as well as the pre-Glastonbury hyperbole around West, I listened to the young pretender Kendrick Lamar. The print edition of the Observer accorded him the status of “rap’s moral messiah” although my ears heard more similarities with West than significant innovation. However, Lynskey’s article  did draw my attention to a couple of other artists who did sound more interesting,   Ka and Shabazz Palaces. Quieter rap deliveries in their cases, plus more subdued and subtle musical  backing.

If I ever have nostalgia for the days of Public Enemy, Lynskey also introduced me to Run the Jewels.  They sound very much like the heirs of the earlier group and have been praised by their member Chuck D.   Run the Jewels’ performance at Glastonbury, although less publicised than West’s, provided rather more evidence that hip-hop music still has artistic merit.

 

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The old TV Holy Week

 

 

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Covering statues in purple during the final stages of Lent is no longer common in Christian churches in the UK, but was practised in this Catholic church in Trinidad, Cuba, in 2014.

 

The BBC Genome project is strange and wonderful. What possible scientific or cultural value can there be in endless lists of BBC programmes from the past? It seems aimed solely at weird folk like me who are keen to check their memories of childhood viewing habits.

It did offer a source of evidence against which to test my theories about how BBC television’s coverage of Holy Week has withered during my life-time.

When the UK still regarded herself more as a Christian country, and a church-going country, the national broadcaster screened far more religious material. Services each Sunday morning and Songs of Praise in a prime early-evening slot. Drama and documentary often dealing with religious themes, and especially during Holy Week.

One Good Friday in the early 1970s I saw a fascinating documentary called According to the Rules. I needed BBC Genome to remind me of the title and the precise date (1972) but I remember vividly the impact it created. It concerned the libel case brought by a London doctor and ex-Auschwitz prisoner Wladislaw Dering against the writer Leon Uris in 1964, about allegations that he had carried out medical experiments on fellow prisoners. Making my early steps into adult fiction, I had just read Uris’ novel Exodus and been affected by his descriptions of Jewish suffering and heroism. A preview (possibly in the Sunday Times) had described the programme as “painfully relevant to Good Friday”.  Few mainstream journalists would use the phrase today.

Some years later, the BBC1 Play of the Month was rescheduled from mid-evening to tea-time on Easter Sunday for The Chester Mystery Plays. I remember at least part of Tom Courtenay’s performance as Jesus and it is intriguing to see now that the cast included some who later performed in Bill Bryden’s different stagings of The Mysteries : Brian Glover, Paul Copley, John Normington, Tony Haygarth.   I wonder if this version played any part in the genesis of that great National Theatre long-runner. It would be good to see now how it compares.

In the way that the craftsmen of medieval Mystery Plays adapted the Bible text into vernacular English which, in Bryden’s production, was brilliantly rendered by Tony Harrison, a translation into Scots was written by one William Laughton Lorimer. Bryden’s script for The Holy City  in 1986 was based on Lorimer’s New Testament. This updating of the Passion to contemporary Glasgow had a great cast and some fine moments, and it would be interesting to see again now whether the strengths outweighed the flaws.

One other feature of the 1980s on BBC1 was single-actor recountings of the story of Christ’s Passion day by day through Holy Week, filmed outdoors. This must surely have been inspired by Alec McCowen’s successful one-man theatre show of St Mark’s Gospel.  I remember Tom Fleming, Peter Barkworth and Roger Rees, but had failed to notice that each year’s version used a different evangelist’s gospel. As these were short programmes, they were usually screened twice a day, mid-morning and last thing at night.

1987 looks like some sort of high-water mark. That Holy Week you could have seen on BBC1 both The Gospel According to St Luke presented by Bernard Hill and a nightly series called Music from the Masses featuring music from the Mass settings of composers like Berlioz, Brahams, Britten, Fauré and Mozart. On Good Friday itself between both channels were full performances of Verdi’s Requiem and Wagner’s Parsifal, a documentary about the Christian shrine of Walsingham and John Stainer’s oratorio The Crucifixion.  Culture both high and Christian, and still able to be fitted alongside more mainstream fare like Neighbours, Wogan, The Clothes Show and Dallas.

Into the 1990s, and Alec McCowen’s influence could be seen again in the multi-actor, casual-dress performance of The Gospels, with a script written by Giles Havergal. This had already been a Lenten success at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre in 1991, and the TV version worked equally well the next year, even with some higher-profile cast additions like Timothy West and Paul McGann.

Holy Week dramas in subsequent years preferred to keep their connection to the New Testament a looser one, with two series of single-actor stories called Easter Stories and Easter Tales imagining the thoughts and experiences of characters like Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene, Barabbas, the gardener beside Jesus’ tomb and a serving girl. Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads was probably a model here. The BBC Genome confirms that for the second series the more secular original title of Tales from the Madhouse was modified.

The classical music and opera inspired by the Passion story had always been a feature of Holy Week television, and some of this was still available on BBC2 in the 1990s. The fashionable young James McMillan introduced a programme of Arvo Pärt choral music on Good Friday 1992 and his own Seven Last Words from the Cross was broadcast each night of Holy Week two years later. On Good Friday in 1994 was Bach’s St Matthew Passion in a semi-dramatic version directed by Jonathan Miller, and in 1998 something similar was done with Poulenc’s Stabat Mater.

In the 21st century, material relating to the Passion story continues on radio. Lent Talks has been a feature on Radio 4 for several years. Radio 3 always has appropriate music throughout Lent as well as the regular EBU day of Holy Week music, usually on Palm Sunday.  Progressively less on TV, though. A religious service of some sort is still screened by BBC1 on Good Friday morning but other programmes on that day or elsewhere in Holy Week whose subject matter could be described as spiritual or sacred, like The Manchester Passion, are rare exceptions.

Shifts in BBC practice in religious broadcasting have of course taken place alongside well-reported long-term reductions in Christian church attendance. For example, a drop in the proportion of the population who consider themselves Anglicans from 37% in 1986 to 20% in 2012.

Nevertheless, these programmes, and others similar, are probably still sitting rejected on shelves or in computer files. Are they really only a memory from the past rather than a cultural resource for the present?

 

 

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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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West Coast influences

 

 

Hollywood

A view of Hollywood, Los Angeles – with the Hollywood sign almost entirely hidden in the mist, but with the publicity sign for “The Expendables” rather clearer in the foreground!

 

Television and radio afford constant opportunities to look back. Certain channels are full of drama and comedy repeats; news, documentary and arts programmers are continually acknowledging this or that anniversary to sanction the use of archive material.

One such reflective series, Radio 2’s West Coast Johnnie Walker, about the concurrent Californian glory days of FM radio and pop and rock music, prompts two personal memories. First, when I was a regular listener to Walker on Radio 1, for the year or two before he left the station in 1976.  At that time he was one of the few daytime DJs who sought to play more varied stuff on his show and his frustration with scheduling conservatism prompted his departure to the USA.  Ironically, his music preferences which seemed so controversial then have with the passage of time become quite mainstream.

My second memory is of ZigZag, the music monthly  which shared many of the same tastes, as can be seen by this list of readers’ favourite albums.

 

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The Golden Gate Bridge, looking back from Sausalito to San Francisco.

 

One well-known figure from the West Coast scene of the period is Jackson Browne. It was Walker and John Peel who introduced me to Browne through playing his “Fountain of Sorrow”. The song was part of the Late for the Sky album released in 1974 but I only heard it when it was released as a single in the UK about 18 months later – possibly to coincide with concert appearances.

I used to say the song changed the way I listened to popular music. That seems an exaggeration now, but it was much longer than any single that I had heard before, and its melody and arrangement sounded unusually rich and complex coming from a recognisable guitar/piano/drums ensemble. I was easily seduced by literate lyricists in those days, and Browne’s poetic discipline and controlled vocals added to his individuality.   

 

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San Francisco Bay, with Alcatraz in the background.

 

Although the audience for pop and rock music has become older in the past few generations, I feel that it is still primarily the music of younger people, and they are fully entitled, as we did, to over-analyse and over-praise it.  Listening now to “Fountain of Sorrow”,  a lyric about regret and disillusionment but also optimism, it is clear that the narrative and argument of the lyrics are less profound than I thought in my early 20s. The music and playing still sound rather good, though, with the arrangement clean and crisp, in contrast to the heavier and more cluttered sound of Browne’s 1980s albums.

 West Coast Johnnie Walker includes some of the less well remembered artists of the period, like Spirit, It’s a Beautiful Day, Kaleidoscope and the Youngbloods, and less well known tracks from artists like Love, Country Joe and the Fish and the Doobie Brothers. Those 40 year old productions still retain an attractive freshness. If you’ve never heard them before, that must mean they count as more than mere nostalgia, mustn’t it?

 

FrankGehry1

A more modern West Coast view, of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

 

 

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