The Automatic Motorist (UK 1911 d. Walter Booth p.c. Kineto)
I paid a rare visit to the BFI Southbank the other day to see a programme of films entitled ‘The Birth of British Sci-Fi’, part of its Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season. The six films on show ranged from 1897, with G.A. Smith’s The X-Rays to A Message from Mars (1913), the first British science fiction feature film. Long believed lost, this was my main reason for going. The film was an adaptation of a popular play by Richard Ganthony, a sort of Christmas Carol-type story in which a messenger from Mars converts a miserable man, Horace Parker, into a good-hearted person. It starred the renowned comic stage actor Charles Hawtrey as Parker, and was essentially a wordless play, plodding in style and performance, with only Chrissie Bell (as Parker’s fiancée) looking like someone who belonged in front of a camera.
But what made the show more than worthwhile was a film shown earlier, The Automatic Motorist (1911), directed by Walter Booth and produced by Charles Urban’s Kineto company. This was an absolute delight. An automaton (robots wouldn’t become true robots until the word was coined in the 1920s) gets in a car and drives a newly-wed couple into space, despite the efforts of a policeman hanging on to the back of the vehicle (and a dog hanging on to the back of him). They drive over the dome of St Paul’s cathedral, then into space, passing the Moon before landing on the rings of Saturn. They they crash into Saturn, where the policeman is captured by a group of Saturnian children wielding spears. The robots drives on, taking his charges back to earth and under the sea, before they finally fall to the ground when a man with a gun takes pot shots at them.
The film is a remake of sorts of Booth’s The ? Motorist, made for Robert Paul in 1906, which features an automotive trip to Saturn and a crash back down to Earth. The later film is far more sophisticated in technique, detail and wit. It has those little details – the dog determinedly attached to the policeman’s behind, the hole made in Saturn, the look of wonder on the couple’s faces at the scenes underwater – which turn trick into fantasy. It is a dream of film; played for laughs, but with a governing logic rather than simply a sequence of unconnected absurdities. A live-action cartoon, maybe.
Walter Booth is one of the undersung masters of early film. Someone should really champion him and undertake the research into him that his work merits. France has Georges Méliès, Spain has Segundo de Chomón, France has Emile Cohl, each much acclaimed masters of the early fantasy film. Fewer of Booth’s films survive than their’s, but he is no less worthy of investigation.
Advertisement for David Devant’s Zauberwunder, from Bristol newspaper The Western Daily Press, 24 December 1898, in which Booth is credited as being an ‘electric cartoonist’
Not enough is known about him, but he was born Walter Robert Booth in Worcester on 12 July 1896. His father, Robert Booth, was a china painter, and Walter was apprenticed as painter to the Royal Worcester Porcelain factory, where he is believed to have worked until 1890. He then pursued a career in entertainment, as a lightning cartoonist, ventriloquist and magician, joining the company of renowned magician David Devant, with which he toured the UK over 1898-1900. Devant’s shows featured films produced by Robert Paul, and Booth began directing short trick films for Paul, often on the theme of magic (with himself as the magician), titles such as Upside Down; or, the Human Flies (1899) (in which the actors dance around on the ceiling), Chinese Magic (1900), The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901), The Waif and the Wizard (1901), The Magic Sword (1901) (a particularly inventive visual treat) and The Devil in the Studio (1901), which showed off his cartooning skills.
Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost (1901), an early trick film based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, made by Booth for Robert Paul
There were many magicians who incorporated films into their act at this time, several of whom found themselves putting down the top hat and wand and taking up the camera full time: Georges Méliès, Billy Bitzer (who went to to be D.W. Griffith’s cinematographer), Emile and Vincent Isola, John Maskelyne, William Selig, Albert Smith (founder of Vitagraph, America’s leading pre-WWI film company), Félicien Trewey, Alexander Victor and others. Erik Barnouw has written a book about the phenomenon, The Magician and the Cinema. Film was seen as the ultimate magic trick, the perfect illusion, certainly a logical stepping stone for performers who wanted to tantalise audiences with the incredible.
Walter R. Booth (probably), centre, playing the magician in Upside Down; or, the Human Flies (1899)
Booth seems to have left the stage by 1901 and to have become a full-time filmmaker with Robert Paul, before joining Charles Urban in 1906. It is with Urban, and the greater opportunities that slightly longer films and more generous budgets offered, that Booth the filmmaker came into his own. He established his own studio at his home at Neville Lodge, Woodlands, Isleworth, and with camera operator Harold Bastick made a succession of ingenious films which employed trickery and made trickery their theme. He borrowed ideas from others: The Hand of the Artist (1906), the first British animated cartoon film, was a clear imitation of J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces of the same year. When the Devil Drives (1907) was an adventure with the Devil as a lead character very much in the style of Georges Méliès. But equally he innovated in style and form: The Sorcerer’s Scissors (1907) is a dazzling trick film in which a pair of scissors cuts out various paper figures which they come to life. A Diabolo Nightmare (1907) sees an office clerk become obsessed with the game to such a degree that it takes over his dreams, which take him and his diabolo to the bottom of the sea. Other, lost films, tantalise us with mislaid delights: The Vacuum Cleaner Nightmare (1906), The Prehistoric Man (1908), The Star Globe-trotter (1908), The Invisible Dog (1909).
Extract from The Airship Destroyer (1909)
Booth’s best-known work is in then topical field of the invasion fantasy. Paranoia over immigration and terrorism (some news stories never change) combined with worries caused by the invention of the aeroplane – in particular, Louis Blériot’s feat in crossing the Channel in 1909 made England seem very vulnerable to invasion. What good was it having a navy if someone could simply fly over the top of it? William Le Queux’s anti-German novel The Invasion of 1910 and Guy du Maurier’s play An Englishman’s Home (1909) are the two best-known serious examples of the genre, while P.G. Wodehouse spoofed the ideas with his comic novel The Swoop!, or How Clarence Saved England.
Booth’s invasion films are closer to Wodehouse than du Maurier. They are not spoofs of the genre, and can be viewed as exciting adventures (which is how undoubtedly they were viewed by many at the time), but they have a homely, English quality, which accentuates the absurdity and suggests that Booth had his tongue in his cheek when making the films. The two that survive today are The Airship Destroyer (1909) and The Aerial Submarine (1910), though Booth also made The Aerial Anarchists (1911), a film sadly lost. In all three films the homeland is threatened by foreigners flying in futuristic contraptions. Aerial anarchy hangs over homely English places, and unassuming heroes who might on some other afternoon be happiest playing a game of tennis in the garden take to the skies in their flying machines to tackle this dastardly intrusion of misapplied modern technology. There is a quaint realism to the films, with their country lane backgrounds, that contrasts interestingly with the science-fantasies of Méliès which take place in a never-never world of the stage. Charles Urban was primarily a non-fiction film producer, and the films Booth made for him often had a topical edge, connecting the fantastical to the concerns of the day.
Booth continued with Urban to 1915, making many films now lost, including some in Kinemacolor. He also made films for the experimental 3D colour process Kinoplastikon (whose story I must tell some day). He went on to produce advertising films, and then we lose sight of him. He was married, to Sarah Grace, and had at least two children, Sydney Robert and Elizabeth Grace. He died in 1938. There are descendants somewhere, because I remember meeting one of them, introduced to me by the late Denis Gifford some twenty years ago. Denis’s acquaintance helped inform his biographical entry on Booth for Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, which is still the best account of Booth that we have, brief as it is.
Someone should take him on as a topic. There are the references to his magic act in newspaper archives; there is some family history information available from genealogy sources; there is a marvellously inventive set of films that are prime examples of what fun early cinema can be. There is a distinctive artistry to those films. They find the fantastical amid the ordinary and make us delight in the plausibility of absurdity. It is magic translated to the screen.
- Denis Gifford’s short biography of Booth is on the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site
- Films from the BFI’s Sci-Fi – Days of Fear and Wonder can be found on the BFI Player (some films free, some need payment)
- There are several references to Booth the touring magician on the British Newspaper Archive (payment site)
- A number of films booth made for Robert Paul are available on the BFI DVD R.W. Paul: The Collected Films 1895-1908
An American family watching television c.1958, via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve written before about my website Picturegoing, which is progressively gathering evidence of people viewing pictures. It started off by covering cinemagoing, as recorded in diaries, oral histories, memoirs, news reports, novels, poems. pictures and so on – any form of evidence that records directly, or indirectly, the personal experience of viewing pictures.
But what do I mean by viewing pictures? I’m not entirely sure, and the Picturegoing site is a way of finding out. My roots are in cinema history, but I’ve become increasingly uncertain as to what history that actually represents, once you set aside the idea of cinema as art and think more of the experience of the audience (or the individual viewer). Cinema histories often look back into the pre-history of the medium to optical toys, magic lanterns, panoramas and other such devices of the nineteenth century and before. Sometimes such studies extend their range into television, and latterly into online video, and the growth of different platforms on which to experience the moving image has confused the history. What is cinema in an age of widescreen TVs? What is television when I can catch-up on programmes on my phone? What has changed in the switch from watching a film amid a crowd in a cinema and watching that same film amid a crowd on a train via a tablet?
This is the theme of a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I’ve been reading recently, In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema, by Gabriele Pedullà. His subject is how the understanding of moving images is determined by the conditions in which they are experienced, asking how films are changing in the new environment of plasma screens and smartphones. In particular he investigates the degree to which classical cinephilia has been a creation of special circumstances i.e. viewing the subject on a large screen, as part of a crowd, within a darkened space – what he labels the Dark Cube.
It’s a fascinating and scholarly journey that he takes us on, with excursions into film theory, architectural history (particularly that of Roman architect Vitruvius and then the Italian Renaissance and the construction of enclosed spaces for dramatic performances), and theories of spectatorship. Yet what I found most interesting about it was the author’s uncertainty about this new world of multi-platform viewing. He writes as someone who has never viewed a film on a tablet in his life. He alludes vaguely to ‘video players’, and lumps them with television, the device which started the process of undermining the special qualities of the cinema experience. His real theme is loss – the loss of a particular way of experiencing motion pictures, and the cinephilia that it engendered. It is nostalgia. It regrets the retreat of what is past; it does not much like the present, even while it purports to explain it.
The history of viewing pictures is one where the image is constant but the circumstances change. Images projected onto a surface have had a public appeal going back centuries, even millennia. They became commodified, distributed and shared on a massive scale through cinema, where for a time people sat in a theatre to experience what was on the screen because there had been a tradition of building theatres for entertainments. Then they moved to the home, because that is where the heart is. Now they have moved to the individual, because we think all the more for ourselves and find ourselves on the move. As Pedullà notes, “movies change first of all because spectators change”. Only the viewing, and the viewer, are constant.
So what Picturegoing is trying to document is the experience of viewing pictures. But are they always moving pictures? Here I’m not sure. I included magic lanterns and other ‘pre-cinema’ projections in Picturegoing a while ago, which are usually (though not always) still. What is so important about motion, especially is what goes on in the head of the viewer is filled with motion, as one gets in this typical response to a magical lantern projection, from Harriet Martineau, recalling an exhibition of the Phantasmagoria in the early 1800s:
When I was four or five years old, we were taken to a lecture of Mr. Drummond’s, for the sake, no doubt, of the pretty shows we were to see, — the chief of which was the Phantasmagoria of which we had heard, as a fine sort of magic-lantern. I did not like the darkness, to begin with; and when Minerva appeared, in a red dress, at first extremely small, and then approaching, till her owl seemed coming directly upon me, it was so like my nightmare dreams that I shrieked aloud. I remember my own shriek. A pretty lady who sat next us, took me on her lap, and let me hide my face in her bosom, and held me fast. How intensely I loved her, without at all knowing who she was!
The motion that matters is that which forms in the mind, not that which has been produced mechanically or electronically on the screen. If that’s the case, then why don’t I include looking at photographs, book illustrations, or paintings? Just what is the viewing experience?
I don’t know as yet, and I’m using Picturegoing to try and find out. I’ve begun with cinema, and I’ve added magic lanterns and video streaming into theatres. I’ve now introduced television. Initially this was with some qualms, because the move from public to private space seemed so dramatic a shift, but not so if you consider the mind rather than the place. At any rate, I kicked things off with Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s sublime creation Nigel Molesworth, and his priceless observations on family viewing of television in the early 1950s:
Gosh super! we hav something to contend with which no other generation have ever had before i.e. the television cheers cheers cheers. Everybody know wot a t.v. is it is a square box with a screen. You switch on and o hapen, then just when you have given up hope and are going off to buzz conkers a great booming voice sa, ‘That’s an interesting point, postelthwaite. Wot does higginbottom feel? Higginbottom? ect. ect.’ It may be an interesting point but i could not care less and just go away agane when a ghastley face suddenly appere. It is worse than a squished tomato but it hold me in hypnotic trance and it is the same with molesworth 2, tho he always look dopey like that. We sit and watch more and more ghastley faces with out mouths open and even forget to chew the buble gum we are the slaves of the machine.
This captures the peculiarly hypnotic effect of television, its ability to capture the attention through simply being, better than almost any piece of writing I know. I’ve followed it up with experiences of watching Neighbours in the 1980s, the Basil Brush Show in the 1970s, and the Baird televisor in 1926. I have a good list of memoir and documentary reports to quote from, but I’m keen to hear from anyone who might know of telling texts on the experience of watching television, particularly if they come from outside the UK or the USA. I prefer texts that relate to the physical experience i.e. those that show some awareness of time, place and condition, though this is not always so easy, since television encourages a focus on the screen to the exclusion of all else (not that TV is exclusive in this, of course) and because we’re TV reviewers these days. But knowing what Downton Abbey was like last night, or what Upstairs Downstairs was like forty years ago, is not of any use to me. What is was like to watch Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, or TV news, adverts, children’s TV, natural history programmes, sport, or whatever – that is what is important. What the mind experiences has to be anchored within the context of the day-to-day. That is picturegoing.
The Marlowe Theatre
I went to the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury at the weekend; my first visit inside the city’s new theatre. There has long been a Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury – I first went there in the early 1970s to see an Agatha Christie play, when the theatre was on St Margaret’s Street. Then it was rebuilt over the shell of a former cinema just off the High Street, an ugly grain silo of a building that spoiled the general view. On the same site a new Marlowe was then built with is something of an architectural and landscaping triumph, a theatre big enough and stylish enough to attract the most profitable touring shows, yet tucked away in almost intimate fashion within the medieval curves of the city’s roads. Aside from an awkward tower that looks like a misjudged after-thought, it is beautiful to behold, and boasts marvellous views across the roofs of Canterbury.
Inside the theatre is well-appointed, comfortable (leg room even for one such as I), and has notably fine acoustics. And it was there that I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring productions of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two. They were two good productions, all in all. Antony Sher’s Falstaff was the main calling card, and he delighted the audience from the very outset and never let them go. There was a memorable Shallow from Oliver Ford Davies, as earthy as he was wistful. There was some curiously static direction in places, with assorted lords and dukes standing stock still and declaiming at one another, which reminded me of Shakespeare productions of another age. But, all in all, good.
The two plays were put on over the same day, which led to the odd situation of the better-known (and better) play, Henry IV part 1, being put on in the afternoon to a three-quarters-full theatre (many clearly not wanting to see two plays in one day and not wanting to go to the theatre in the afternoon), while the lesser-known (and lesser) Henry IV part 2 played a full theatre, many of whom were watching the sequel with maybe not much sense of what it was a sequel to.
Paola Dionisotti as Mistress Quickly, Antony Byrne as Pistol and Antony Sher as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 2, via rsc.org.uk
Because Henry IV part 2 is very much sequel, produced to order much like so many Hollywood titles that mechanically revisit a familiar formula. It has the intercutting between highlife scenes at the court and lowlife scenes at the tavern; it has the rebellion against the crown which is thwarted; it has Hal and Poins is disguise to play tricks on Falstaff; it has Falstaff going to the wars and making a mockery of the process – all familiar from Part One and recycled for an audience that would pay to see more of the same. What they most wanted to see was Falstaff being himself, and that they were given amply. The play exists to let Falstaff exist, and narrative, theme and history are all sacrificed for the grand comic turn.
Of course Henry IV part two does have its great sequences (the conversation at Shallow’s house, Henry berating his son for trying on the crown while the king was on his deathbed) and some magnificent lines. It tries to have a great theme, with the meditations on death expressed by both Falstaff and Henry that ought to interlink.
But none of it hangs together. Part 1 works ingeniously as a counterpointing narrative about power, duty, conscience and character. Every scene, every act, every character is tellingly played off against the others to rich and profound effect. Part 2 has none of this; its individual elements never cohere. It doesn’t function as drama. The wonder is that Shakespeare put such effort into it (you can’t just throw together a five act history play overnight), yet came up with so little that worked. The dukes and lords argue amongst one another, yet they are interchangeable, and without interest. The tavern folk demonstrate their rumbustiousness, but merely create directionless noise (the RSC production had a particularly annoying Pistol). My Oxford Companion to Shakespeare tells me that the play’s sub-plot is “exquisitely funny”. Which just goes to show that you should never try to share a joke with a Shakespearian. Well, some Shakespearians.
So I’m intrigued by the picture of William Shakespeare toiling away at something the market demanded, but which his heart did not. There were many felicities that he incorporated (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow”, “That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith, Sir John, we have”) but they are not enough to make a play of it. You write because you can write. You create where you have discovered something new. Some sequels extend an idea through fresh narrative, but most merely bow to the demand for more of what made the original a hit. They are the antithesis of discovery. They merely echo that which has gone before. They are the particular vice of our dramatic age, where films become franchises tied to rigid formulae, because we want the security of seeing more of the same. It was much the same back in 1598.
Poor Shakespeare. He wrote because he had to write, for good or ill.
The Big Pink (from Wikipedia)
Well, the comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus
The poor little chauffeur, though, she was back in bed
On the very next day with a nose full of pus
Yea! Heavy and a bottle of bread!
I’ve been listening to The Basement Tapes Complete, the latest release in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. It’s taken a while to get through – there are six CDs in the full set aimed at the obsessives, with a 2-CD selection aimed at the rational.
It’s an overwhelming experience, if at times a challenging one. The songs were recorded by Bob Dylan and the Band over several months in 1967 at a period when Dylan had decided to live more of a quiet and steady life after the mania of his first years of fame. In a number of venues, mostly notably the basement of a house in West Saugerties near Woodstock, nicknamed the ‘Big Pink’, the musicians gathered in a room and worked their way through over 100 songs, some of Dylan originals, some of them other people’s, chiefly American folk songs. Rough recordings were made by Band member Garth Hudson, but none of the music was released at the time.
Some of the songs would emerge soon afterwards played by other artists (Manfred Mann’s ‘Mighty Quinn’, Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity’s ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, Fairport Convention’s ‘Million Dollar Bash’ etc), and a few turned up on the granddaddy of all bootleg albums, The Great White Wonder, in 1969. But Dylan moved on, releasing John Wesley Harding in 1968, none of whose songs had featured during the ‘basement tape’ session. He had left the period and most of those songs behind. In 1975 he gave permission for CBS to issue a selection of the songs, with overdubs to professionalise the sound, and a selection of numbers by The Band alone. The Basement Tapes was enthusiastically acclaimed but was also the cause of much disappointment, for the inclusion of the weak Band songs and for the omission of so many recordings from the 1967 sessions. A few appeared on subsequent compilations, including ‘Quinn the Eskimo’, ‘Santa Fe’ and ‘Minstrel Boy’, but the vast majority could be found only on bootlegs, notably the 4-CD set A Tree with Roots. But others remained unheard, and indeed it seems unknown.
The story of how the tapes were recorded, copied, stored and bootlegged is immensely complicated, but the simple story is that Garth Hudson kept hold of the originals, and eventually – after much negotiations – the full set of 139 recordings, around 20 of them never bootlegged, and only five of them formerly released officially (‘Quinn the Eskimo’, ‘Santa Fe’, ‘I Shall be Released’, ‘I’m not There’ and ‘Minstrel Boy’) has been released. It has only taken forty-seven years.
The collection is a mixture of the good, the great, the off-hand and the unfinished. Discs one and two feature many songs by others, including Eric von Schmidt’s ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’, Brendan Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’, John Lee Hooker’s ‘Tupelo’ and Clarence Williams’ ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole in it’. There are traditional songs such as ‘Po’ Lazarus’ and ‘Johnny Todd’, and several Dylan originals from the beautiful ‘Edge of the Ocean’ to the jovial musical knockabouts ‘I’m Your Teenage Prayer’ (a teen pop pastiche) and ‘See You Later Allen Ginsberg’. It is fascinating stuff, which demands that you listen closely, though the rudimentary sound recording makes the experience frustrating at times. Some of the cover versions are perfunctorily done, a fact exacerbated by The Band’s unfamiliarity with much of the material. It appears Dylan started on some half-remembered favourite and then expected the others to work out what do as they went along. Some songs just stop halfway, ideas that just didn’t work out.
The Band playing in the basement of the Big Pink
Discs three and four are astonishing, as Dylan’s major compositions from the period pour out (frequently with two or three takes): ‘Please Mrs Henry’, ‘Lo and Behold!’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire, ‘Open the Door, Homer’, ‘Sign on the Cross’, ‘I’m not There’, ‘Clothes Line Saga’. The lyrical imagination and musical invention are quite extraordinary. One can see the roots of them in the folk songs that Dylan had been recalling, but equally they are songs the like of which had never been heard before – absurdist fantasies economically expressed and deftly executed, conjuring up an alternate world that laughs at the world in which we find ourselves. To hear one after the other leaves the Dylan enthusiast wondering how, and then – contemplating the fact that Dylan chose not to release any them – why?
Disc five is a mixture of what were new songs (‘Mary Lou, I Love You’, ‘Silent Weekend’), re-runs of old ones (Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’), a beautiful version of the traditional ’900 Miles from My Home’, and weird takes on the familiar (‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’, ‘It’s the Flight of the Bumblebee’). Disc six is listed as a bonus – recordings of poor quality which have been included for their historical importance, and of course for completeness’s sake. I think it’s my favourite of the whole set. The songs are unfinished sketches of musical ideas, lyrics set down to quick tunes that generally don’t have the hooks that characterise Dylan’s best work. But the sheer unexpectedness of finding that songs hitherto unknown (to me, at least) such as ‘That’s the Breaks’, ‘Jelly Bean’, ’2 Dollars and 99 Cents’, Northern Claim’ and ‘King of France’ makes this final collection such a thrill – plus, there’s such a strong sense of a profound musical mind working through ideas, both his own and those of others. As The Band’s Robbie Robertson said of the sessions, “I couldn’t tell which were the songs that he wrote, and which wee the songs somebody else wrote”. It didn’t matter, which was which. They were all contributions to the collective repertoire, songs that just had to be sung.
Promo video on the history and making of The Basement Tapes
Why were the songs recorded, and then only released in such a piecemeal fashion or else not all, until now? There’s the romantic idea of Dylan and his friends simply working their ways through songs, Dylan recovering his sense of musical purpose and mental well-being, then moving on. There’s a sense too that he didn’t make the recordings available, or return to them in the studio, simply to be perverse, to help build up the legend. It was the sort of thing that only Bob Dylan would do, so he did it.
There is a prosaic reason why the songs were recorded – there were intended as demos produced for copyright reasons, which would then be made available to other artists. Dylan had recorded such demos from early on in his career, and sure enough several of the songs were recorded by others, as noted, and became hits. But there has to be more to it than that. Aside from the folk songs and the knockabout stuff that is the musicians simply having fun, there were many songs that Dylan wrote at this time that were not picked up by other artists that seem too calculatedly odd. Who on earth was going to make a pop hit out of the lyrically baffling ‘Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread’ or the menacing oddness of ‘Tiny Montgomery’? The motives of artists are seldom simple, and while Dylan was thinking of song sales (he was under instructions from his publisher to come up with more material) he was also caught up in the moment, composing what his mind told him to compose. They weren’t songs intended for release, so it was easy for him to leave them behind. They had served their purpose.
Artists are perverse creatures. We who follow them are simpler in our understanding and in our needs. We just want to hear everything. And the songs belong to us too. There is something profoundly wrong in hiding music away when it could be contributing to that collective repertoire. Just as Dylan loved to recover songs from America’s past and can be heard playing through some of them on The Basement Tapes, so he was under some sort of moral obligation to hand on his own contributions to others. And so he has. It’s just taken a while.
- The bobdylan.com site has a track-by-track listing of the main five CDs with short descriptions by Ben Rollins
- Dylan’s site also brings together a selection of links to websites which have issued exclusive premieres of some of the songs on the set
- And there’s more – Lost on the River is a CD of Dylan lyrics from the Basement Tapes period for which he composed no music. Musicians including Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford have added tunes to such lyrics as ‘Married to my Hack’, ‘Golden Tom Silver Judas’ and ‘The Whistle is Blowing’
No more healing rainbows
There is a quaint timber-framed building a couple of doors down from where I live in Rochester High Street. It was, until recently, the incongruous home of an alternative therapies centre entitled Rainbow Healing. It offered tarot card readings, Reiki workshops, holistic health solutions, and lots of candles. It was one of a number of eccentric shops in this eccentric town whose economic viability the passer-by might feel urged to question. Then, one day just a few weeks ago, Rainbow Healing was gone. Now its windows were plastered with yellow and purple posters urging the town to vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip. And all hell has broken loose.
It was a month ago that our local MP, Mark Reckless, resigned from the Conservative party and announced that he was going to join Ukip, an act which triggered a by-election in this constituency of Rochester and Strood. Since then Rochester has found itself at the centre of the nation’s news. We have had any number of TV crews prowling up and down, interviewing people in the street or seated at their pavement tables in the town’s many coffee shops. I had the rudest shock one Saturday morning when I opened my window and found Ukip’s Nigel Farage addressing a smallish crowd composed of 50% media and 50% late middle-aged men in shapeless clothes and with thinning hair who seem to form the core support of Mr Farage’s party. Every day on the news I see the shops and homes around where I live, and neighbours giving soundbites. The place looks so picturesque – the camera operators must love us (you can’t go wrong interviewing people with a castle in the background).
We have had MPs of every party visit the town – David Cameron apparently instructed his cabinet each to visit the town at least one during the electioneering period: Cameron himself, Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith have been spotted, plus Labour’s Harriet Harman, Ed Milliband, and many more. One MP was quoted in the paper as saying that the trip was a rather more pleasant one than such tasks usually are, because Rochester has such nice restaurants and bookshops to browse. I haven’t yet run into a Tory minister skulking among the shelves of Baggins Book Bazaar, but I have become nervous of entering the place, for fear of running into George Osborne in the Modern History section.
Nigel Farage is in there somewhere, if you need to look
The town has become a political circus. The Conservative party has likewise taken over a shop (a former toy models enterprise) at the other end of the High Street, and has commandeered a second, close to Ukip’s, with its windows all covered in blue posters. The Labour party has no such shop, and appears to have rather given up the fight. Others are exploiting the interest in the town for all its worth, and it is a challenge dodging all those trying to thrust leaflets into your hands as you head out for the weekly shop. There have been people trying to get us to sign up to an anti-Ukip petition, and assorted non-political groups have set up stall in public places at the weekends. I saw an anti-Islamophobia gentleman standing not so far away from an earnest duo from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, neither of whom seemed to be attracting much attention. But Rochester is the place to be.
It’s the place to be because the by-election is seen as an indicator of trends for the general election next year. Rochester has become a political weather vane of late. For years the place returned a Conservative MP, election after election with leaden reliability. Then in 1997 came the Labour landslide and Rochester went red – and stayed red for the next two parliaments, despite our MP being the maverick Bob Marshall-Andrews, a man much favoured by the media for always having something contrary to say about the government (he became a regular on Have I got News for You). At the 2010 general election it was clear the area had become one of those places which politicians identify as being key battlegrounds, because we could swing one way or another. The prime minister Gordon Brown turned up, startling the locals by ambushing them in Morrison’s. David Milliband was seen chatting to people seated outside the café a day or two after the election, when we got the Conservatives back again with Mark Reckless. He turned out to be as rebellious as his predecessor, generally to be relied upon to vote against the government on most issues. And then of course he left the party, and now Rochester may be turning to Ukip, if the polls are true. We really don’t know what we like here.
I’ve had a bird’s-eye view of all this because Mark Reckless’s office is a couple of doors away from my back door (hence the commandeering of the shop at the front of his office). I never saw the man til lately, nor sought him out, but since the by-election was announced there has been a steady stream of Ukip functionaries passing by my back step, carrying boxes of leaflets, speaking urgently into mobile phones, their eyes aglow, sensing blood.
It’s fun being in the middle of the silly circus, I must admit. It’s also deeply depressing. Just look what’s happened to the neighbourhood. Rochester is a place of change, not on account of immigration (which has had minimal impact on the town) but through expansion of housing. We have been part of the grand Thames Gateway plan to expand the housing stock for those unable to find homes in London, with new build popping up all along the riverside, and the impact on the High Street at weekends and on the commuter trains plain to see. Rochester is a vibrant mix of the reassuringly old and the dynamically new. The town reflects a nation in transition. But that transition is economic, not racial. Change leads people to feel a sense of pressure. They look for simple solutions, and just at the moment rather too many see an answer in the pernicious bigotry of Ukip.
I hope this is a passing thing, as by-election upsets so often turn out to be. I hope Ukip shrinks back to its tiny core support of those ill-tempered old men in their nasty jackets who can’t quite believe their luck in finding a party that seems to be legitimising racism. I hope the other people next door are made of nobler stuff. I hope Rainbow Healing returns.
I like a good list. I like a well-constructed and clear database that is, when all is said and done, the optimal expression of an extensive list. I’ve produced a lot of lists in my time, personally and professionally, and I’ve had a hand in producing a number of databases that have aimed to help people find things in a form that is useful to them, and I’ve worked a lot with databases good, bad and middling. And so it is that I’m delighted to see the publication of the BBC Genome Project, a database built out of listings data for the Radio Times 1923-2009. It’s a great list and a great database.
Back in 2006 I put together a funding bid to digitise the Radio Times 1923-1991. It was a serious proposal, put together in consultation with the Radio Times, and the product of a lot of thought and calculation. It didn’t receive the funding we sought, and reading the document now I can see that if it had been put into practice it would have been a disaster. It asked to do too much in too short a space a time for too little money, and its proposed solution for getting over the third party rights issues – an optimistic licensing scheme – was a guaranteed failure. However the bid was turned down not for any of these reasons but because the would-be funder was uncertain of the educational value of a digitised Radio Times with database (yes, that’s what they actually thought) and because they couldn’t see why the BBC or the Radio Times couldn’t pay for it themselves. Which was a reasonable thought, of course.
So we wind forward through time to 2014, and a Radio Times database has become a reality, courtesy of the BBC. It’s not a digitised Radio Times, however. A wise decision was made not to attempt to go down that route, on account of all the complexities of ownership and clearances that would be required, not the least of which is that the BBC no longer owns the Radio Times – it was acquired by Immediate Media in 2011.
Instead what they have produced is a plain database derived from the listings information for BBC radio and television programmes that have been broadcast since 1923. So no articles, advertisements, illustrations, letters or Roger Woddis poems, but what you do get is the core information about each programme as it was planned to be when the weekly magazine went to press. Of course programmes sometimes change from what was advertised, through overrunning, last-minute cancellations and the like, and the BBC is asking for people to contribute corrections to the Genome database – corrections of fact, and corrections of text, since the database has been created through a process of Optical Character Recognition (i.e. scanned from the pages themselves and then converted into text). The crowd will take over where the machines leave off.
Each record supplies date, time of broadcast, title of programme, synopsis, credits and channel. The Radio Times has covered non-BBC programmes since 1991, but Genome is restricted to BBC programmes. There are plenty enough of those – currently the database boasts records of 4,423,653 programmes, taken from 13,212 issues or 350,622 scanned pages.
The searching is admirably clear, with advanced searching options by date, time and medium, and browsing by medium, year or issue. Search results allow you to refine by channel and to sort results by relevance or oldest/newest first. Fascinatingly, when the database was announced and millions started making use of it, the thing many chose to look up was what was being broadcast on the day of their birth. I don’t think the good folk at the BBC were expecting such an eventuality, and it does seem odd for people to seek out first programmes that they most definitely did not see. Just for the record, I can report that nothing was being broadcast at the time of my birth, because there weren’t early morning programmes on BBC television in those dim and distant days, but just as soon as broadcasting did start that day the first two programmes were two educational programmes on the history of cinema. So maybe there’s something in this birthday-searching lark after all.
Genome has been warmly welcomed and much used already. It follows on from an earlier BBC effort in the mid-2000s to make its in-house Infax database available online, free to all. It got taken down after a year or so because people complained about some personal information being released. The BBC is on safer grounds with Genome, because it is based on published information, though there has been some removing of sensitive information, not least people’s addresses or other contact details.
But among all the praise few have noted what is perhaps Genome’s most significant feature. The database provides a single web page, or URL, for every single programme listed. It’s not quite a record for each individual programme as produced, because repeats are given as separate records, but this is a huge step forward for the BBC in creating a definitive listing of its broadcast output with a unique address for each. It has such a system in place for current programmes, which can be found under /programmes on the BBC website. The aim of /programmes is “to ensure that every TV & Radio programme the BBC broadcasts has a permanent, findable web presence”, and the next stage in Genome development must surely be to make its records comply with /programmes to create, eventually, a single database encompassing all of the BBC’s output – the perfect list.
From such a list great things will come, since it can become the backbone for a web infrastructure that delivers (where possible and with rights and licenses permitting) the BBC’s broadcast archive, past and present. Genome isn’t just a great database – it’s laying the foundations for the BBC as an archive for the nation.
I recently bought a poetry pamphlet dating from 1908, from the extraordinary treasure trove that is NeverSeen Books & Curios. It’s an eight-page booklet, published in Hull, number 15 in a series issued by George Gresswell, ‘The Engine-driver Poet’, more of whom below. There are five poems, two of them by Bingley Wilson, three by Gresswell, and two of the poems (one from each poet) are on the same subject: ‘The Barnsley Disaster’.
This refers to one of the great calamities of the early cinema period in Britain. Sixteen children died in the crush at a Saturday matinee animated picture show at Barnsley Public Hall, when overcrowding led children to be directed from the gallery to the ground floor. The disaster led to a huge outpouring of grief, locally and nationally, and to much agonising about the safety of film shows and public entertainments in general. George Gresswell’s poem, addressed to a local audience, is simply expressed but heartfelt. Here’s his poem, ‘The Children’s Disaster at Barnsley’:
In the Public Hall, at Barnsley.
The children went to view
The animated pictures,
As children love to do.
Five hundred little children
And perhaps another score,
With hearts brim-full of pleasure
They left their father’s door.
Yes, hearts so full of childish glee,
‘Tis always good to hear
The merry laugh of children
So innocent and clear.
Those little beams of sunshine,
Those flowers in the bud;
We cannot help but love them,
And would not if we could.
Those little mites at Barnsley,
No exception to the rule,
Had a holiday on Saturday -
They did not go to school.
Their mothers viewed, with mother’s pride
Their little boys and girls,
And washed and dressed them neat and trim
And put their hair in curls.
Gave each a penny and a kiss
And watched them from the door,
And some were six, and some were five,
And some were only four.
Arriving at the Hall, they found
The gallery crowded full;
And then those up above the stairs
Began to push or pull.
“Go back! go back!” a small voice said,
They turned back with a rush;
And sixteen little children
Were killed amid the crush.
Nine little girls have left the earth,
“Their spirits are in heaven;”
The little boys, like Wordsworth, still
Can say: “Nay, we are seven”
There is a silver lining, yes
They say to every cloud;
But oft it seems hard to find it
In a coffin, ‘neath a shroud.
But death is not the end of life,
Death dost but life begin.
Through Christ, those little children say:
“Oh, Death, where is they sting?”
When on the resurrection morn
The veil is rent in twain,
Among the angels we shall see
Those little ones again.
Postcard commemorating the Barnsley disaster, from http://www.wearebarnsley.com
The Barnsley disaster took place 11 January 1908 at the town’s Public Hall, at a film show organised by touring entertainment company the World’s Animated Picture Company, managed by James Atroy. The company had had a residency at the Hall all that week, and had organised a children’s matinée for the Saturday, with seats specially priced at threepence, twopence or a penny. The Hall had a ground floor pit and stalls, a horseshoe-shaped balcony, and above that a gallery with barrier. The gallery had a separate entrance, and it was where the children with only a penny all went. Five hundred or more had squeezed into the gallery space – the Hall had space for 1,500 people overall, but it was common at this time for children to be packed in three to every two seats. With the gallery full and hundreds of children pressing to enter, an attendant directed them to turn back down the stairwell and to enter the ground floor space. This caused a stampede, with the children returning meeting the children trying to ascend. In the resultant crush sixteen children died, with ages between four and nine, and over forty more were injured.
Yorkshire Post, 13 January 1908, via www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
The disaster occurred through a mixture of the great excitement of the children at the thought of the show, too few attendants, and a fateful decision to by-pass the ticket office and to let children simply hand in their pennies at the door. The Yorkshire Post described the sad scene outside the Hall as the bodies were carried out:
Many pathetic scenes were witnessed both in the yard adjoining the hall and at the hospital. A large crowd quickly gathered round the gates of the institution, among them scores of anxious parents who only an hour ago or so previously had dressed up their little ones in their best clothes, and sent them in the highest glee to the Public Hall. Their sorrow on learning that the lives of their loved ones had been taken away in such a tragic and sudden manner was pathetic in the extreme; while almost as touching was the sight of parents weeping for joy when it became known that their children has escaped injury. Throughout the afternoon and evening numbers of relatives – in some cases whole families at a time – visited the mortuary to take a look at the pallid faces which a few hours before had been radiant with happiness.
This was not the first disaster to visit a film show. The earliest, and probably the most famous, was the Bazar de la Charité fire in Paris, which claimed the lives of 126 adults, while in Britain in September 1907 (just before the Barnsley event) two women and a young girl were burned to death and fifty injured after a film fire and the ensuing panic at a Gaumont film show in Newmarket. Despite the highly inflammable nitrate film stock used at that time, film fires were really quite rare, but the fear of fire led to panics that caused more deaths, while general overcrowding at venues could lead to calamities such as Barnsley. Such incidents helped provide the evidence needed for the Cinematograph Act of 1909 and the enforcement of a licensing scheme for cinemas to put an end to the ill-fitted and ill-protected venues then associated with film shows (ironically Barnsley Public Hall was a fully licensed entertainment venue with a good management reputation).
The lesson from the Barnsley disaster is not so much the hazards of early film shows as the delight the children felt at going to one. It the thought of what would be on the screen, a cheaply priced entertainment designed with children in mind that was so exciting, and so revolutionary. Cinema was largely built one the pennies and tuppenies of a child audience which was offered a mass entertainment that specifically wooed them and catered for them, particularly at matinée shows when they, and not their adult supervisors, were in command. However, it took a lot of pennies and tuppenies to make a profitable show, hence the need to cram in as many as possible, and hence the tragedy.
George Gresswell (1856-1931), whose sad doggerel captures the emotion of the moment, is an interesting figure. He was a railway engine driver, father of ten, Lincolnshire-born but subsequently employed at Hull, who published his own poetry from his home at 3 Dorset Street, Hull in a series of booklets, numbering twenty-six in all. These were sold locally and reportedly very popular, with a figure of 25,000 copies said to have been sold by 1912, “without the aid of agents or shops” according to the Hull Daily Mail (23 July 1912). They were particularly designed for recitation, at a time when many a local show would bring together a variety of entertainments, including recitations, and when poetry recitations were a part of home entertainments (children of the generation before mine will remember being placed before a group of smiling relatives and being forced to read out some poem committed to memory as their party piece).
Gresswell’s poem addressed issues of railway management, religion and topical news stories, with titles such as ‘The Wreck of the Titanic’, ‘The West Hull Bye-Election’ and ‘A Railway Message from Mars’. “Mr Gresswell does not profess to be a grammarian, but he certainly can claim to be a mouthpiece of what the people are thinking and saying”, says the Hull Daily Mail, getting to the heart of things. They have a quality that connects them with calypso or some reggae lyrics, passing on the stories of the hour in a memorable and shareable form – as well as a connection with the earlier ballad tradition. There have always been such amateur poets, of whom the most notorious is another chronicler of topical disaster, William McGonagall; while perhaps the best – certainly the most successful – was W.H. Davies (he of “What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare”).
Such poets generally published their own work for a local audience, door-to-door, in the local papers, or from home, as Gresswell did, presumably with a core group of loyal subscribers. But so much of such writing has disappeared, unofficial and hence ephemeral. There does not appear to be a single example of Gresswell’s work at the British Library. Happily several volumes are held in the University of York library, and a collected volume of his poetry, An Anthology of Rhymes, was put together in 2006 by a descendant, John G. Gresswell – appropriately enough, a self-published work. He sounds to be a good subject for a local study some day.
Gresswell’s poetry booklets were priced at a penny. So were the seats to the gallery at the Barnsley Public Hall. Easy culture, priced for Everyman.
Louis Janmot, ‘Le Vol de l’âme’ (image reversed as it is on the cover of the EMI Classics collection of the collected Magnard symphonies)
I don’t feel easy writing about classical music. It’s something that I greatly enjoy listening to, and something with which I am broadly familiar, but I lack the critical understanding of such fine matters as harmony, counterpoint, sonata form and so on. My understanding is impressionistic and probably sentimental. Give me a piece of writing, or a picture on a wall, or anything projected on a screen, and I know where I am. With classical music, I have the map, but no compass.
So it is that I’m a little apprehensive stating that my favourite composer is Albéric Magnard. Magnard should be no one’s favourite. He’s what they call a minor composer, generally consigned to a passing mention in histories of late 19th/early 20th century French music in the Romantic vein, described in terms of his similarities to other composers of greater reputation. But I have been working on a long piece of writing, and I have been playing through all of my recordings of his music, and find his music surging through my mind, so that I must set aside that long piece of writing and write on the music instead.
I like Magnard because I feel I know and understand him. He was the first composer where I grasped what he was doing through his music. It was 1983 and I was working on some essay, tapping away at my ricketty typewriter, and I had Radio 3 playing in the background because I was tiring of pop music. On came Magnard’s Symphonie no. 4, with the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse conducted by Michel Plasson, newly released by EMI. It was mournful, lyrical, questing and harmoniously constructed. It told a story in musical terms and it had – to me – such a force of personality behind it. I knew and understood, and have been a devotee of Magnard ever since.
Magnard with his daughter Ondine in 1904, from Gallica
Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) was the privileged son of the editor of Le Figaro who decided to forgo such privileges in his pursuit of a life as a composer, and his whole life seems to have been a battle between duty and independence. He enrolled at the Paris Consevatoire, studying under Vincent d’Indy, producing his Opus 1, Trois pièces pour piano in 1886. A flurry of symphonies, symphonic poems and chamber pieces followed through the 1880s/90s before his composing activities slowed down, partly because of his professorship at the Schola Cantorum but also on account of encroaching deafness, which helped make an austere and somewhat misanthropic man all the more withdrawn from the world.
He was indifferent to general acclaim, seeking only the approval of his fellow composers and the cognoscenti, an attitude was a mixture of pride, fear, and genuine seeking for an honest understanding of what he was trying to achieve. The mixture of austerity and reserve that characterised the man can be judged by the fact that just two photographs of him as an adult appear to have survived (both reproduced here). He retired from noisy Paris to Baron, near Senlis, and produced occasional works including the operas Guercour and Bérénice, a single string quartet, and in 1913 his fourth and final symphony. Most of his compositions were published at his own expense, and public performances seem to have been few. He produced only twenty-two opuses in his lifetime.
The ruins of Magnard’s Baron home, via Wikipedia
Magnard is best-known for his tragic end. At the outbreak of the First World War, with the German forces approaching the Senlis are, he sent his family away. On 3 September 1914, German soldiers entered his property. He shot one, perhaps two of them. Called upon to surrender or face the consequences, he refused to submit. The Germans thereupon set his house on fire. Magnard died in the inferno, which consumed most of his manuscripts, the works of his imagination dying alongside their creator.
Magnard’s music is at one with the man. Commentators have variously compared his to other composers of his time, including Franck, d’Indy, Rousell and Bruckner, with the implication that he is a paler imitation, but he is best understood as an individual whose unique voice has only superficial similarities to the works of his contemporaries. The tension between public and private, between duty and independence, is the driving force behind all his greatest works. He is forever trying to work out an argument, harmoniously resolving debate through dialectic and narrative form.
Some of his most characteristic work can be found in his symphonic poems. Chant funèbre (op. 9, 1895) was composed in memory of his father Francis, who died in 1894. The mournful, serene work is drawn from the love and frustration Magnard simultaneously felt towards his father. A steady, funereal tread forms a motif that that is gradually coloured by the strings to turn from grief and regret to affirmation. It is a beautiful expression of the rediscovery of love. The impassioned Hymne à la Justice (op. 14, 1902) came out of Magnard’s anger at the the injustice meted out to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer falsely accused of communicating military secrets to the Germans. Magnard resigned his army commission over the affair, and it is heartening to know that this principled man was on the side of true justice (he was an earnest advocate of human rights, particularly women’s suffrage). It is a powerful piece of surging but controlled emotion, culminating in a triumphal resolution, as the music expresses how right overcomes might. The lyrical Hymne à Venus (op. 17, 1904) is dedicated to his wife Julie Creton. It does not have the narrative underpinning of Chant funèbre or Justice, but is tremulously rhapsodic, melodic yet questing for something the music cannot quite seem to find, until all is resolved its exultant finale.
Magnard’s symphonies are a marvellous achievement. For many years, because they lay unrecorded and seldom played, some peculiarly dismissive statements of their worth appeared in music encyclopedias – peculiar because the experience of listening to them is so very different, and so uplifting. The first is a remarkably assured work for an opus no. 4, composed in 1890 when he was just twenty-five. It already demonstrates the main features that would characterise the mature composer: the lush sonorities, the questing argument, the triumphal conclusion. The second (op. 6, 1893, revised 1899) is busy, inventive, lyrical and luxuriant, if a little untidy in the way in packs in so many musical ideas.
The grand opening to the third symphony, via musicologie.org
The third symphony (op. 11, 1896) is a wonder, from a spine-tinging, organ-like motif, through a complex interweaving of dance tunes, surging melodies, dirges, poignant lullabies and urgent rhythmic sections, all in search of something, finding resolution in the exhilarating return in the finale of the majestic opening motif now with dancing strings playing around it. It is among his most immediately approachable works and a good starting point for anyone interested in discovering Magnard for themselves.
The fourth symphony (op. 21, 1913) is Magnard’s masterpiece. It is a beautiful but troubled adventure across some idealised landscape. In the notes to one version on CD Philippe Mougeot writes:
Action or contemplation, the musical thought seems to spring up fully armed, clothed in its own sonorities … the cyclic elements, still present [i.e. from earlier works], but used less systematically, now colour the supplementary motifs: the overall impression is of a fullness and joy in the sound picture
while in another set of notes Jean Gallois says of the finale:
Rhythm, colour and creative imagination culminate here to blaze and swirl in a superb 3/2 metre, gradually weakened, broadened and sobered in expression, as if the resurgence of the cyclic theme raised two questions simultaneously: What’s the use? … Perhaps …
Doubt and unsure hope characterise Magnard’s art, forever in search of the ideal, trying to confirm in music what the man struggled to comprehend in actual life. The fourth symphony is its perfect expression.
The opera Guercoeur (op. 12, 1897-1900) features characters such as Truth, Goodness, Beauty and Suffering, and though it has passages of some beauty it mostly suggests to me that Magnard’s idealism was best expressed without the literalism of a libretto. It is a miracle that we are able to hear it, as two acts were destroyed in the fire that killed the composer, but the opera was reconstructed from memory by his friend Guy Ropartz (a piano transcription and one orchestrated act had been published beforehand). His later opera Bérénice (op. 19, 1905-1909), is reported to be the greater work, but I’ve not heard it and it is not available on disc (though, inevitably, the audio of a performance of the entire work has turned up on YouTube). The score for Yolande (op. 5, 1888-1891), an early one act opera, went up in the flames.
Finally his chamber music is contains some of his most satisfying and accomplished work: a contemplative Sonata for violin and piano (op. 13); a highly accomplished, complex string quartet, whose difficulties defeated the players on its 1904 premiere, but it is now reckoned among his greatest achievements (op. 16); a Quintet (op. 8) of such freshness and harmony, it turns any day you listen to it into summer.
And then not much more. Twenty-two works in all, most of which have been made available on CD over the past three decades since that Plasson recording of the fourth symphony triggered a mini-boom in Magnard’s music. Some of those CDs have been dropped from the catalogue, but it is not difficult to find a good proportion of his surviving work one way or another. But it has only been a mini-boom. I think he remains unknown to most classical music followers; shamefully, he has never once featured in the 119 years of the Proms.
Magnard is not a great composer. He is a minor artist, but of the kind that helps render such qualitative assessments redundant. As an artist, he is what he needed to be. I find it easier to think of him in filmic terms, as an auteur – someone whose consistent personal vision ran throughout his oeuvre. His work, particularly the orchestral pieces, reaches for the skies, but there is someone very human behind it all, whose questing character, hoping against hope that there is good to be found somewhere, can be read by anyone whatever their musical knowledge. The music is as approachable as its composer in real life was not. If you want to put a label on it, then it is late Romantic music of the kind that was swept away in 1913 by Stravinsky. But forget the musical tags and timelines, and just listen to what one man had to say, and how he was able to express it. It has a true voice.
- Where to start with Magnard? The third symphony is the most inviting, though not available on a single disc, so you could seek out, as I did, Michael Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse’s recording of the fourth symphony with Chant funèbre
- Once engrossed, you can move on to the Plasson 3-disc set with the four symphonies, Hymne à la Justice, Chant funèbre and Overture (op. 10). A marvellous set
- The complete chamber works are available over four discs on this Timpani set (with sample sound files for every track on the Amazon page)
- A sympathetic (if occasionally patronising) essay by Francis Pott for Hyperion on the four symphonies (with sound samples)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, production photo from www.rsc.org.uk
Until now, I’d not been to one of the live video broadcasts into cinemas of theatre productions which have spread so rapidly since the New York Metropolitan Opera introduced them in late 2006. In part this was me being slow off the mark, in part it was apprehension at what I was buying into. Simply, it didn’t feel like I would be buying into the real thing. I am no advocate of the liveness of theatre above life shown through a screen: there’s a snobbishness and sentimentality in that line of argument that I really dislike. But beyond the obvious convenience of seeing a stage production that one might probably not be able to see otherwise, I just wasn’t sure what I would be purchasing. In short, would I be getting value for money?
I overcame such caution last night when I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, broadcast as part of its RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series into cinemas up and down the land, including for my benefit the Woodville Halls Theatre in Gravesend.
The play is one of the Shakespeare’s earliest – perhaps his first – and is generally considered a weak attempt at the romantic comedy style he would make his own with Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night et al. It is deeply beholden to the arid traditions of courtly romance and betrays the inexperience of the young writer through its several faults of technical construction. But the production has been showered with praise – amazingly, it is the first RSC full production of the play in forty-five years – and it’s a play that I had never seen performed. So it was that I turned up at the Woodville, intrigued and expectant. I wanted to see the production, and I needed to experience the phenomenon. I’ve started collecting examples of ‘streamed theatre‘ on my Picturegoing site, and I’ve been intrigued by how many bloggers who write about such shows review them as theatre, understanding themselves to be there, not seeing the screen as screen at all (unless technical glitches distract their attention). What would I see?
There were around forty of us, huddled for the most part in the centre of the auditorium. The live broadcast was preceded by a rotating slide show that introduced the production and cast, and advertised the RSC, serving therefore as a form of programme (I thought how useful such a projection could be before the show in an actual theatre, except that it would affect the sales of programmes). We were also given shots of the audience taking to their seats at Stratford-upon-Avon. They looked like us and we looked like them: a fair representation of grey-haired middle England. I thought what a shame there could not be a way for those in Stratford to see us, much as we were seeing them. They would gain a greater sense of the larger audience to which this production was now playing.
An enthusiastic woman called Suzy Klein sat down at a table on the stage and introduced the play to us, while the actors milled about in an approximation of a Verona café. Suzy said she hoped we would tweet about the experience. None of those seated at the Woodville looked like they had ever tweeted in their life, and in any case we had been told to turn off our mobile phones and of course we had all obeyed (if someone had brought in a tablet with them I didn’t see it). Interactivity was for others – we just wanted to see the show.
And so the show began. It is a terrific production which breathes new life into the play. It is bright, witty, passionate and engaging. A talented young cast make every line reasonable, sailing confidently over the play’s odder constructions (such as the rapid reconciliation with the selfish Proteus at the play’s conclusion) and clearly enjoying themselves. One ends up admiring Shakespeare’s early sense of dramatic construction. It’s a play and a production that you would happily recommend to anyone.
Trailer for The Two Gentlemen of Verona
I was particularly interested in how it was filmed. This was very pleasing. There’s a fine balance that needs to be achieving between capturing the action as presented on a stage, and selecting shots calculated to satisfy the cinematic (or televisual) eye. At one end of the spectrum you get the camera parked in the stalls recording the literal actuality. At the other end you get those video production where close shots have been interpolated to turn the show into something designed with the camera first in mind and the theatre and its audience an unwanted distraction. The filmmaker needs to find a halfway house, true to both camera and stage.
This the RSC Live production did very well. There was judicious use of crane shots, gently swooping over the action; lateral camera movements which took in the audience’s heads so we were always reminded that we were in a theatre, sharp cutting between protagonists as they debated with one another, showing much careful planning of camera positions; and the occasional misalignment of actors in the frame to prove that this was live and that actors do not always stand where the film producer hopes that they will stand. I was especially impressed by some of the smooth transitions from scene to scene, particularly the cut between Acts 3 and 4, from Julia exiting with Sylvia’s picture to Eglamour dressed as a monk, both filmed from above. There were close shots, but not close-ups – we were never taken imaginatively out of the space that is the theatre. The filming optimised the experience.
I wasn’t so sure of the sound. Partly, one is at the mercy of the digital projection facilities of the participating cinema, but to my eye the words were ever so slightly out of synch with the visuals (so one saw someone closing their mouth to end a speech a split second after we heard the final word being spoken). More troubling, at least initially, was the sound mixing. There was a curious lack of perspective, as though audio and visually had been recorded separately and laid together for the broadcast. It’s hard to describe, but I felt that the spoken words didn’t belong to the stage, that there weren’t projected out but instead sounded as though they were confined with a small space. Of course, this may be an outcome of the radio miking in theatres which is designed for clarity and intimacy, but I found it odd at first. As the production went on, either the sound effect settled down or I became used to it, because eventually I ceased to be bothered by it.
There was an interval, with ten minutes of quiet in which we saw footage of people at Stratford vacating their seats, followed with ten minutes of promotional stuff (including a mock silent film trailer for Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won – which they have decided is the alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing). Suzy told us how great the music was and how she thought buying the soundtrack CD would be a great idea, and encouraged us all to tweet once more. We ignored her.
There have been reports of these ‘live theatre’ events of the cinema audience clapping alongside the theatre audience at the end of the show. Not in Gravesend they didn’t. We sat there in silence, then filed out during the credits. All seemed to have liked it, though, to judge from the exit chatter, with promises made to the staff that we would be coming back for other such shows.
I will certainly be coming back, because I enjoyed it immensely. One can look at it as extension of presence in the theatre, or as something changed radically by being on a screen, with gradations of change in between those poles, according to the viewer. Has any Baudrillardian theorised as yet on broadcast theatre as simulacra or simulation of live experience? It is subject ripe for applying Baudrillard’s idea of the precession of simulacra, where the copy takes over the meaning of its referent, ultimately destroying the meaning of the original. But different folks will see different things. When I first got there, an attendant asked me what I had come to see. I said I was going to the cinema. He said there was no cinema that evening, instead they had ‘a show’. It was either, and both.
One thing bothered me, however. Just how ‘live’ was it? Of course the production was broadcast live and every action that we saw was occurring at precisely the same moment as it was in Stratford-upon-Avon. But it didn’t feel live to me, or rather the liveness didn’t matter. I expected to feel a particular frisson at being there, however remotely, and of course the liveness is a major part of what is being sold to us as an attraction. But the frisson didn’t happen. Had it been a show from the day before I don’t see how the experience would have been truly different. Had it been from six months ago then perhaps the feeling might change, as initiatives like RSC Live and NT Live advertise repeat screenings as ‘encores’, with (I assume) marginally lower prices. But the difference between live and close to live seems a fine one.
There’s an interesting parallel with football, where live games may be shown on a Saturday afternoon on Sky, and then the highlights on Match of the Day in the evening, and in both cases there is the feeling of being there. If you repeat either broadcasts later in the week, or still later than that, then the liveness has gone, as actuality turns into history.
Also, football is a business where primary revenues have moved from the turnstile to the screen, and that is what is now happening to theatre. The RSC production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona on 3 September was seen by around 1,000 people in the theatre. Broadcast to some 275 cinemas in the UK, it will have been seen by a remote audience of at least 11,000 (if the Gravesend turnout is anything to go by) and probably nearer 20,000, and that’s not counting worldwide screenings (they reached Argentina, Australia, Russia, Spain and the USA) encore screenings and any subsequent DVD sales. The National Theatre’s more established NT Live reaches 600 venues, had found a worldwide audience of 1,275,000 by the time of its 2013-13 annual report, and for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time it got a UK audience of 42,000 and worldwide audience of 72,000, while the 43,000 for The Last of the Haussmans got the screening into the UK’s weekly box office cinema chart (at no. 8).
This is going to have a huge effect on the economics of theatre. Productions will be selected and made with the camera in mind, star actors will be attracted for what may be shorter runs, because the residual revenues will be greater. The liveness of theatre will be an essential part of what is being sold to us, and in that the audience attending the theatre will play their part, just as the football crowd lets us know that the game is real. But the power will lie with the few who came to the Woodville, not the many who filled the theatre at Stratford. We were the ones who were really there.
- Details of the production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are on the RSC site. The director was Simon Godwin; the cast included Mark Arends (Proteus), Pearl Chanda (Julia), Sarah MacRae (Silvia) and Michael Marcus (Valentine)
- Information on Verona and other RSC broadcasts (live and encore) is on the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon site
- Peter Kirwan has a review of the 3 September screening at his excellent Bardathon blog – he reviews it as theatre, with some reference to presentation (the introduction, camera placement) and a complaint about sound distortion (a fault of his local screening at the Nottingham Broadway).