Weaver's Week 2007-11-18

Weaver's Week Index



We regret to report that the cab in Cash Cab is to be sold off. A shame, it was the mobile studio for a very good programme that never got its due.

Classical Star

Shine for BBC2, 16 October – 13 November

Q: What is the purpose of Classical Star?
A: Erm, it's to, er, um, replicate the success of Star Academy in the classical music genre.

Q: Let us re-phrase that. According to the press release, what is the purpose of Classical Star?
A: To find a star of classical music. The winner will release a record from this series.

Q: The new Barenboim, Menuhin, Adler? Someone who will impress the world with their genius, and pick up glittering prizes and recording contracts from their sheer talent?
A: Well, no. More like the next Vanessa-Mae.

Q: Who?
A: Ah, how the flickering flame of popularity dies these days. Vanessa-Mae is a violinist from Singapore, whose classical-with-a-techno-beat was heavily promoted by one of the big companies about ten years ago.

Q: So her natural talent was eclipsed by the size of a marketing budget?
A: Ye-e-e-e-es. Where are we going with this?

Q: After watching Classical Star from beginning to end, we rather felt that we're watching the manufacture of a musical marshmellow: sweet to look at, but completely devoid of substance.
A: What makes you say that?

Q: The contestants are talented; that much is not in doubt. They've passed all the formal examinations, practice every hour of the day. The quality of their work is not in doubt.
A: This feels like a polemic: do go on.

Q: They're holed up in a posh mansion – one that brings to mind Witanhurst of a previous Academy – and offered the prize. Remind us what the prize was.
A: A chance to perform at the Purcell Studio on the South Bank, and ultimately a recording contract.

Q: Prizes that are awarded to provide a typical conclusion to a television show, and not through the quality of performance?
A: Ye-e-e-s.

Q: Doesn't this feel like a marketing gimmick, pretending that classical music – where the important thing is the repertoire – can be treated identically to popular music, where it's the performer's expression that is most important?
A: This is a valid claim; the counter-argument is that performance is at least as important as the composer's work. This dichotomy is never adequately addressed in the show. But the lead tutor's work rather blurred the edges.

Q: "World-leading 'cellist Matthew Barley." Forgive our ignorance, should we actually know him from Adam?
A: Quite probably. Shostakovitch in the Barbican, 'cello with the LSO, LPO, and more festivals than one can shake a stick at. Not that he's really crossed over into the mainstream, at least not yet, but a reasonably well-known name in classical circles.

Q: So he takes these talented youngsters and exposes them to other forms of music: jazz, salsa, even banging pots and pans. What's the thinking?
A: As we understand it, it's to expose them to something other than pure classical music. Cross-fertilisation, cross-pollination, blurring the boundaries of high and medium-high culture. Coming down on the side of performance over repertoire.

Q: The purists are going to hate this. Has there been any reaction?
A: There has been reaction. Hilary Davan Wetton wrote in The Guardian that the show amounted to ritual humiliation, for reasons we might come onto later. But the main complaint has come from Norman Lebrecht.

Q: The one he wrote here?
A: That's the one. Mr. Barley has given a rebuttal of many of the points on his own website.

Q: Mr. Barley wrote, "there simply is no other competition that actually teaches its participants, let alone in the exciting and innovative way we do." Is he aware of E4 School of Performing Arts?
A: Evidently not; you've a review of that later on?

Q: Indeed. Is there a scintilla of truth in Mr. Lebrecht's claims?
A: This is Norman Lebrecht. He polarises opinion like a magnet.

Q: But there's a certain falseness to the show?
A: How do you mean?

Q: It's not Young Musician, is it?
A: Nor was it ever intended to be. Even the application form – which contained such leading questions as "What inspired you to start playing?", "What has been your worst experience so far?", and "Why are you entering this competition?" – said in large letters, "This is not Young Musician".

Q: The whole thing feels a bit strange. Take the judges, for instance.
A: One bassist, one conductor, one radio presenter, and one record company agent.

Q: Yes. What do they know about classical music?
A: Two of them make it. The other two know how to market classical music. Isn't that the same thing?

Q: Is there any need for the viewers to see the judges criticising the competitors, almost conducting character assassinations on national television, without giving their targets a chance to defend themselves?
A: It makes for good television, does it not?

Q: It doesn't work as Nasty TV, the youngsters just want to get on with the job. The Sorcerer's Apprentice had the right idea, have as few eliminations as possible, and with everyone gathered together rather than one-by-one. And is it really just to eliminate one contestant just because she isn't expressive enough to fit the panel's prejudices?
A: That's a rhetorical question...

Q: Then, the following week, one contestant is eliminated for his lack of familiarity with Bach. That rather states that the composer is more important than the performer, going against the grain of the show so far.
A: And the other was eliminated for taking her time to become really familiar with her material, showing that technical brilliance counts for naught when there's profit to be made. A record to be made.

Q: As we said earlier, the whole show comes across as fake. False. Synthetic. Bogus. Safe, banal, homogenised, cutesy, appalling,
A: Can you give a solid example?

Q: Here's two. In the third programme, one of the contestants was worried that she wasn't getting enough practice, so moved her mattress onto the floor, hoping to be more awake in the morning. Her room-mate turned out a bedside light. Through the window, we could see three bright television spotlights go dim. Cut to an alarm clock starting to ring. These two shots were fakes. Not just any old fake, but so fake that we could smell the plastic. The whiff lingered through the rest of the series: in the penultimate show, Mr. Barley exclaimed, "It's an all-celtic final!" That line is so clearly scripted, so obviously the result of a re-shoot, as to curl the toes.
A: Fair point. But that's not Mr. Barley's fault, is it.

Q: Nor do we say it is. No, pin the blame on the producers, and on Universal Records, which will release the winner's work. Actually, didn't we discuss Universal in connection with Star Academy some years ago?
A: So we did. Are you going to conclude with an observation that the show has unearthed some great talents in spite of being poor television?

Q: We would very much like to. The constraints of showing classical music on prime-time television are clear: out of 15-minute performances, we're lucky to see more than 60 seconds. Even the final never gave us more than three minutes of music in a stretch,
A: The contestants auditioned with 25 minutes of music, including some baroque and some modern work, but we rarely see more than a snippet. From such short excerpts, we cannot form a proper opinion of talent, and have to rely on other people's judgements. Jessica Duchen wrote, "Nobody at the BBC thinks the audience could possibly cope with hearing a whole movement of Mendelssohn – let alone knowing how difficult the D minor trio is to play."

Q: What was Radio 3 doing?
A: Missing the point. Again.

Q: What could the Third Programme have done?
A: A follow-up programme showcasing some of the young performers. Perhaps even playing their recordings in full. Here we have a perfect chance for the BBC to introduce people to the classical-music output of Radio 3, and the corporation completely misses it. Is the controller a complete imbecile?

Q: So, how could the contest have been structured?
A: Pick the nine people (or so) for the summer camp. Throw away musical musical chairs, keep all of them there for the full four weeks. Follow up each television programme with pieces on Radio 3, either straight after the broadcast, or the following night, or over the week-end. Pick out the three for the final. Broadcast that final (and other work from the series, if time needs it) on Radio 3 the night before the series ends, but leave the result for the television.

Q: In summary, then. The youngsters: great careers ahead of them, if that's what they want. The television producers: need to sharpen up their act, for this is insipid, almost car-crash television. The performance versus composition argument: performance seems to have won the day. Radio 3: led by someone who has a nose for failure. And will Classical Star have filled its education role: will anyone be inspired to take up an instrument from this show?
A: That's the 64-thousand viewer question.

E4 School of Performing Arts

Silver River for E4, 3 October – 7 November

Image:Square E4.jpg

Bring out the man with the big booming voice, it's the E4 School of Performing Arts and Bombastic Voiceovers! The first thing we notice about the show is that it has an incredibly long name, and we'll call it E4SPA and be done with it. The second thing we notice is that it has Brian Blessed providing the voice-off. He is loud, he is clearly reading from someone else's script, and the show wouldn't be quite the same without his rich, fruity tones.

The conceit is this. Eight actors, eight dancers, and eight singer-songwriters are gathered at the titular SPA in central London. Though it was never made clear on the broadcast, we believe that most of the filming took place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Each group is competing for a scholarship to further their career – actors will go to Mountview, dancers to Italia Conti, singer-songwriters to the Academy of Contemporary Music. All respected institutions, and a prize worth winning.

All of the contestants had passed auditions, all had a lot of talent. And they were exposed to people who are almost household names – the musicians were tutored by Toby Jepson, formerly of the Little Angels, one of the groups we rather like at Weaver Towers. The dancers received tuition from Bonnnie Lythgoe, wife of dancer, The Enemy Within presenter, and Survivor producer Nigel Lythgoe. We couldn't find anyone we'd heard of amongst the acting tutors, but that's our ignorance showing.

The contestants were put together in a shared house. Twenty-four young people, one house in the student quarters off Howland Street. Even worse, they were expected to live in very cramped quarters, with just two bedrooms available. This led to much friction, and we can only assume that the producers wanted there to be that ill-feeling. Apparently, it makes better television, even though it's far from being the experience of most performing arts students. And, in our view, a faked-up row is a deception on the viewing public.

On at least one occasion, there was a passage that we felt stepped past the boundaries of good taste. It is a very sad fact that one of the contestants lost a close friend to a murder while the series was being made. It is unfortunate that they were being filmed at the time. It was not necessary to put those images on screen; we could easily have been told the sad news by one of the tutors, as reported speech. That was a most intrusive scene.

Almost inevitably, the show concentrated on the producer's favourite contestants – even after watching the series from beginning to end, we had difficulty remembering anything about eight of the contestants. The actors seemed to come off the worst, marginalised by the other activities. Inevitably, there were artistic differences in the first show, and continuing almost all the way through the series. Even in the final show, when the dancers suddenly learned that they would be expected to sing show tunes (we understand that this helps dancers hoping to get into musical theatre, and almost no-one else), the rows felt as manufactured as genuine. The stereotypical luvvie with a fragile ego was on display; it was never clear how much of this was created by decisions of the producers.

E4SPA offered a very subtle insight into the sociology of the performing arts. Traditionally, actors seem to perceive themselves as superior to dancers, who are superior to bards. It's social snobbery, of course, but does have some grounding in money: acting and dancing have professional qualifications and are formally taught, songwriting is much less formal and is passed from person to person. This tension was shown on screen, when one of the acting tutors publicly slated one of the songwriting tutors for the poor performances.

There's been a trend, particularly within dance, to move away from treating ballet as the yardstick from which to measure all forms, and look at elements common to the different traditions, and question if some cultural assumptions are at play. Though they probably didn't realise it, the dance tutors in E4SPA defined dance as a conscious performed physical reaction. Not the mindless repetition of certain steps at certain points, but something spontaneous and unscripted. Their work came much closer to the freedom afforded to the songwriters than the interpretations of a set text offered by the actors.

The net result can be seen in some of the more memorable exercises. The bards spent time with Tim Wheeler and his band Ash, and loved every minute. The dancers were auditioned for a pop video, where they were encouraged to find their own way of looking angry; even the unsuccessful people found the experience rewarding. The actors made up a piece about being a boat, and had to be cajoled and dragged almost every step of the way.

Beneath all the bluster, here was a show that really did try to improve its contestants. Many of them had had no formal training, and very few of them would be able to take any training if they hadn't received the gift horse from E4SPA; it was slightly disheartening to find how blas̩ some of the contenders were about their chance. The quality of the work in the final performances was clearly better than their early efforts. The announcement of the winners proved surprisingly anti-climactic Рmost of them had been profiled in the final show, and there was a sense that both contestants and viewers had slightly been misled about the prizes on offer. Rather than three scholarships, the budget ran to eight places. The phrase, "All shall have prizes" sprung to mind.

There were many little highlights, and viewers could celebrate the achievements of each contestant, the little victories. The highlight of the series, perhaps, was one of the lines in Mr. Blessed's voice-off, referring to a band whose video featured some of the dancers. "I've never heard of them. That's the best endorsement they could have."


Heat 17

Kevin Moore strides up to the chair, taking the Life and Music of Johnny Cash. The country singer was active from the mid-60s until his death a few years ago, though most of the questions seem to concentrate on the early part of his career. 12 (2) is a good score.

Philip Cooper will discuss the Development of Photography since 1900. It's a suspiciously wide subject, and we again worry that the contender will fail to score. This doesn't happen, and he does pick up speed towards the end, finishing on an entirely respectable 8 (1).

Beth Maclure will take the Life and Works of Rene Magritte, who we learn in the first two questions was a painter from French-speaking Belgium. That's the way to introduce a subject! The contender loses a little speed towards the end, finishing on 12 (0).

Rodney Smith has the Ships of the Royal Navy 1945-2007. It's another perilously wide category, and the contender finishes on 4 (4). Smallhead says that there are hardly any ships left; while there aren't as many as there were before the invention of the RAF, there are still an awful lot, and they're well documented. Mr. Smith finishes on 12 (6).

Mr. Cooper reminds us that photography began in 1804, but was popularised around a century ago. He says that he's an old-fashioned person, preferring film cameras because they're simply better than digital snaps. He suggests that www.manwithnoname.com is used by former British prime minister Mr. Tony Blair, and the audience laughter is genuine. Clint Eastwood is the correct answer, and the audience has a good laugh. He finishes on 17 (2).

Mr. Moore is a Cub Scout Leader. Do they not call them "Akela" any more? Sometimes, but not always, according to the Scouts, and if we disagree, Chief Scout Peter Duncan will dive on us from a great height. He presses on to 21 (3).

Beth Maclure is the only one of this week's contestants to have appeared before – beaten by Shaun Wallace in the first round in 2004, and came second in a first round match the following year. She has scored 10 and 11 in the general knowledge round in the past, but this time stalls on seven. The final score is 19 (2).

This Week And Next

University Challenge returns next week, York play St Andrews.

Our thanks to two masters of their diverse performing arts for their assistance with this week's edition.

The BBC has announced its new talent show for Saturday night. It's a revival of the Choir of the Year competition, all dolled up and probably starring Aled Jones. The show, provisionally entitled Choir Wars, is slated to start next autumn.

Ratings for the week to 4 November were led by a series best for Strictly Come Dancing (9.25m for the performance, 8.65m for the results), clearly ahead of The X Factor (8.45m and 7m). In It to Win It and HIGNFY had 6.2m, the latter also a season's best, ahead of All Star Family Fortunes (6.1m). Millionaire had 3.95m. Dragons' Den had 3.3m, UC 3.15m, Dancing on Two advanced to 2.9m. Deal (2.6m) beat QI (2.55m), Eggheads, and Link (both 2.45m). The Saturday night HIGNFY repeat took 2.2m, Channel 4's Big Fat Anniversary Quiz 2m. And we're very pleased to report Countdown's first appearance in the top 30 this year, 1.5m for the anniversary special.

New leader on the digital tier, Hell's Kitchen USA finished with 610,000, ahead of X Factor (600,000), QI (555,000), and Celebrity Scissorhands (545,000). Xtra Factor's best score was 485,000. Come Dine With Me reverted to the mean, with 290,000 tuning in. The Sorcerer's Apprentice (260,000) beat Dancing With the Stars (245,000) and Deal (200,000). Challenge's top score was Weakest Link Celebrity (115,000 on Sunday afternoon.)

Highlight of next week is The Generation Game Now And Then (UK Gold, 9pm Thursday). Bruce Forsyth, twice voted favourite game show host by this site's readers, reminisces about the show with the silly games and glamorous hostesses.

To have Weaver's Week emailed to you on publication day, receive our exclusive TV roundup of the game shows in the week ahead, and chat to other ukgameshows.com readers sign up to our Yahoo! Group.

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