Weaver's Week 2008-05-18

Weaver's Week Index

"You've got to make the performance of a lifetime."


BBC Young Musician

BBC4, 5-9 May; BBC2, 11 May

It's now thirty years since the BBC first ran a competition to find the UK's most impressive young musician. In a documentary preceding this year's contest, Humphrey Burton says he invented the contest after no British competitor made the finals of the Leeds Piano competition in 1975.

The entry qualifications are the same now as they were in 1978: competitors must be no more than 18 on the day of the grand final, and must have passed Grade 8 examinations, the highest available, in their chosen instrument. In effect, this limits the pool of potential entrants to a few thousand, and we suspect that most of them will apply.

The format of the show is simple: youngsters apply in one of five categories, corresponding to the sections of the symphony orchestra. There are strings, brass, woodwind, keyboard, and percussion competitions. Each of those has an early audition or two, then the best twenty or so are invited back to regional finals, with four progressing to the national final in each section. The winner of that contest has a couple of months to prepare their work before playing in the competition's grand final, where the winner wins.

Though the rules of admission haven't changed, the television programmes have altered. The original series ran on and on and on – four weeks of regional heats and category finals before, finally, the big night where the prize was awarded. Coverage reduced to the category finals for the next running in 1980, and – apart from the introduction of a percussion class in 1994 – that's how things remained. Oh, there were attempts to make the contest relevant, most notoriously a bizarre art contest run in 1992, but the fundamentals remained the same. By 2002, the BBC had a digital channel for intelligent programmes, and shoved the preliminary heats off BBC2 and onto the new BBC4.

Running through the last 30 years has been the increasing marginalisation of classical music on BBC television. From twenty-one shows on BBC2 to the current state of five hours on BBC4 and two hours on BBC2, the Beeb has cut the time and reduced the visibility of classical music.

Host for this year's contest is Gethin Jones. Though he's best known as a Blue Peter presenter, Geth has many talents, and just one of them is his prowess with music – he's a Grade 8 violinist, and not at all bad a singer. He's also had enough practice to narrate a carefully-measured out-of-vision script, hitting all the right notes without once giving away that we don't see him on screen during the heats.

While the narration may be great, the script itself is most certainly not. Rightly or wrongly, the producers have decided to spend the vast majority of the category finals talking about the competitors. There's something like ten minutes devoted to each of the final four, allowing us to know their abilities, likes, dislikes, interweb habits, inside leg measurement. In fact, the one thing we can't see for ourselves is their musical prowess.

Just to put this another way: each hour-long show gives about 42 minutes to profiles of the finalists, twelve minutes discussing the performances, a couple of minutes giving and analysing the result, which – after opening and closing credits and the inevitable BBC self-promotion – leaves roughly 30 seconds for clips of actual music. Such clips as we do see are of just a few seconds' duration.

At this point, we draw comparisons with Classical Star (BBC2 last autumn; see the Week's review). That show was unashamedly about finding a personality performer and, to be fair, made a good fist of a poor brief. Young Musician, though, is meant to be judged exclusively on the quality of the music, so really should put the performance front and centre, and not hide it away under a very deep hole.

Writing in The Guardian, Susan Tomes put it like this, "It's as if, on the previous evening, the snooker final had focused on Ronnie O'Sullivan's home life and leisure activities for 75 per cent of the programme and had then shown us a few brilliant shots at the snooker table by way of 'coverage of the final'. The audience wouldn't stand for it and they shouldn't in Young Musician either." source

To add insult to injury, full performances were available, but were shown on the BBC website. What gives here? Is this yet another attempt to cannibalise the BBC audience by splitting it between the television viewers and the website users? Or a shot at driving traffic to the website by denying television viewers their due? We would far sooner have seen the full performances available on a loop via the red-button of interactivity. Why wasn't this pursued? Answers on a postcard to the usual address...

The volume of complaints has been sufficient to rouse Auntie's wrath, and she's put out a statement. It's the sort of non-apology that is all too familiar to BBC viewers. "We try new production techniques and presentation styles while also have ensuring [sic] that our content is accessible across many different platforms. The week-long BBC Four television series was designed as an introduction to the competition. Whilst we recognise that the music remains at the heart of the competition, alongside the performances and the competitors' obvious passion and commitment to music, we felt it equally important to profile the people involved and explore their backgrounds and interests." Yet equal importance does not equate to equal time, or equal opportunity to view...

It's worth noting that the producer for this year's programme was Paul Bearnays, and he led a team from the BBC Factual department. We have no quibble with the technical quality of their work, the programmes were up to the high standard we would expect. But it showed that the programmes were shot in the modern documentary fashion, emphasising the human interest over the performance, the transient over the reproducible.

Almost inevitably, there were claims of misleading editing from the production staff. One contributor to the BBC message boards suggested that one of the finalists had had both mistakes included in the final edit, along with an emotional reaction, giving a misleading impression of them as a person.

The BBC's official non-apology also said that the final would "focus completely on the five performances from the finalists". To be fair, this almost happened; if we can look past the ten minutes introducing the show, or the scene-setting in the middle, or the fact that there were, er, eleven performances from the finalists. In spirit, the television broadcast was mostly about the music, and we commend the producers for that.

We can't commend the actual execution of the final. For the first time, the final was split into two parts. On Saturday, each had given a 25-minute concerto piece, performing at the head of a full orchestra. This sequence will never be televised; it was streamed live over the interweb, and broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday, but never on broadcast television. For the Sunday show, each finalist gave a solo performance, and reprised a portion of their work from the previous evening.

To come back to the snooker analogy again, we can think of the full concerto as each playing a full frame, with an opponent spotting the balls in awkward positions so that the player might show his skills. The contest as televised was like asking top players to perform two of their favourite trick shots, then clear from the last red to the brown with the balls in those awkward positions. That would not be snooker as we know it, and nor was this show classical music in any meaningful way.

The television programme was grossly over-staffed, with Aled Jones pulling his full repertoire of funny faces on the stage, Gethin Jones interviewing members of the family and supporters from the auditorium, and Nicola Loud talking to the performers backstage. The presentation reminded us of Strictly Come Dancing or Only Fools On Horses. Miss Loud, in particular, was out of her depth, asking inane and repetitive questions.

One of the aims of Young Musician is to reach out to children, perhaps inspiring them to pick up an instrument, or keep on practicing the one they have. How can the initial inspiration come if the programmes are hidden away in the BBC's intellectual ghetto, a channel that 85% of the population ignores every single week? The opportunity has been lost this year, just as it's been lost for the past decade.

Last year, the application form for Classical Star explicitly said, "This is not Young Musician". Did this year's form for Young Musician say, "This is not Classical Star"? And did it mean it?

Eurovision Young Musicians

BBC4, 8pm Friday 16 May

To Vienna, where the other classical music contest is taking place. Or, to be exact, took place almost exactly a week earlier. No danger of live coverage, or as-live coverage, or even same-night coverage. Still, it's better than the last Young Dancers contest, which took three months to make it to screen here.

The first ten minutes of the show are taken up with a profile of the British entry, Philip Achille, a harmonica player. He makes the final, and we see his performance, and that of the other six finalists – a saxophonist from Slovenia, cellists from Russia and the Netherlands, a pianist from Finland, and two we'll get to later.

Pleasingly, we get to hear all of the performances in their entirety – the finalists can play works lasting no more seven and a half minutes. And we're spared the interval acts and the presenters – we'll have enough wooden-faced cast-offs spouting the same lines they've been using for the past three decades on the 24th. The staging is impressive – host broadcaster ORF has constructed a massive concert hall in the middle of the city square, with big screens at each side, large enough to fit a full concert orchestra behind the soloist and to accommodate a crowd of thousands.

The delayed transmission meant that British viewers were unable to participate in the SMS vote to find the viewer's choice, which was won by violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing (NRK, Norway), and completely omitted from the BBC broadcast – it's the large marble plaque she puts down before collecting the third-prize trophy. The main prize is awarded by an international jury of experts, and went to clarinettist Dionysios Grammenos (ORT, Greece).

This, we suggest, is how to broadcast a classical music competition – let the music do the talking, and relegate Nicola Loud's chirpy commentary to "that was, this is."

Countdown Update

From a venerable competition to one that's been going for a mere twenty-six years, and the occasional update on all things Countdown. We last looked at the beginning of April, when Matthew Coates looked set to make a good impression. Three wins and 389 points, but he lost a tie-break conundrum to David Sandbach (1 win, 168), who lost to Julie Gregory (1 win, 176), with Hugh Shand (164) and Carol Algie (153) also winning just one game each. Diana Coull broke the string by hanging on to win her second game, but that was it (2 wins, 227), and Len Marshall also fell after one win (176).

Winning over Mr. Marshall was Ben Hanks, a young man who is never lost for words, or for an entertaining hair style. And, unlike the host of some other entertainments we could mention, it's all his own. Mr. Hanks recorded six wins and 580 points, and only lost to David Preedy in a battle of rotten letters games. Mr. Preedy (136) and Ellen Hill (134) were both one-game winners, as was Allannah Steadman (161). She had the misfortune to run into the suave Peter Davis, another man who looked as though octochampdom was only a matter of time. Again, it wasn't to be, his consistently good play was vulnerable to an exceptional performance, and he was cut off after six wins and 642 points.

Don Gill provided the surprise, but lost his first defence (160) to Tony Betts (126), with Philippa Griffin (2 wins, 232) and Ross Watt (2 wins so far) succeeding in the champion's chair.

All of this means that the finals board is beginning to have an air of finality about it. The current seedings are:

  1. David O'Donnell – 8 wins, 878 pts
  2. Michael MacDonald-Cooper – 8, 780
  3. Tim Reypert – 8, 773
  4. Barry Smith – 7, 648
  5. Richard Priest – 6, 697
  6. Peter Davies – 6, 642
  7. Ben Hanks – 6, 580
  8. Jason Cullen – 4, 421

By our reckoning, there are 23 more heats until the final, allowing for precisely three more octochamps, or four six-game winners. Only the top four are certain of an invitation back to Leeds. Such has been the nature of this year's series that only Mr. Hanks and Mr. Cullen look in serious danger.

One statistic that probably will go is the most champions in a single series, currently held by the October 2005 – May 2006 run, when 44 people collecting their Des Pots. We should also note that that series had 140 heats; this run will be twenty programmes shorter.

This Week And Next

Ratings for the week to 4 May saw Britain's Got Talent still ahead of the pack, with 9.1m seeing the show. The Apprentice was seen by 7.3m, and I'd Do Anything 5.6m. Mr and Mrs and HIGNFY both broke 5m, One Versus One Hundred stalled at 4.7m, and Beat the Star at 3.8m.

On the minor channels, The Apprentice You're Fired had 3.2m tuning in. Come Dine With Me was seen by 2.75m, and the Saturday version of HIGNFY 2.7m; the part-networked Monday repeat took 1.55m. Deal (2.45m) beat Great British Menu (2.25m).

Britain's Got Talent led on the digital tier (805,000 for the Saturday audition footage, 665,000 for the Sunday repeat), and Pop Idle US had 640,000. Come Dine With Me had 510,000 tuning in.

Next week has the little matter of the Eurovision Song Contest (BBC3 and RTE2, 8pm Tuesday and Thursday; BBC1, Radio 2, RTE1 and RTE Radio 1 8pm Saturday). On ITV there's House Guest, a show where strangers cook meals for each other. Now, what was Michael Greed saying about not having so many derivative formats..?

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