I don’t want to seem like a grouch; but since that’s precisely what I am, it’s bound to leak out from time to time. On this particular occasion, I want to return — in what I fear will be a distinctly grouchy way! — to the subject of the ITV series Inspector Morse and its use of classical music…
As I made clear the other day, I was an avid fan of the series as a whole, and have always been convinced that in ‘foregrounding’ classical music in the way that it did — such as by presenting it as a central enthusiasm of the admirable and likeable (if rather, uh, grouchy) main character — it did a great deal to provide the normal, musically under-nourished viewer with a ‘point of entry’ into a repertoire that by the late 1980s had entirely vanished from the schedules of the UK’s (notionally ‘public service’!) commercial ITV channel. Since Morse was — and remains — a very popular and widely viewed series, I wasn’t engaging in casual hyperbole the other day, when I said that “the programme constitutes probably the greatest single force in the direction of this repertoire’s normalisation that British TV drama has ever seen.”
And now comes the grouchy bit.
You see, even though I think the series did a great deal of incidental good in the way it familiarised people with the sound of this marginalised and ‘abnormalised’ repertoire — letting folks see how and where it is performed; presenting approachable extracts of pieces they may not have heard before; showing the music being enjoyed by a person who isn’t a ‘Bond villain’ or a serial killer, etc — there were still respects in which I think it didn’t help at all. In fact, at times it behaved in a manner that can only have made things worse for our embattled repertoire. Let me show you what I mean.
Here’s one of the ‘opening sequence’ clips I posted the other day — when, as you will remember, I surrounded it with perfectly sincere expressions of admiration and approval. But there’s another side to this as well — which I’m hoping you will now be able to spot. No, I’m not giving anyone any clues: you’ll have to work this out for yourself…
What set off my internal ‘That’s a screw-up!’ alarm during this sequence was — did you spot it? — the wholly unnecessary and entirely unhelpful association of a string quartet performance with whatever kind of privileged, over-confident, and obtrusively over-dressed elite turns up for an outdoor event at a prestigious Oxford University location…
Since this blog has a very wide readership, with lots of readers who’ve never ventured near a classical performance, let me take a moment to explain that I myself have been attending chamber music events for about 35 years now . . . and, not only do they always happen indoors, but at no point have I ever seen anyone in the audience wearing a DJ and a dickie bow — and I haven’t exactly been ‘slumming it’ in terms of the places I’ve gone to, either. In short, seeing what looks to be a load of well-heeled Oxonian ‘insiders’ all dolled-up and enjoying a string quartet on one of the city’s finest college lawns is only going to send a very unfortunate and counter-productive message indeed: if ever there was a clearer way of signalling to the viewer that ‘string quartets aren’t part of normal people’s lives!’, then I have yet to see it.
Actually, that last bit isn’t true: it’s not correct to say that, if a worse example exists, ‘I have yet to see it’. I have in fact seen it, and more than once — here:
Can you spot what I mean? That’s the start of the Morse episode ‘Deceived by Flight’, first broadcast 18 Jan 1989 — which is when, wincingly, I first saw it. Just think it through carefully, and tick the emblems and embodiments of power, privilege and preferment as they pass your eye: the elite and untouchable Oxford college whose interior we briefly glimpse; the privileged Oxford students — every one them shiningly Caucasian! — we see walking through its doorways; the Jaguar XJS (a Thatcher-era luxury car infamously built too long for normal parking spaces), which symbol of irresponsible individualism and elite impunity we see parked — with what seems effortlessly patrician disdain! — on the narrow street’s double yellows… And, insidiously, across and throughout all of this, presented as a seemingly ‘natural’ soundtrack to life in this world of white wealth and power, we hear the finale of a Haydn string quartet. Yeah, that’ll help. Terrific work, guys!
Not that the sequence’s problems end there, of course. Bizarrely, the Haydn quartet is then awkwardly and uncomfortably back-announced — minus all mention of its title or composer — during what is such an utterly wrong-sounding attempt at ‘Radio 3 presentation’ that you know at once it was written and recorded by people who — most revealingly! — had absolutely no idea what they were trying to copy. And then, inevitably (and after a quick joke about Radio 3’s old medium-wave service carrying cricket commentary), we meet the Porter — a loyal, obedient and deferential working-class college functionary who ‘knows his place’ and respects everyone else’s — and he’s listening to the cricket…
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that someone deserved a bloody thrashing for that opening scene — a textbook example of how to stamp an entire genre of art-music as the cultural property of a pampered elite, by way of the unforgivable stereotyping and ‘Othering’ of the classical repertoire as a whole, and the never-identified Haydn in particular.
Mind you, it’s always seemed to me that more than one thrashing was called for in the case of this particular episode. For (additional) example, Anthony Minghella’s script contains some (sadly typical) clunky, unbelievable and character-eroding dialogue so completely un-actable in its ‘right-on’ over-simplifications that it should have been sent back to him before anything else happened. If Minghella’s fame, success and tragically early death have stopped you noticing what’s wrong with what he did, just pretend this script was written by me as you watch the following bit of unalloyed crumminess:
And before anyone avails themselves of this page’s ‘Comment’ facility to tell me that I’m ‘exaggerating’ over the Haydn, ‘taking things too seriously’, ‘over-analysing it all’, and so on, let me gently remind people that, when it comes to why I think what I think about the way this repertoire is seen by people in the ‘majority’ population, I am the one who has actually spent years teaching and lecturing on classical music — ‘clever people’s music’, ‘rich people’s music’ — in parts of this country that ‘clever’ and ‘rich’ people’ won’t even drive through. Thank you.
See? I said it would be grouchy…
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