Ravel Day on Radio 3

March 6, 2014 at 2:05 pm (BBC, culture, film, France, Jim D, modernism, music, wireless)

Today (Friday 7th March) BBC Radio 3 clears its schedule on Maurice Ravel’s birthday for a day devoted to the composer’s music.

Following on from similar focuses devoted to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Webern, March 7 will celebrate the great impressionist’s music through recordings dating from the 1930s to the present day.

Performers involved include pianists Pascal and Ami Rogé in a recital from Wigmore Hall (including a two-hand arrangement of Boléro), the Nash Ensemble, and New Generation Artist mezzo Clara Mouriz. There will also be a series of downloads called Ravel Revealed exploring aspects of his life.

Now, of course, there’s a lot more to Ravel than Boléro (my personal favourite is  Daphnis et Chloé) but I couldn’t resist bringing you this 1934 film (below) as a foretaste:

Better than Torville and Dean, eh?  George Rafters all round!

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Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas … the saddest Christmas song?

December 25, 2013 at 12:16 am (BBC, Christmas, cinema, film, jazz, Jim D, music, song, Soul, wireless)

In general, I’m one of those listeners who objects to music on Radio 4 – especially the infuriating Mastertapes with the annoying rock fan John Wilson, who – frankly – should just fuck off to Radio 2, where he belongs. However, I’m happy to make an exception for Soul Music, which this week featured the strangely melancholic Christmas song, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’

It was written in 1944 by one Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me In St. Louis, in which it was sung by the film’s star, Judy Garland. It comes at a particularly sad moment in the film, and Garland felt its original lyrics (read out for us in the Radio 4 programme) were altogether too depressing, and eventually Martin was persuaded to replace them with slightly more upbeat (but still hardly jolly) words. Later on Frank Sinatra got Martin to change them again, this time replacing “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

As always with Soul Music, the programme discusses not just the song’s lyrics, but also its (surprisingly sophisticated) harmonic structure and chord changes, interspersed with the thoughts and reminiscences of people for whom it carries a special meaning and/or memories. James Taylor’s pensive version, recorded shortly after 9/11, quite rightly receives a special mention:

My favourite version, by Ella Fitzgerald, doesn’t feature in the programme, perhaps because Ella’s voice is almost too good and (combined with the relatively up-tempo swing arrangement) doesn’t quite convey the pathos that the lyrics seem to demand. Never mind: it’s Ella and it’s beautiful. So here’s wishing A Merry Little Christmas to all of you!

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Felix Dexter: a very funny man

October 22, 2013 at 9:24 am (comedy, culture, drama, funny, good people, posted by JD, RIP, satire, television, wireless)

Felix Dexter 26 July 1961 – 18 Oct 2013

Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse pay tribute here

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Syria and the cost of doing nothing

June 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm (fascism, Guardian, history, internationalism, iraq war, Jim D, New Statesman, Stop The War, Syria, tragedy, war, wireless)

Above: Charles Lindbergh puts the Stop The War case for non-intervention in WW2

BBC Radio 4′s ‘Any Questions’ is a pretty reliable barometer of middle-England, middle class opinion. These days, anyone on the panel who denounces intervention of any kind in overseas conflicts, can be guaranteed a big round of applause, regardless of whether the speaker is from the isolationist right or the ‘anti-imperialist’ left.

This week’s programme, inevitably, included a question about Syria, and the panel was unanimous in opposing the idea of arming the opposition, to the obvious approval of the audience. Right wing Tory isolationist Daniel Hannan put the non-intervention case most succinctly when he said “It’s not our business… in Syria we have no connections …we have no particular interest.”

Smug, shallow leftist commentator Mehdi Hasan (New Statesman and Huffington Post) chimed in with his familiar, sanctimonious riff along the lines of one sides’s as bad as the other … both sides have been accused of using chemical weapons … sending the rebels weapons or imposing a no-fly zone will just make matters worse…etc. etc…

Hannon, who made it clear that he agreed with Hasan’s isolationist conclusions, was honest enough to chip in with the following:

“A one-sided arms embargo is a form of intervention, as it was in Bosnia, as it was in the Spanish Civil War. If you’re allowing one side free access to global weaponry and denying the other [weapons] then you are in practice intervening.” 

An important point, that the isolationist movement of both left and right rarely acknowledge. The assumption, all too often, is that only military intervention costs lives, while staying out of it saves lives. Patent nonsense, once you think about it, but that’s the presumption upon which people like the so-called Stop The War Coalition and their media stooges, expect us to accept their case.

Hopi Sen puts the contrary view very well in a recent piece on the cost of non-intervention in Syria:

The last decade has been a steady retreat from intervention.

We know why. We saw the terrible costs of intervention first hand, while the deaths of the Marsh Arabs, the repression of the Kurds, the brutality of Saddam’s regime (and yes, our real-politik driven complicity in that regime) were somehow forgotten.  We even managed to forget that the cost of containment was a society trapped by sanctions, a price worth paying for the containment of a regime we did not wish to overthrow.

Yet now, in Syria, we also see the price of inaction.

I make the following comparison not to compare the loss, or the war, or the justice of either, but to compare our reaction to each.

The rate of violent death in Syria is already more than double that in the bloodiest year of the Iraq war. Around 170,000 have died in Iraq in the decade since the war. More than half that are dead in Syria already, and the violent deaths are increasing rapidly. Where is the outrage of the humanitarian left? Where are the marches and the vigils? The petitions and the disbelief? Where are the Anti-War Marches?

Further, doing nothing has increased regional instability. Already Hizbollah are killing Syrian rebels, with who knows what consequences for Lebanon. Israel is both nervous of Islamism and of an unstable Syrian government. Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan are having to cope with some one and a half million refugees.

These are the results of the policy we chose.

Would things have been better if we had intervened directly? Would the slaughter have been less with a No Fly zone, or airstrikes on Syrian forces mounting aggression, or if we had supported secular, moderate rebels early? Would things have been better if we had even made it clear to Russia that there was some action that we would not tolerate?

That I can’t know, just as I cannot know what would have happened in Iraq this past decade if Saddam had been left to imprison and murder his people under a sanctions regime  that killed innocent civilians in order to constrain their torturers.

No-one can really know “what if“.

The awful truth is that inaction and intervention both have terrible costs, and those who decide between them cannot ever truly know what will result. Some forgot that in the last decade, choosing to believe that only intervention could have a terrible price. I don’t forget the reverse now.

Just because the policy we have pursued has become a catastrophe does not mean the policy was undoubtedly and obviously wrong.

But by God, I wish we felt more shame for what we have not done for the people of Syria.

(Read the full article here)

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Wagner 200 on Radio 3

May 18, 2013 at 12:02 am (anti-semitism, Asshole, BBC, drama, fascism, Germany, Jim D, music, Racism, song, wireless)

BBC Radio 3 starts a week of Wagner in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

It begins with:

Wagner In Zurich: 12.15, Saturday 18 May 
Tom Service travels to Zurich, where Richard Wagner the revolutionary lived in exile for nine years, and finds a city which played a crucial  role in the development of the composer’s thinking and provided fertile  ground for his Ring Cycle, and which is marking the 200th anniversary  with a festival including a new musical theatre piece by the director  Hans Neuenfels. Tom visits the home of the Wesendonck family, where Wagner was inspired to write Tristan und Isolde and his Wesendonck Lieder, and also the idyllic Tribschen district of Lucerne, where Wagner later lived and composed his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday gift to his second wife, Cosima. It was from Germany’s 1848 revolutions that Wagner had fled to  Switzerland, and from Leipzig, Wagner’s birthplace and a city which is  central to this year’s anniversary celebrations, the BBC’s Berlin correspondent Stephen Evans reports on the composer’s controversial place in German culture today.

 Other highlights:

Saturday Classics: 3.00pm, Saturday 18 May  
The great English operatic bass Robert Lloyd joins Radio 3′s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth with selections from his favourite Wagner operas.
Mastersingers of Nuremberg
Duration: 58 minutes: 1.00pm, Sunday 19 May  
Immortalised by Wagner in his famous opera, Lucie Skeaping looks back on the life and music of the real Hans Sachs and his fellow Mastersingers in 17th Century Germany.
Wagner and His World
At 12.00 pm throughout the week Donald Macleod explores the connections and relationships that helped establish Wagner as the most revolutionary musical thinker of the 19th century.  Includes:

Beethoven 1/5 Donald Macleod explores how Beethoven’s music heavily influenced Wagner: Monday 20 May
Weber and Bellini  2/5 Donald Macleod explores Wagner’s early love for the operas of Weber and Bellini: Tuesday 21 May
Meyerbeer and Palestrina 3/5 Donald Macleod explores how Wagner first cherished, then rejected, Meyerbeer’s influence: Wednesday 22 May
Liszt. 4/5 Donald Macleod explores the relationship between Wagner and Liszt: Thursday 23 May

One Winter’s Afternoon
8.00 pm, Sunday 19 May
The story of the great operatic rivalry between Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner in the year marking the bicentenary of their births. In real life, the two great composers never met.


There’s no denying the fact that Richard Wagner wrote some sublime music. But never forget this, either:

Wagner was a vicious anti-Semite and it permeated his music. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was Adolph Hitler’s favourite opera, as Wagner enthusiast Paul Mason recently pointed out.

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‘Blue And Sentimental’: it’s Herschel, not Pres!

May 3, 2013 at 6:02 pm (BBC, jazz, music, protest, wireless)

From Just Jazz magazine:

Three tenors: Herschel Evans (left), Eddie Miller (centre), Lester Young (right) in 1941

Lester Young? Surely not!

By James Hogg

You wouldn’t think anyone could mistake Herschel Evans for Lester Young, but BBC Radio 4 managed it in a recent ‘Archive on Four’ programme on the history of the saxophone. I understand that amongst those who spluttered into their Horlicks on hearing the howler was Wally Fawkes, who should be protected from such shocks.

The irony was that the presenter, Soweto Kinch, had reached a point in the programme where he wasa discussing with Courtney Pine the particular qualities that made Lester unique. And up comes the somewhat different sound of Herschel doing his featured number Blue And Sentimental. Producer’s clanger, definitely! The guilt of the two speakers has to remain ‘unproven’ because we don’t know whether they heard their words juxtaposed with the wrong recording or not.

The BBC has form in misidentifying Lester Young – incredibly for one of the most distinctive voices in all of jazz. Dave Green recalls a similar instance: “the ‘Archive on 4′ fiasco reminds me of a story that Humph once told me about Steve Race. Apparently Race played Humph a pre-transmission tape of a programme he had just done on Lester Young using one particular tune as an example of Lester’s Style – it may even have been Blue and Sentimental. Humph pointed out about half way through that it was a very good analysis, but the only problem was that it wasn’t Lester playing, it was Herschel Evans. Race’s response was: ‘Oh, it’s too late to do anything about it now, it’ll have to go out as it is’ – and it did.”

I suggest that in expiation Radio 4 should broadcast a whole programme on Lester Young entitled ‘Lester Leaps In – At Last.’

Fat chance.

JD adds: The great irony of this repeated misattribution of the tenor playing on Blue and Sentimental to Pres is that he and Herschel Evans were great rivals and competitors when they sat alongside each other in the sax section of the Basie band. Indeed, they were considered to represent polar opposites in tenor playing: Pres with his light, airy almost delicate sound, and Evans with a big, heavy, ‘muscular’ tone. Billie Holiday described the relationship between the two, thus: “Pres and Herschel Evans were forever thinking up ways of cutting the other one. You’d find them in the band room hacking away at reeds, trying out all kinds of new ones, anything to get ahead of the other one. Once Herschel asked Lester, ‘Why don’t you play alto man? You got an alto tone.’ Lester tapped his head, ‘There’s things going on up there, man,’ he told Herschel. ‘Some of you guys are all belly.’”

Compare and contrast Herschel’s playing on Blue and Sentimental (above, recorded 1938) with Pres playing Ghost of a Chance (below, recorded 1944):

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Peggy Lee: Is That All There is?

February 9, 2013 at 5:48 pm (BBC, Jim D, music, philosophy, song, Soul, wireless)

Radio 4′s excellent Soul Music series today dealt with Peggy Lee’s 1969 recording of ‘Is That All There Is?’, one of the strangest and most enigmatic chart hits ever.

Soul Music takes takes a piece of music or a particular performance, and simply carries interviews with people (some directly connected to the music/performance, others not) about what it means to them. It’s often very moving.

The interviewees today had very different interpretations of what the song, and Ms Lee’s performance, meant…

Hope or despair? For or against suicide? Existential angst or a simple statement that friends and family are all that really matter in the end?

One person we didn’t hear from was Peggy Lee herself: she died in 2002. But here’s what she wrote in her autobiography:

‘Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball,
If that’s all there is…’

I picked up the needle from the demo record on the turntable and said to Snooky Young, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’

‘Thats’s a weird song,’ he said. ‘You going to sing that?’

‘Yes, I think so. I can’t get it off my mind.’

‘Well, you do all those kind of arty songs and people seem to love them…’

I thought of ‘Don’t Smoke in Bed’ and a few others and remembered how I often had to fight to get to do things I believed in, but little did I know at the time what a battle I’d have with ‘Is That All There Is?’ Before this, its authors, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had written ‘I’m A Woman’, truly my cup of tea, and, of course, their huge success, Elvis Presley’s record of ‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’ (although I still think ‘I’m a Woman’ was more colourful, filled as it was with word-pictures, and it did swing).

When I came to record ‘Is That All there Is?’ there was resistance everywhere. They said it was too far out, they said it was too long, they said and they said … So I went to Glenn Wallichs with a demo record (something I hadn’t done before), and Glenn seemed embarrassed. ‘Peggy, you don’t have to play a demo, you helped build this Capitol Tower. You just record anything you want.’

Delighted to hear it, Jerry and Mike and I set about doing just that. Earlier, Johnny Mandel had brought me one of Randy Newman’s very first albums, telling me, ‘You’ll love this fellow,’ which I did, and asked him to write the arrangement. It turned out to be perfect for his style.

So now the record was made, our faith in it ran high — I couldn’t believe my ears when Capitol Records said they were turning thumbs down on it.

Is that all there is?

No, because, fortunately, there was a television show they wanted me to do, which I wasn’t keen about. Well, you know what I did. I said, ‘Yes, if you’ll release this record, I’ll do the show,’ and they agreed.

Hallelujah. It became a hit, went ‘across the board’, but that’s not all there is to it. It dramatized for me what my life had been and would continue to be, a struggle, sometimes for things more serious than a song, but the lesson was there — stick to your guns, believe, and more than you ever imagined can happen.

Wikipedia, however, states:

The song was inspired by the 1896 story Disillusionment (Enttäuschung) by Thomas Mann. The narrator in Mann’s story tells the same stories of when he was a child. A dramatic adaptation of Mann’s story was recorded by Erik Bauserfeld and Bernard Mayes …

One difference between the story and the song is that the narrator in Mann’s story finally has a sensation to feel free when he sees the sea for the first time and laments for a sea without a horizon. Most of the words used in the song’s chorus are taken verbatim from the narrator’s words in Mann’s story.

Judge for yourself:

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‘Tombstone’: Radio 4′s Book of the Week

October 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm (BBC, China, history, Jim D, stalinism, terror, wireless)

‘I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my foster father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book’ - Yang Jisheng

BBC Radio 4′s Book of the Week is Tombstone, Yang Jisheng’s shocking, almost unbelievable account of the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’ of 1958-62, the biggest manmade disaster in history. The author saw his own foster father die of hunger in 1959 (described in episode 2), but as a member of the Communist Youth League at the time, did not blame either Mao or the Party.

Mao’s crazy policy of unrealisable industrial tragets in the town and forced collectivisation in the countryside was driven by no more than the desire to outstrip Moscow (ie:Khrushchev) as the supposed leadership of international “Communism.” It resulted in mass starvation, cannibalism and terror. Those who dared question the policy were denounced as “right-deviationists” and “counter-revolutionaries” and suffered torture and death. The top echelons of the Party remained silent. Twenty years later Deng Xiaoping said, “During the Great Leap Forward, was it only Mao Zedong who was so fanatical and none of the rest of us? Neither Comrade Liu Shaoqi nor comrade Zhou Enlai nor I opposed him.”

The greatest manmade disaster in history? If you doubt it, listen in every morning this week at 9.45 am or catch the 12.30 pm repeats. Or read the book itself. Here’s a flavour:

A 41-year-old woman, Pan Suhua, in March 1960, dug up the body of her husband after he had committed suicide, and apart from cooking and eating his flesh, sold 5.875 kilograms of his bones as bear bones at 75 fen per kilogram.”

“In the spring of 1960, a four-member family had been reduced to just the mother and her emaciated daughter. Driven to madness by starvation, the woman killed her daughter and cooked her flesh to eat, after which she became completely deranged and repeatedly cried out her daughter’s name.”

“When [the brigade leaders] went inside they saw something being cooked in a wok, and when they raised the lid they saw it was human flesh. The wok contained an arm that still had a hand attached, from which I could see that it had come from a child.”

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‘Payback’: Radio 4 play on The Yom Kippur War

September 15, 2012 at 3:50 pm (BBC, drama, Egypt, history, Jim D, Middle East, Syria, United States, USSR, war, wireless)

I’ve just been listening to Jonathan Myerson‘s ‘Payback’ on BBC Radio 4. It has a superb cast (including Henry Goodman as Kissinger, Peter Marinker as Nixon, Sara Kestelman as Golda Meir and Kerry Shale as Al Haig and Simcha Dinitz) and demonstrates considerable historical and psychological insight. It’s about the October 1973 ‘Yom Kippur War’ when Egypt and Syria launched an attack to recover the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and very nearly succeeded. The play concentrates on the interaction between the war and Richard Nixon’s increasingly desperate efforts to fend off an investigation into Watergate and the release of the tapes. The behind-the-scenes negotiations/shadow-boxing  between Kissinger and the USSR (in the form of Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin)  is also dealt with very convincingly.

Yom Kippur War

Despite the deadly serious subject matter, there’s some grim humour in Myerson’s script, mainly provided by Nixon’s brilliantly scatalogical and scurrilous use of language, especially when describing enemies and fairweather friends.

The political repercussions of the Yom Kippur War were almost as vast as those of the 1967 War and are necessary for any informed understanding of the Middle East and, indeed, the world, today.

This is radio drama at its best. If you have an hour to spare (and if you haven’t – make one!), listen and learn. Or you can download it from here (Amazon, I’m afraid). Essential listening for anyone interested in recenty history and contemporary politics - or who just enjoys superb radio drama.

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Charlotte Green’s greatest moment

September 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm (BBC, comedy, Jim D, Sheer joy, wireless)

As the nation mourns the departures of Harriet Cass and Charlotte Green from Radio 4, let us remember Ms Green’s greatest broadcasting moment, the “Abby Mann” incident, allegedly caused by fellow Today programme presenter James Naughtie describing the world’s first sound recording in the previous item as “like a bee buzzing in a bottle.” Ms Green immediately apologised to the family of Mr Mann.

I have searched in vain for a recording of Ms Green’s other - equally great - moment, the “Jack Tuat” incident (which I remember hearing at the time). If anyone can track that down, please let me know.

In the meanwhile, here’s Ms Green’s tormentor Naughtie talking about the man who’s now the health secretary:

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