Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Who cares: fandom, and letting go

Although I write mostly about music - and more often than not the classical variety - on this blog, I do like to try and represent all of my cultural/creative interests at least to some extent. Which is why you lucky, lucky people also get treated to my photography, say, or my occasional write-ups of art exhibitions. Television rarely gets a look-in, but anyone close to me in the real world will know I've been a 'Doctor Who' nut for all my sentient life. So it's impossible for me to resist writing about the recently-announced new Doctor... I hope you will trust me to negotiate the minefield as best as I can.

For any readers unfamiliar with 'Doctor Who'... er... well, where do I start? It's a British science-fiction TV show, broadcast on the BBC, that started in 1963. The brilliant opening premise was that the lead character (usually called just 'the Doctor', but 'Doctor Who' gets used, too) was a being, not of this Earth, whose spaceship was also a time machine. In line with the old-school BBC remit to educate as well as entertain, this meant that he - and whoever was travelling with him - could go to a distant planet in one story, then a known historical event in the next. Wherever they landed, there would be problems to be solved, wrongs to be righted, people to be saved. The possibilities were endless.

I would guess that two key decisions in the programme's early days sealed what we'd now probably call its immortality. First, there was a weekly cliffhanger - even between the end of one story and the start of the next - to keep the youthful Saturday tea-time audience in suspense for a whole week. Then, three years into the series, it became clear that the ailing actor playing the Doctor, William Hartnell, would need to retire. In possibly one of the most inspired ideas ever in the history of TV, the show's writers reasoned that - as an alien (a 'Time Lord', to be exact) - there was no reason why the Doctor couldn't have several lives, and 'reboot' himself into a new actor - at the time, second Doctor Patrick Troughton. This came to be known as 'regeneration', and because of it, 'Doctor Who' has been going in one form or another ever since. Because the current Doctor 'dies' (usually after a particularly extreme or emotionally resonant sacrifice), regenerations have always been surrounded by publicity. Equally, the next Doctor is an entirely new incarnation and the actor can bring whatever they like to the role, giving the show regular fresh starts and shots in the arm.

The version of the show as most people know it now has been going since its triumphant re-launch in 2005. One TV movie aside, it had been off the air since cancellation in 1989, but its astonishingly loyal fanbase (and I include myself here!) had always kept the show 'alive' through their insatiable appetite for video and DVD releases, novels and audio dramas, often starring original Doctors and companions.

The 'new' version of the show kept the old one's continuity - so it kicked off with the Ninth Doctor (rather than a new 'First'). Leaving aside film spin-offs, parodies and so on, there have been twelve 'official' Doctors, plus, well, an extra one. I'm going to list them because they all share the credit for the show's longevity. Also, you may notice a couple of things they all have in common.
  • Doctors 1 to 7 (the 'old' series): William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy.
  • Doctor 8 (the mid-90s TV movie): Paul McGann.
  • The 'War Doctor' (an incarnation between 8 and 9 that we met in flashback, so to speak): John Hurt.
  • Doctors 9 to 12 (the 'new' series): Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi.
As 'Doctor Who' mythology has grown (obviously you can build up a hell of a lot of back story in 50 years), so have people's perceptions of what the show could or should represent. Every Doctor up to and including Capaldi has been a white man. Since the Doctor is a shapeshifting alien, some folk have been asking for some time why we've yet to have a female Doctor, or Doctor of colour. And now - at last - we can put one of those questions aside for a while at least, with this week's announcement that Jodie Whittaker will take over as the 13th Doctor when Peter Capaldi regenerates his way out of the series this Christmas.

(Photo of Jodie Whittaker is by Colin Hutton, copyright the BBC.)

Changing the sex of the Doctor might not seem very controversial to a casual observer, and God knows, in this day and age it shouldn't be. Yet here we are. Reactions have been, shall we say, 'wide-ranging' - some easier to classify than others. Clearly, there is sexism in SF fandom (as there is everywhere) - those people moaning that the Doctor simply 'is' a man, without really articulating why they object, are openly sexist full stop, or struggling with a sexist impulse they may or may not be able to recognise within themselves. What doesn't help is the extremity of some of these reactions - they'll 'never watch again', or even more bewilderingly, 'their childhood has been ruined' - as if Whittaker's Doctor really CAN travel back in time and retrospectively make their young lives a misery. But not all the reactions are so easy to explain, or so clear-cut. I was interested to see responses lamenting that the Doctor would still be white. I was also curious to see far more women than I expected lambasting the gender change and using much the same language as the chaps when doing so. Luckily, by far the most numerous reactions I saw were just thrilled by the whole idea. I don't think Whitaker will want for support when she takes over.

It is a strange circumstance that a kids' TV show is expected to carry all this on its shoulders. If the writers hadn't come up with regeneration all those years ago, the issue wouldn't even be there to discuss. And because the show is so ancient, its earlier years in particular bear all the sexist hallmarks you'd rather wish it didn't - not only is the Doctor always a bloke, the companions are mostly women who had to do a lot of screaming in between having things aliensplained to them. Attempts were occasionally made to get away from this. A female Time Lord called Romana travelled with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor, even regenerating herself from Mary Tamm into Lalla Ward. And before that, Third Doctor Jon Pertwee's first series, to my mind, is a wonderful anomaly from start to finish - longer, more complex stories overall, in some cases lasting for 7 weeks, with a scientist Liz Shaw (played by Caroline John) as the Doctor's companion - with the two characters developing a healthy mutual respect. But this was seen as a failed experiment and for the next series, the more 'traditional' Jo Grant (Katy Manning) was introduced. At least, to the writers' partial credit, the Doctor was openly annoyed by Liz's departure.

But no-one that today's show is actually aimed at are like me, getting all misty-eyed about the early 70s. Many children watching Who will just drift in and out of it as they please, and like all us 'old' fans, will probably remember 'their Doctor' - man, woman, animal, vegetable, mineral - with the most affection. People of my vintage who for some reason have been glued to this show for decades - not just 'fans', perhaps, but 'The Fans' - are surely a little different, and the ludicrous reactions to major change in the programme say, I think, far more about fandom than they do about 'Doctor Who'.

Because this is the risk, the terrible investment of being a Fan, isn't it? We put so much of our hopes, our dreams, our lives into the thing we obsess about, that we want it to go on reflecting those parts of ourselves back to us. (And this applies to anything it's possible to become geeky about - I don't want any reader getting all sneery over this devotion to a TV show, because you see EXACTLY the same thing in opera fandom, for example, or any artistic genre or discipline.) For the most seriously afflicted (and I think I've managed to largely dial myself back from this), it becomes harder and harder to actually like what you love - your vast knowledge and carefully amassed bank of opinions put you into 'judgement' mode ahead of a more simple 'enjoyment' setting... and breaking out of that spiral is so hard. There are those who haven't enjoyed a single episode of Who in about three or four years - they don't like the current showrunner, say - but still struggle on as eternally-suffering Fans. You just want to say - relax. You're clearly not a fan anymore. It doesn't matter - let it go. So easy to say. So difficult to do.

I've nearly fallen into this trap. Back when Peter Capaldi was cast (a move that itself was 'weighted' at the time against ageism accusations - Tennant and Smith had very much cemented the idea of the 'young' Doctor), there had been speculation about a woman taking over the role. For the time being, this would remain just a notion. I wrote a post, just thinking through what I made of this. First and foremost, I love the show so much that I knew if they cast a woman, I'd be totally on board - seeing what the showrunners and new Doctor would do would just be utterly irresistible. But because of my 'old fart' fan status, I also saw the issue in term's of the show's continuity - as if that matters a jot. Lalla Ward's Romana had left the show in the late seventies by going off into an alternative universe to have her own adventures. I speculated that instead of casting a woman in a role that had been played by 12 men - which could be seen as tokenistic and force her into a performance that somehow had to reflect their 'maleness' (most Doctors have had moments when they reflect or refer to older versions of themselves), how would it be if we had a spin-off following up Romana's story, which would carry none of the same baggage?

A few years down the line, I realise how daft that is. (Although I'd still watch it!) The programme makers, clearly sensing a change was long overdue, have carefully laid the groundwork for it. In a guest return appearance, Paul McGann's Doctor was offered a choice of genders to regenerate into - and in Capaldi's tenure we've had a female incarnation of the Doctor's arch-enemy the Master (Missy, superbly played by Michelle Gomez as a kind of Satanic governess), as well as a military general on the Doctor's home planet switch sexes on regeneration.

By taking that kind of care over the internal workings of the programme, the showrunners are looking after us - the old-timers, the 'Fans'. They're being nice - but listen, we don't matter. Not anymore. We're the viewers from yesterday, not today. Today's kids - all those girls, as well as boys - the Doctor belongs to them all. (S)he is TV's ultimate role model, whose sole mission is to do good wherever - and whenever - it's needed. How second-rate my old idea was - giving the woman a spin-off. How embarrassing.

Now that it's actually happening - the new Doctor IS a woman - I only have to register and acknowledge how excited I am about the whole scenario to realise that they've finally done what needed to be done. Of course, she has to be the Doctor herself - the main event, the hero. Anything else would be 'less', and nothing less will do. Jodie Whittaker is a great choice, too, I believe - yes, she's been fantastic in everything she's done so far, but she also has the Doctor-ish quality of combining a slightly off-kilter CV which prevents anyone pinning her down or stereotyping her, with a certain element of mystique: a feeling that we don't yet know what she's capable of. Rightly or wrongly, we are asking her to be a pioneer: but in fact, isn't the truth simply that she's perfect for the role?

I still don't want this to be tokenistic. I am a firm believer that creative people should be allowed to do what they like, but I hope for several things: 1 - I hope they don't fall over themselves to try and 'explain' the change: we've seen it a couple of times now, it happens, let it be 'normal', so that JW is 'the Doctor', rather than 'a female Doctor'. 2 - Keep casting women: people who refuse to get used to the idea need to get used to it. 3 - And of course, surely the Doctor will be non-white one day, too.

Only a matter of time.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Music for a smile

A short while ago, a friend suggested I create a 'cheerful' playlist. Never one to sidestep a musical challenge, I threw myself into the task - and fairly quickly came upon some interesting conundrums ('conundra'?). Or perhaps dilemmas. ('Dilemmae'?)

As I think most people who've ever tried to write songs can testify, it comes more naturally to use the form to exorcise heartache, let off steam, or make protest. Trying to produce something genuinely happy - especially if it involves lyrics - can all too easily result in overly sentimental gloop or gush. The line between affability and naffability is a thin one.

We can all appreciate the more complex, forward-looking work of the later Beatles - but somehow bottling the brio of 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'Can't Buy Me Love' ... surely these are achievements just as magnificent and unknowable.

During my researches (among both the records I owned, and beyond), I surprised myself over and over at our seemingly innate resistance to upness. How the best 'summer' songs - 'Summertime', 'California Dreamin', 'The Boys of Summer' - are actually wintry in tone, wistful, even slightly sinister. Or there's Abba, whose brightness of sound and unstoppable melody generally smuggled heroically dark and miserable verses into your subconscious.

So happy hats off to my 'Feelgood Fifteen' below. I think all of these tracks are genuine providers of fuss-free, good cheer. To me, the pop songs nail a celebratory, catchy tone but avoid flirting with teeth-clenching horror. I found an upbeat Schubert song that isn't about drinking (and seeing the slightly scary pianist Sviatoslav Richter unmistakeably rocking out during the performance is an added grin inducement). Some of the tracks, especially the instrumentals, aim to provide uplift - not only with a tune that lightens the mood, but with an energy rush - a sense of purpose. And, with one of my favourite songs of all time to finish, a gentle note of real confidence and hope.

Please enjoy responsibly!


Tegan & Sara: 'U-Turn'

Herbie Hancock: 'Watermelon Man'

The Move: 'Fire Brigade'

'Return of the Saint' Opening Theme

The Trammps: 'Disco Inferno'

Marc-André Hamelin: Gigue from 'French Suite, no.5' (Bach)

Elbow: 'Magnificent (She Says)'

Crowded House: 'World Where You Live'

Booker T & the MGs: 'Fuquawi'

Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Sviatoslav Richter: 'Fischerweise' (Schubert)

Belle and Sebastian: 'Wrapped Up In Books'

AC/DC: 'Rock 'n' Roll Train'

Penguin Café Orchestra: 'Heartwind'

P J Harvey: 'Good Fortune'

Sally Timms & Jon Langford: 'I Picked Up The Pieces'

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Soul music: 'Gerontius' at the Southbank

Let's hear it once again for the singers and players of English National Opera (ENO). Following the recent positive news that the company has now been restored to the Arts Council's National Portfolio, hopefully more stable times are ahead for the Chorus and Orchestra after what must have been a seemingly endless spell of uncertainty.

That said, the ensemble seem to have responded to ENO's behind-the-scenes issues by giving increasingly thrilling and unforgettable performances - not just as part of the regular season but in a series of 'breakout' events. These have taken them out of the confines of their home venue - the London Coliseum - and potentially to new, inquisitive audiences. They took an English version of Brahms's German Requiem on a brief tour of London churches. More recently, they organised and performed two short operas for the ENO Studio Live project: small in scale, large in ambition, 'The Day After' (read my write-up here) and 'Trial by Jury' showed off to perfection their talent, enthusiasm and versatility. Given in an auditorium carved out of a large space in their West Hampstead rehearsal studios, ENO Studio Live - which we're promised will return next year - brought a kind of rogue, maverick sensibility entirely in keeping with the company's expertise and objectives: accessible, engaging material that still stimulates and challenges the eyes, ears and mind.

Last weekend, they presented something different again: Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius', performed at the Southbank Centre as part of its choral festival. Part of the publicity blurb referred to its being 'staged'... which was perhaps the wrong word to pick: but more of that later.

'Gerontius' does not normally have a staging of any kind. It's a choral work, but certainly not an opera and not even really an oratorio (like the 'Messiah'). Its dramatic impetus, so to speak, is of a man's journey through death into the afterlife - namely judgement, purgatory and the promise of eternal life. (Elgar took extracts from a longer poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman for his text.) However, at the same time, it seems to combine spiritual meditation with ecstatic imagination.

In the first, shorter part, the dying Gerontius is surrounded by 'assistants' (his friends and attendants) and he is blessed by a priest. As he 'crosses over' and the work moves to its longer second section, the same double chorus return as choirs of angels and demons, and the Angel of the Agony intercedes for Gerontius's soul to pass through purgatory into heaven. Both the priest and Angel of the Agony are written for low male voice - while they could be portrayed differently, most productions cast the same person. This seems telling: Gerontius is fading into unconsciousness in part 1, and is a disembodied Soul in part 2 (he can't see the cackling demons). He doesn't look, he listens. Perhaps this is why Elgar wrote a purely choral work: it's a 'vision', but for ears, not eyes, with Gerontius seeking some continuity into the next world (at one point, he hears his praying friends' voices amid the celestial chorus).

However, he's not alone, as his heavenly guide - the Angel (not 'of the Agony' this time) - steers him towards glory. The work builds and builds until Gerontius undergoes judgement - a momentary encounter with God - in an overwhelming orchestral climax, soothed by the Angel's gentle promise to return for him when his purgatory is over. As befits this reconciliation between suffering and paradise, Elgar's music makes anguish beautiful, the contrast between moments of quiet and resounding, overlapping waves of harmony (or dissonance) keeping the listener both riveted and comforted. 100 or so minutes - no interval - felt more like ten.

I thought this performance had the feel of a real event to it - certainly it was a celebration of all things ENO. The excellent soloists were all familiar to me from ENO productions first and foremost: Gwyn Hughes-Jones (Gerontius) a winning Walther in 'Mastersingers', Patricia Bardon (Angel) so powerful in the title role of 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' and Matthew Rose's tender Marke in 'Tristan'. Each made their mark fully on the work this evening: GHJ a sustained sense of wonder and resolution; PB's warm voice like a balm for the senses - and absolutely unforgettable work from MR, especially in his first appearance as the Priest, somehow harnessing a typically tender, sensitive interpretation to a resounding volume that seemed to make the hall itself expand.

ENO's Orchestra, under renowned conductor Simone Young, and as ever the mighty Chorus - here forming a kind of super-group with the fine BBC Singers - did what they do so well on the operatic stage: become characters as necessary (here ranging from angelic to satanic), inhabit the material as individuals or groups, while remaining fearsomely tight as a whole unit.

Finally, a few words about the 'staging', which - to be honest - wasn't. ENO didn't force any extra narrative or unlooked-for interaction between the soloists. More accurately, it was a lighting concept - conceived by the designer Lucy Carter. Essentially, the visuals were restricted to a bank of lights looming over the stage, directing precision beams or rays at various participants at crucial moments. Of course, what this actually meant was that for most of us, the experience was one of darkness, rather than light. We couldn't read the text in our programmes, which I rather liked: in the same way as when ENO Studio Live dispensed with surtitles, it forced you to focus on the words as they are sung, and surrender more fully to the music. Arguably, a more conventionally-lit 'straight' performance would have included more visual distractions than this pared-down limbo (appropriately enough).

The opening seconds were supremely effective - as a single beam shone down on Young, ready to begin... as if a sacred energy was about to be channelled through the conductor to the orchestra and singers. After that, it did take me a good 5 or 10 minutes to get used to it - but I found my efforts were rewarded. I rather enjoyed - in the absence of following a text - the way we were 'directed' to look at the chorus as they were variously characterised by ultra-violet or white light, seeming to ignite their white shirts. Tumultuous instrumental passages were accompanied by beams ranging across the orchestra. I'd be interested to know if anyone with synaesthesia in the audience felt that these colours complemented, or contradicted, what we were hearing.

But just as Gerontius is taken from life, this visual treatment took us from the concert hall. It wasn't a classical concert, Jim, as we know it. It did feel like a kind of suspension, with the swirling music pressing down on us, or propping us up.

I've seen some social media discussion since where some folk have been rather dismissive of a 'staging' (or what you will) like this. I won't name names or anything: these are all people I respect and admire, and that fact that I don't agree on this particular issue doesn't change that one iota. But the recurring themes were along the lines of: It's not an opera/oratorio - it doesn't need this kind of treatment, why do it? It was never intended to be performed this way. All stagings of choral works along these lines are hopeless. And so on.

*Sigh*. Sometimes I do think it would be nice to think in these kinds of absolutes, but I just can't do it. For a start, I think the question of how works are 'intended' to be performed is highly nuanced - particularly since you cannot assume anything about a composer's non-existent 'future' - the whole "if Mozart was around today, he'd be writing techno!" business. I like to think he would give it a go, but we just don't know. The situation is impossible to construct. Anyone writing operas before the age of recording 'never intended' us to listen at home without any acting or scenery. Anyone writing on early instruments 'never intended' us to play their pieces on modern ones. But we just disregard all of this: partly because it suits us, but partly - surely - because the music comfortably survives these variations.

If we can have concert-only performances of operas, I don't see why we can't have visually innovative versions of 'Gerontius'. We don't know if Elgar would approve or not, and it doesn't matter. Traditional performances of the work will always take place, as I hope this one will again - plenty of room for both.

ENO, in particular, looks to engage and stimulate its public. Just like ENO Studio Live presented opera with an almost punk sensibility - not just in style but in circumstance - so this 'Gerontius' touched on aspects you might associate with theatre or cinema, or perhaps a rock gig, where such lighting is the norm. This can only enhance interest from people who might not want a classical concert in pure classical concert form. Before anyone lets their pince-nez drop in horror, I'm not talking about the dreaded 'dumbing down' cliché, or starting each symphonic performance with the conductor shouting 'Good evening, Barbican!'

The way to embrace a newly-intrigued audience is, I'm convinced, not to radically change everything about what you do - but to illuminate why what you do is not so very different. ENO and co did not 'add' to Elgar's masterpiece anything that wasn't already there in the music - but they laid it out before us, gave it a new dimension, identified a way of seeing and hearing 'Gerontius' that guarantees some of us will be talking about the performance's power for some time to come. Keep doing this, ENO.