The Wrong Mans: James Corden laughing in the face of danger

“You know that what danger doesn’t do is call ahead . . . unless it’s the IRA.”

Can James Corden do it all over again? Image: Getty
 
What makes good television, in the end, often comes down to tone. Everything can be in place –writer, plot, cast, production values – but if the tone of the thing is uneven, careering all over the place like a girl in heels who’s had one too many negronis, then it’s probably sunk from the off.
 
The irony is that more and more television writers lately are turning out these weird hybrids – comedy dramas, mainly –which by their nature are almost certain to be uneven. Why? I’m baffled by it. When I’m crying, I don’t particularly want someone to tickle my chin and when I’m doubled up with laughter, I’d rather not have a bucket of freezing cold water chucked all over me.
 
The Wrong Mans (Tuesdays, 9pm) – awful title klaxon – is just such a hybrid: it’s a comedy thriller in six half-hour episodes by Mat Baynton and James Corden (Baynton was Deano in Gavin and Stacey but is probably best known, though not by me, as one of the stars of the children’s programme Horrible Histories).
 
I didn’t hate it – Baynton and Corden are good comedians and they’ve written themselves some funny lines – but all the same, I’m not sure that it quite works. Thirty minutes seems too short a time to accommodate both the tropes of a thriller and a tonne of jokes. I think they should have given themselves an hour, the better that the audience might get its ear in.
 
Sam (Baynton) and Phil (Corden) are employed by Berkshire County Council. Sam is a “town-planning and noise-guidance adviser”; Phil takes care of the office mail. They are both losers but this doesn’t make them friends, because if there’s one thing the self-respecting loser knows, it’s to stay away from blokes even more pathetic than himself.
 
Phil, who is lonely and a bit deluded, is always trying to be matey with Sam – when he drops off his post, he forces Sam to do the exploding fist bump –but Sam is resistant to his moves, refusing, like everyone else in the office, to sign up for any of the outings that he organises (paintballing, go-karting, curry club).
 
Sam, however, is increasingly vulnerable in the loser stakes. His girlfriend, Lizzie (Sarah Solemani), has dumped him and he is shortly to become embroiled with a bunch of Very Nasty People, having picked up a stray mobile at the scene of a car crash he witnessed. Phil, grasping all this, is about to seize the moment.
 
I liked the small things in this series: the way Phil’s pen is attached to his mail trolley, so that he ends up dragging it (the trolley, I mean) halfway up a wall when he adds Sam’s name to his go-karting list. I laughed out loud when, under pressure in a meeting, Sam came up with the slogan: “If you like James Cracknell, you’ll love . . . Bracknell.” But Phil’s phoney macho act – he’s a softie who still lives with his mum but he knows the script of the movie Fight Club by heart – is wearying after a while.
 
It’s a nice touch that he makes his own sushi, rolling it carefully in the mail room with one of those sheets of bamboo, and I did snigger when he said: “You know that what danger doesn’t do is call ahead . . . unless it’s the IRA.” I still had a weird feeling that Corden was playing a version of himself and it left me feeling slightly ripped off.
 
The series looks wonderful, expensive and moody and there are several amazing cameos in it (David Harewood, late of Homeland, appeared for a few bewildering seconds). All this just seemed rather wasteful in the circumstances: the script somehow doesn’t live up to it.
 
Will The Wrong Mans erase the memory of the ill-fated sketch show Corden made with Mathew Horne, another Gavin and Stacey alumnus? (Before I sat down to write this, I looked up my review of it – “as funny and as puerile as a sixth-form review, only without the benefit of in-jokes about your chemistry teacher’s BO” – and winced all over again.) I’m not sure. He probably does need a hit if he’s to be commissioned again. Then again, Corden has proved himself in so many other realms – onstage, in the right role, he is a genius – that it hardly matters if he isn’t able to turn out TV comedies the way a baker turns out warm loaves.
Can James Corden do it all over again? Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser