David Mitchell and Robert Webb in Ambassadors.
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Beheadings and Eccles cakes: David Mitchell and Robert Webb reunite in Ambassadors

Ambassadors reserves at least as much of its firepower for naive human rights workers, heritage fetishists in mob caps and those dreary dumbos who believe it’s no more difficult to export culture than it is to crate up a few bottles of HP Sauce.

Ambassadors
BBC2

I’m demented with love for Ambassadors, a new drama series (Wednesdays, 9pm) with funny bits, starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb. But I do wonder: how on earth did it get commissioned? It’s so hard to imagine the programme meeting. Jokes about central Asia? Jokes about human rights abuse in central Asia? And who cares about diplomats, anyway, with their entitled publicschool backgrounds, their special car number plates and their insulating imported supplies of Marmite and McVitie’s Digestives? My God, how I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that one, each relevant bottom shifting uncomfortably in its seat at the horrible conjunction of the words “beheading”, “vodka” and “Eccles cakes”.

Somewhere along the way, though, the writers, James Wood (Rev) and Rupert Walters (Spooks), obviously managed to penetrate the BBC’s Dome of Nervousness – a wobbly structure that was built by committee over a period of several decades – because their Kingsley Amis/Craig Murray mash-up is now a reality and going out in three hour-long episodes. Hooray!

Filmed on location in Turkey, it looks extremely convincing, all minarets, boulders and roads to nowhere. But it sounds even better – weird, black, learned and quite fiercely satirical (I can’t see Jack Straw putting it on his Sky Plus any time soon). The performances are slick and rather wonderful, particularly that of Webb, who is so superbly lizard-like in his role that you half expect a long green tail to emerge from his trousers and wrap itself around the nearest flagpole. That it sometimes made me laugh out loud was just the icing on the plov.

They eat a lot of plov, an Uzbek rice dish, in Tazbekistan, a country so remote and inhospitable that no member of HM Government is willing to visit it, not even when a $2bn helicopter contract is in the offing. In episode one, our man over there, Ambassador Keith Davies (Mitchell), had to try to bag the deal through his own efforts, something that was always going to be tricky, given that: a) he’s a bit of a plonker and b) the country’s president is a psychopathic dictator with a taste for butchery (animals and humans).

First, there was a hunting trip with His Excellency, a snow-bound fiasco that began with Davies accidentally shooting an ibex, the revered national animal of Tazbekistan, and which ended with him suffering from alcohol poisoning.

Then there was a calamitous “Best of British” reception at the ambassador’s residence: many chutneys were displayed, a group of Gloucestershire hippies played Englishe folke songes and a luvvie called Stephen Pembridge (Elliot Cowan), who’d arrived courtesy of the British Council, performed his one-man Frankenstein. (“Oh, not him,” said the American ambassador when she heard about the evening’s entertainment. “They put me through his Martin Chuzzlewit in Ankara last year, and it was longer than sorrow.”) Davies took one look at the gathering – “Hey, nonny nonny”, went the folkies, recorders tootling frantically – and said to his deputy, Neil Tilly (played by Webb): “It’s hardly the Great Exhibition, is it?” Hee.

The whole thing was essentially the madrigal scene from Lucky Jim, minus the knitted ties and sexual frustration (Tazbekistan is a conservative Muslim country but these rules, as ever, do not apply in Embassy Land). Neil, by the way, is the Murrayish figure (Craig Murray, you will recall, is a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and the author of the book Murder in Samarkand, which Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan once hoped to make into a film). In other words, he is a diplomatic cynic with a local girlfriend. He is also possibly about to go rogue; the Tazbekistanis are in possession of some dodgy photographs of him and will use them unless he spies for them.

There’s much to admire in Ambassadors. What marks it out, though, is its even-handedness. Of course it was always going to take aim at the Foreign Office, an organisation that somehow manages to be both sleazy and ludicrously superior (“Sniff the armpit, but no embarrassing Blair/Gaddafi handshakes,” says Davies’s boss from London, urging him to get closer to the president).

Yet happily Ambassadors reserves at least as much of its firepower for naive human rights workers, heritage fetishists in mob caps and those dreary dumbos who believe it’s no more difficult to export culture than it is to crate up a few bottles of HP Sauce. It’s a drama that is quietly attentive to reality, or at least to realpolitik, and this, for those of us growing weary of certain liberal doctrines, will come as something of a relief. To be enjoyed, without or without the Ferrero Rocher.

Rachel Cooke’s book “Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties” will be published by Virago on 31 October Books, page 73

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 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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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