The red carpet at the world premiere of Far From the Madding Crowd. Photo: Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images
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What would Hardy make of his Bathsheba barrelling past on the side of a bus?

Poor old Tommy-baby. His entire oeuvre, when you stop to consider it, seems like an illustration of Dostoevsky’s dictum: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”

A film director friend of mine once explained to me the wherefores of successful film distribution in Britain: “It’s all down to your T-sides, Will,” he maintained. “Get your T-sides sorted or it doesn’t matter how many screens you open on, you still won’t get the bums on seats.” I had no idea at the time what a T-side was, but ever since he told me I’ve seen them everywhere. Often a T-side will glide across my field of vision when I’m least expecting it – supplanting my view of the Holloway Road, for example, with the winsome spectacle of a giant Carey Mulligan, red-cheeked and wind-tousled against a Wessex backdrop.

Yes, a T-side is the T-shaped advertising space on the flank of a double-decker bus, and industry types assure me you can’t get a maddened crowd for Far from the Madding Crowd unless your distributor can outbid all the others clamouring for these valuable sites. There seems a compelling irony here when we consider that, despite the enormous success of Hardy’s novel in his lifetime (it first appeared as a serial and then went into four separate bound editions before he died, each one extensively revised), he remained repelled by the new mass culture that emerged in the late 19th century. In John Carey’s path-breaking revisionist cultural history The Intellectuals and the Masses, he quotes extensively from the journals Hardy wrote during the 1880s, when the writer was living in the leafy ­London suburb of Upper Tooting. Haunted by the proximity of the mighty city, Hardy felt he was being watched by “a monster whose body had four million heads and eight million eyes”.

But this wasn’t only a distant dehumanising prospect: the Great Romancer was equally revolted when he encountered the multitude up close and personally. At the British Museum he was nauseated by “crowds parading and gaily traipsing around the mummies, thinking today is for ever . . . They pass with flippant comments the illuminated manuscripts – the labour of years – and stand under Rameses the Great, joking. Democratic government may be justice to man, but it will probably entail merging [with the] proletarian, and when these people are our masters it will lead to more of this contempt, and possibly be the utter ruin of art and literature!”

Poor old Tommy-baby. His entire oeuvre, when you stop to consider it, seems like an illustration of Dostoevsky’s dictum: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” His novels usually pit the intelligent and – Alan Johnson, take note – aspirational individual against entrenched privilege; yet while inequality may maim a Jude or a Tess or a Gabriel, often what finishes them off is the ignorant prejudices of the yokel mob. Thus Hardy has it both ways: valorising the simple and homespun but simultaneously decrying the herd mentality of the benighted Wessex peasantry. I shudder to think how freaked out he’d be by these crowds of Bathsheba Everdenes and Gabriel Oaks gaily traipsing across towns on the sides of buses.

Still, he must have given permission for the first sale of the novel’s film rights – because there was an early silent adaptation in 1915, while he was very much alive; since then, we’ve had John Schlesinger’s 1967 take on this pastoral of necro-narcissism, a TV movie in the 1990s, and now the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has brought to the tale the same unvarnished sensibility he applied to his incest-shocker, Festen. The first screen Bathsheba was played by Florence Turner, the so-called “Vitagraph Girl” (after the studio whose movies she starred in). New York-born, Turner pursued a successful career on both sides of the Atlantic, on stage and screen, throughout the Teens and Twenties of the 20th century. As well as acting she wrote scripts, and played a part in directing and producing her own vehicles – so, not an instance of typecasting at all.

In Hardy’s novel the stolid sheep farmer Gabriel Oak is first ensorcelled by Bathsheba Everdene when she lies back on her horse as it trots through a tunnel formed by low tree boughs. It’s an arrestingly sexual image: the beautiful young woman undulating in time with the strong rhythmic movements of the large body upon which she lies prone. Hardy’s crowd-phobia was certainly shared by many of his contemporaries, but you don’t have to accept unreservedly the thesis described in John Carey’s book in order to understand its queered provenance. Like all the great writers Hardy was good at noticing things – and in particular he was good at noticing those involuntary human gestures that reveal our true animality.

Perhaps this is what he really feared: not the prejudices and warped taboos of human society, but the overpowering desires such a culture imperfectly restrains. We all like to separate ourselves off from the mob. It’s they who graze on popcorn and slurp on slushes of ice and sugared water. Their love is bestial – the beast-with-two-backs they make is subject to a geometric progression: first two beasts, then four, then eight, then a multitude. Our love, by contrast, is as pure and soft as one of Gabriel Oak’s newborn lambs; our thoughts as elegant and symmetrical as an arabesque. Which is why it doesn’t matter how many T-sides they get: when we see a madding crowd heading in one direction, we head in the other – together with our own maddening one.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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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