Gilbey on Film: are you sitting comfortably?

Our film critic on the pitfalls of a visit to the cinema.

 

I once foolishly attempted to joke with a fellow critic who made a habit of keeping his bag on the seat next to him at film previews, removing it only when the lights went down. "I bet you're the sort of person who buys out the entire row when you go to the cinema," I said. "I don't go to the cinema," he sneered back. Had it been possible to bottle his facial expression, you could have splashed it on your chips.

That anecdote epitomises a (hopefully fading) streak of elitism that once prevailed among critics. It also allows me to come out looking rather good, like some champion of the common punter. Recently, however, I have started to feel a twinge of sympathy for my former colleague's snobbish point of view.

Not that I would ever swear off visiting public cinemas. But for a while now I have found myself tensing slightly in the foyer, knowing full well that, for reasons unconnected with whichever film I am seeing, it will be a miracle if I leave a few hours later having had a satisfying experience. More likely, I will have paid a tenner to listen to other people's conversations, phone calls and heckles. On the rare occasions that I actually voice my objections, I then spend my time alternating between feelings of unhealthy self-righteousness and vague fantasies that I'm about to be "shanked", as I believe the modern parlance has it.

I wasn't surprised to hear this month of a 16-year-old boy imprisoned for attacking (with bleach) a woman who had asked him to pipe down during a screening of the latest Harry Potter film. The shock is that hostility doesn't erupt more often. Anyone who frequents multiplexes will know them to be often lawless domains where you always take your viewing pleasure, and sometimes your personal safety, in your hands.

(That said, I've never actually experienced violence in the cinema. Outside is another matter. In 1988, I got a black eye on the steps of the Woodford ABC after seeing Beetlejuice. I'm not sure what lessons I can take away from that, aside from "Beware of men in pastel knitwear and tassled leather shoes". But I didn't need a punch in the face to know that. If David Cameron had been lobbying for votes back then, he could have extrapolated a helpful lesson about Broken Britain.)

 

Down at the saloon bar

Reports last week that cinema admissions in the UK and Ireland have hit a seven-year high are encouraging, particularly given the competition from piracy, DVDs and subscription channels. But there is a disparity between this news and the often frustrating experience of watching films in the company of other people.

Is the answer to avoid multiplexes? These are, for most people, the most convenient sites, and in the best cases provide the only opportunity for viewers outside major cities to see the occasional foreign-language title or Bollywood spectacular.

One of the obvious problems is that not everyone has come to see the film; and if an audience is comprised of those who want to watch the movie and others for whom the on-screen action is a tiresome impediment to socialising, there's no compromise to be reached. Cinemas also make fairly cheap and convenient pit-stops at which children too old for actual crèches and too young yet to be sent up chimneys can be deposited while their parents or guardians get on with, I don't know, futures trading.

Not that I'm dissing the kids -- how could I, when I'm so down with their lingo? On the contrary, my own experience is empirical evidence to show that disrupting a movie is an equal-opportunities pursuit. Besides, the clientele is irrelevant. It's up to the cinema management to ensure that customers can watch the films in peace. After all, no restaurant in the land would tolerate patrons picking at fellow diners' plates.

The sorry truth for anyone who cares is that cinemas often don't (care, that is). The problem may be a cultural one rooted in the elision between public and private space. The absurdity of the extravagantly loud public phone conversation has already been milked dry by second-rate stand-up comics. (It's the new equivalent of: "Does anyone remember space hoppers/Spangles/Jamie and the Magic Torch?")

Suffice it to say that the same widespread erosion of discretion that allows people to make phone calls on crowded trains, broadcasting details of their recent test results, is also responsible for bringing to many cinemas the atmosphere of the saloon bar.

My local Cineworld already operates a zero-tolerance policy on food purchased off-site. However, an adjacent donut emporium makes it well worth investing in a Carb Coat -- that is, a deep-pocketed mackintosh that you don't mind getting smeared with maple frosting, or leaking jam.

Customers bringing their own grub, and bypassing the concessions counter, are a big concern because their habits eat into profits. Antisocial or inconsiderate behaviour that eats into our viewing pleasure is less problematic to the cinema chains . . . unless those of us who care make a point of going elsewhere.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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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