Mad Men: season 5, episode 11

Female liberation: what would it take to make you a queen?

As the fifth season of Mad Men nears its conclusion and 1966 gives way to '67, we look back on a series that has largely done away with what was once its characteristic slowness, in which relationships would for the most part develop gradually and characters would reveal themselves, and their pasts, at a more glacial pace. It was inevitable that once many of the main protagonists' secrets - and more plainly, personalities - had come to light over six years, the show would have to compensate much of its intrigue-building for action. It appeared for a while that Season Five's narrative would be character based - here we have the Betty episode; now the Pete, then the Roger show - and one by one their public personas would seem more lacquered as the inner workings of every character were thoroughly and systematically mined.

But the writers of Mad Men are not so formulaic, and "The Other Woman", as much as any episode before it, invites our comparison between those three women it concerns. For all its shock happenings, too, it's an episode that develops themes from its previous one. In "Christmas Waltz" Jaguar was set up as the prize the agency has long desired, and that Don, for his own self worth, must achieve. Now it's not only the needed account, nor just the perfect symbol of American consumerism, but an unattainable woman - the other woman - "the mistress who'll do things your wife won't". Herb Rennet, the Head of the Dealership Association (with a name like an industrial farming product), calls it a "hot red number". But his eye isn't on the car - it's on Joan. She has become the material good: "You're talking about prostitution," she spits at Pete, who corrects her: "I'm talking about business at a very high level." Hence why she makes an appointment later to see him, and he confuses her "ability to perform" for the client with the creative's presentation. 

These two performances then play out simultaneously; we see Joan enter the man's hotel room wearing the fur stole Roger gave her in 1955, bought from a young Don Draper. It's a thoroughly depressing montage, with Don's narration on the worth of a beauitful object, the behaviour that would be forgiven for it - though in fact it's earlier, as Joan's initial fury at her male colleagues ebbs away, than we feel the most despair. Despite his Cleopatra allegory Pete is as foul as the client Herb, who has his own garbled tales of the Sultan of Arabia and Helen of Troy. And in their acceptance, once the price for her has been agreed, the other partners (bar Don) are just as implicted: Lane makes sure he needn't approach the creditors, Roger accepts but refuses to pay, and even Burt's "let her know she can still say no," presupposes Joan's consent. We recall Lakshmi from the previous episode, the Hare Krishna who has sex with Harry Crane "for the movement".  But it's a line of Don's, from when he visits Joan at her apartment, that rings out true: "If we don't get Jaguar, so what? Who wants to be in business with poeple like that?" The line is played twice - we hear Don speak it again when we learn his visit is too late. In her face there's the suggestion that Joan would have acted differently had she known Don was not complicit in the partners' barter. "You're a good one, aren't you?" she says to him. But the others in "the movement", this business she has just sold herself into, are not.

Joan's refusal to shake Pete's hand when she agrees to his offer strangely forshadow's Don's refusal to take Peggy's. Instead, in a most tender act, he kisses it for the longest time. Earlier in another reference to the prostitution of Joan, Don tells Peggy to get herself to Paris and throws money in her face. Now, he offers it sincerely to make her stay - but unlike for Joan, "there's no number" he can name. In the end she doesn't leave out of spite; it's "not a game"; she does it "for her career". And although she's moving on from the company, Peggy is still Don's protégé: doing what he would do, braving the future with a smile, and unresenting.

Which begs the question: will Megan, too, break free of Don when she finally gets a part in a broadway play? She already "comes and goes as she pleases," Ginsberg says, and in her audition dress Don he knows she acts for her confidence more than his pleasure. While Megan has sex with him in his office, her friend Julia helpfully acts another literal Jaguar, prowling on the boardroom desk. Which car is Megan: the Jaguar mistress, the beauty Don wishes to truly own? Or the wifely Buick, patiently parked in the garage?

Unlike Peggy, Megan says that between the man - Don - and her work, she would choose the man and resent him for it. Over the course of "The Other Woman" we see a group of women making a choice (though for Megan it is theoretical) against their heart and will, for the sake of their job. In Joan's case, as a single working mother, the notion of "choice" raises questions that persist to this day: how free is she in choosing not to buy for herself autonomy, in the form of a company stake at the cost of her body, that she would never otherwise be afforded? Is it altogether priceless, being made a queen?

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Peggy Olson in "The Other Woman". Credit: AMC

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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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