The Stuart Hall Project celebrates the cultural crusades of an important historian

Jonathan Brick on a new film about Stuart Hall, the lecturer and academic born in Jamaica who found a home in British academia but not Britain itself.

Stuart Hall lectured at the University of Birmingham and presented BBC programmes on behalf of the Open University. He also founded what would become the New Left Review. His views were informed and personal, and he constantly spoke and wrote about social change and international affairs in the postwar, postcolonial world.

John Akomfrah has used both his own appreciation for Hall and exhaustive footage and stills of him for this cinematic eulogy. Hall is shown to be a man of clear, thoughtful expression when given a platform to respond to big global events. Akomfrah has previously worked on films about Louis Armstrong and Malcolm X, and The Stuart Hall Project is an exploration of politics underscored cleverly by Hall’s beloved Miles Davis. Hall says the trumpeter “changed my soul” and forced him to move away from Jamaica.

“I was an outsider from the time I was born,” Hall says, calling himself a “twenty-first century man”, representative of the group of people who have mixed heritage. He is a man of many origins, “three shades darker than my family.” Hall seems in control of his own destiny from a very young age, as a reaction to his sister’s mental breakdown when she fell in love with a white doctor.

Hall ends up at Oxford, alluding to the “profound shock” of his new country. He was a black man in a Britain becoming more used to seeing former citizens of colonies arriving for jobs or education. By the end of his twenties, he says that he does not “belong anywhere any longer”. He chuckles when he spells out that he is a man of “many ‘routes’”.

With Homer and Joyce as literary guides, he throws himself into socialism, and into publishing magazines dedicated to discussing it, forming proofs on his knees. His fellow academics are important to him, but he has no real role models for his work. Cultural criticism, after all, sprouted in his era as a response to social change in Britain; one key term Hall uses is “interpenetration” which leads to cultural globalisation.

The BBC’s Panorama interviews him at The Partisan cafe, where he iterates that he is “angry”. He wrote pieces called ‘The Deep Sleep of England’ for the Universities & Left Review, in which he responded to Soviet struggles in Egypt and Hungary. We later see a still of him marching against the H-bomb, and hear him recall three years at CND meetings, calling on Britain to set a unilateral precedent for the UN.

The meetings gave him an appreciation of industrial northern Britain, which he shares in his broadcasts. Hall also speaks for those who simply had to escape their birthplace, with Akomfrah using footage of ships on sea. Throughout, the footage matches the narrative perfectly, and the layer of Davis’s modal jazz gives it an artful quality.

Akomfrah uses chapter headings such as ‘A Public Intellectual’ and ‘The Neo-Liberal Problem Space’ to construct his filmic essay and frame Hall’s recollections. Cuba and Ghana are examples of nations whose people fought to be “free not to be unequal.” In his adopted country, however, Hall reckons British politics cannot whip up its people; the old class society became a mass society and belatedly joined the new century.

The rock revolution, which Hall says brought adolescence into the public arena for the first time, leads to the stirrings of 1968, the rise of a “genuine underground” in “anti-adult” protests. By this time Hall is a professor, also pioneering film criticism as a subject for teaching. He lectured for the BFI and wrote the book The Popular Arts (1964); astutely, he recalls how drawn he was to films where the protagonist was on the move.

Hall experienced the racism of Birmingham’s denizens when he married a white woman. For “coloured” kids, as Hall terms them, “the vice of colour seems to entwine with aptitude and intelligence.” He seems more resigned than angry at this, as he describes the “muted optimism” for assimilation.

As Enoch Powell is shown marching off to work, Hall accuses the country of amnesia, provoking fear and alienation in the new arrivals. Thus the dream of assimilation is “buried on both sides.” Identity is writ large in his discussions, a “conversation” that can “never be traded away.”

He shows no real love of Britain in the film, choosing to praise concepts and ideals instead. When feminism makes itself known in the 1970s, he admires the “conviction in the head” held by its advocates. By the end of that decade, he had noted the lack of “particularity” in things, and is pessimistic both for the welfare state and Britain’s “multicultural drift”. As the film shows, sometimes it takes a relative outsider to bring home cultural truths, and Hall has been one of the most perceptive on the left to do so.

The Stuart Hall Project screens at the Curzon Renoir and the ICA from 6 September and BFI Southbank from 13 September

The Stuart Hall Project.
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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