The Hour: series 2, episode 5

“Cut you to your core, you’ll find news running through your spine.”

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Catch up on last week's instalment here

There’s something so delicious about the way The Hour keeps its viewers privy to a substantial slab of its plot all the way along. Of course, the revelations are skilfully spaced out through the episodes, but writer Abi Morgan mostly allows us a glimpse of what’s to come, meaning that you are on the edge of your seat for more details while also revelling in that oh-so-satisfying “I knew it all along” feeling. It’s a very difficult balance to achieve - you neither want that hackneyed horror film trope of keeping your audience so frustratedly in the dark they can literally only see to the edge of the light thrown by the protagonist’s torch, but nor do you want them to switch over, bored because the ending is so obvious from the beginning. This, the penultimate episode of the series, demonstrated just how perfectly The Hour has got this balance right.

Mr Cilenti. Photograph: BBC

For instance, we’ve known for a while that Soho nightclub impresario Mr Cilenti was a bad lot, and that eventually he was going to do something to force the staff of The Hour to pursue him openly. And so he did - but this being The Hour and all that, we got a double whammy of seedy escapades. Not only did he most likely order the murder of one of his dancers because she had been speaking to journalists, he also hosted and participated in a meeting enabling pro-nuclear politicians to profiteer outrageously from the nuclear arms race. All the while, Bel and Freddie struggle and squabble over their guilt about their source’s death and their naked excitement at the potentially huge political scoop - the personal and the political forever chasing each other around the script, indelibly intertwined.

Episodes that don’t actually build up to the airing of the eponymous news programme itself have tended to feel a little slower and less intense, but this one neatly sidestepped that problem by climaxing with the raid on Cilenti’s club, El Paradis. Commander Stern (remember him?) seems to have belatedly decided to face up to his own wrongdoing and start behaving like an honourable man again, sending his coppers into raid the club, arresting Cilenti for the murder of his dancer and many of the other girls for soliciting. The whole sequence - policeman and patrons running everywhere, tables overturning, lamps smashing to the floor, Stern himself shattering a mirror with a truncheon only to find incriminating photos spilling out from behind it - was set to a brilliant and frenetic jazz soundtrack. For me, it was the best bit of the series so far (narrowly beating the opening shot of this very episode, where a horizontal, tousled Ben Whishaw woke up in his brilliantly-lit bedroom).

We’ve also known for a while that Hour presenter Hector was ripe for poaching by the programme’s ITV competitor, Uncovered. In this episode, he finally receives a concrete offer from them, and appears inclined to accept - but not, as we might previously have assumed, because of the money or the status, but because of his wife. Marnie is making quite a hit with her cookery show - the line “rumour has it she gets more fanmail than Noddy” was one of my favourites from this episode - and the station has high hopes of them becoming a popular presenting duo. Having already disappointed her by his adultery and drinking, Hector now seems to have decided he must defer to her professionally to make amends (particularly as he seems to think it’s his fault they haven’t been able to conceive a child). Later, we get confirmation from Marnie that his neglect of their relationship inspired her career zeal: “Success is the best revenge. Don’t waste yourself on anything else” she tells her husband’s erstwhile lover, Kiki. After the way he's behaved, it's hard not to feel like she's entirely justified in that feeling.

Journalists, on the trail of wide-ranging corruption, blend in by drinking martinis. Photograph: BBC

It took Bel a while in this episode to rediscover her inner campaigning journalist - to begin with, she was consumed with guilt about their source’s death and felt they should stop pursuing Cilenti because of it. But, as he always has, Freddie was able to bring her out of her cautious producer shell and remind her of her vocation. He does it in a characteristically blunt way: “She’s dead. I’m sorry. It’s not right. It’s very far from right. But we’re journalists. It’s what we do.” By the end, she’s even ditched her ITV bloke to join Freddie to dig around for evidence at the club. Although that may also have had something to do with the fact that Freddie almost-but-not-quite declared his undying love for her as they stood arguing about the merits of the investigation in the fog outside the BBC studios. My one source of frustration with an otherwise exemplary episode emerged here - Freddie’s wife Camille has conveniently disappeared and he now declares things to be “over” with her. After her brief, and often trouserless, tenure on the show, it would seem that she was always just a clumsy plot device to needle Bel - nothing more.

The best line of all, though, was reserved for Peter Capaldi’s Randall, who declared: “No man is sane who doesn’t know how to be insane on the proper occasions. Madness is a prerequisite for a good journalist.” Previously so quietly self-contained, we got a glimpse of the steely, slightly unhinged newshound that Lix fell in love with during the Spanish Civil War, here. He did some excellent journalism, chasing government apparatchik McCain down and expertly playing him for the location of the corrupt politicians’ meeting - managing somehow to disdain the very idea of blackmail while sort of doing some at the same time. Then, after a disappointing trip to the French embassy to try and discover more about their long-lost daughter, he crumbles, holding his head in his hands as he drinks with Lix. She sits next to him, reaches for his hand and puts it on her knee before leaning her head into his in unbelievable intimacy. “That’s a start,” he says, hoarsely.

Unfortunately, devastatingly, it’s also approaching an end, there being only one more episode of this series. The scheduling gods at the BBC have had mercy on us though - we only have to wait until this evening, rather than another week, for the denouement.

I'll be blogging final episode of "The Hour" tomorrow - check back then for the last instalment, or bookmark this page

Hannah Tointon as Soho dancer Kiki DeLaine. Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of 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