The BBC lacks the ambition to go the whole way

BBC2's Iraq War reviewed.

The Iraq War (BBC2) is brought to us from Brian Lapping and Norma Percy, who made The Second Russian Revolution (1991), The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), Israel and the Arabs (2005) and numerous other acclaimed documentary series on contemporary history. They are, without doubt, among the jewels in the BBC’s crown.

There was much to admire about Wednesday’s opening episode. It was like going back to a bygone age. A narrator rather than a celebrity presenter. No Paxman, no Marr, no Dan Snow. Just Alex Jennings reading a clear, thoughtful script written and re-written by the production team, just like serious history and current affairs programmes used to be made. Superb archive research by Declan Smith, the doyen of film researchers for over 20 years, including footage from Iraq I for one had never seen before. Interviews with many of the key players: Blair, Straw and Campbell, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, important figures from US intelligence and from Iraq. The narrative line was clear and full of drama.  The sense of pressure on all the decision makers was palpable. You could feel the clock ticking as Blair asked for more time to win over Parliament, at the same time as Powell wanted to double-check his sources, at the same time as the US military told the White House to make a decision before summer came.

A lot of information was packed into just under sixty minutes. None of this comes cheap and the series has been made with ten foreign organizations plus support from the MEDIA programme of the EU. My guess is that this is code for saying that the BBC put in too little but will preen themselves when The Iraq War wins the awards and acclaim it deserves. The devil, as always, is in the detail. In TV programmes it’s usually to be found in the end credits.

Norma Percy and her Executive Producers, Brian Lapping and Paul Mitchell, hit on a winning formula almost twenty-five years ago and like the Burns Brothers in America and Adam Curtis here, they have stuck with it.  In their case, it consists of chasing the key players and intercutting their testimony with great archive film and simple specially-shot footage which is relevant but not distracting. It’s high politics plus. Talk to the decision-makers about who said what and to whom. That’s it.

It’s churlish to be critical but several curious points arose (or should have but didn’t). First, critics of the war will argue that Blair and Cheney, in particular, were given a soft ride. What about "the sexed-up dossier"? Why were the politicians and their advisers (at Westminster, in Congress and at the UN) so easily fooled by the security services and who set their agenda? One strange line stood out in the commentary: "Western intelligence agencies had gathered thousands [sic] of reports, using both human and electronic sources, and most of them pointed to the same conclusion [ie that Saddam had WMD]." "Thousands" of sources is a fascinating phrase. What were they? Could we have an example? Who produced them? Much of the evidence discussed had a Keystone Cops feel. Did these other sources? "Most of them pointed to the same conclusion". How many is "most"? Indeed, how many is ‘thousands’?

The second point is the elephant in the room. Except just once when we got a tantalising mention. But only once. An Iraqi general was interviewed and described an insane speech by Saddam about how the Iraqi army would destroy the American forces and then go on to Palestine and liberate Jerusalem. This was the only time in the whole programme that we got a sense of how mad Saddam was, how completely out of touch with reality. The British and Americans had no illusions about this and where this could lead – had led - with weapons of mass destruction against Iranians and Kurds.  

But the really interesting point is about liberating Jerusalem. It is the only reference to Israel in the whole programme. But surely Israel was crucial to the Iraq War as it is to anything that happens in the area from Egypt to Iran. Israeli intelligence must have had something to say about WMD but no Israeli was interviewed in the programme.  Whether or not Blair (or anyone else) ever thought Saddam’s missiles could hit London, we know from the First Gulf War that they could probably hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. How did that influence the discussions about attacking Iraq? Apparently, no one was asked. Once one big thing is missed out you start to wonder what else was never asked.

As always this was a London/Washington view of the world. One French minister, a few Kurds, a few Iraqis. No Israelis. No Russians either. Did they have no say? No threat of a UN veto? Why not? How about Arab politicians? Nothing interesting to say? 

This is hardly nitpicking. But I dare say Lapping and Percy didn’t start out wanting to fit everything into three hours. The BBC should have put their money where their mouth is and paid up. Are they a world-class broadcaster or not? The BBC should be proud of making these programmes, but they should be ashamed of lacking the ambition to go the whole way. A few executives’ expenses would have made up the shortfall. Let’s not even mention the £100m IT disaster.

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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