Performers onstage during Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini" at the English National Opera. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Show Hide image

Classical music has a serious communication problem

Until state-funded arts organisations like the Royal Opera House can advertise their work to people who don’t already love their art form, they will never attract broader audiences.

It’s pointless arguing with Harriet Harman’s assertion in a speech yesterday that state-funded arts organisations like the Royal Opera House should work harder to ensure a representative slice of the taxpaying populace is experiencing their wares. But that didn’t stop the classical music establishment having a good go. Sections of it, at least, were frothing defensively by mid-afternoon. One of the central planks in their counter-argument was that opera and classical music simply can’t be elitist or patrician because state subsidies keep ticket prices low. Right. Sure. So it’s just a cosy coincidence that the Royal Opera House is generally populated by well-manicured and educated white folk. . .

This week, in fact, the Royal Opera House will again open its doors to a group of homeless people. They’re not in the foyers and bars, but on the stage, performing in a production of Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites conducted by Simon Rattle. Next month the Royal Opera’s orchestra and chorus will join the communities who live around its production hub in Thurrock for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Engagement and “the public good” are priorities for even the most grandiose of arts institutions like never before. So why is the opera audience proving so stubbornly socially stagnant? I’d point at least one finger in the direction of an unlikely villain that has never really been properly dragged into the elitism debate: the total ineffectualness and inappropriateness of large-scale classical music advertising.  

Two years ago the British-Egyptian actor Fadi Elsayed claimed he’d never seen an advert for opera, ballet or classical music in London, a comment to which I responded with the facetious retort that he should have gone to Specsavers. But looking back, I can see exactly why Elsayed said what he did. The only instrumental ensemble in London with the financial clout to enjoy a sizeable brand presence on the Tube is the London Symphony Orchestra. But you can forgive Elsayed for thinking their ads – featuring unrecognisable individuals dribbling speech-bubble pleasantries under the industry-speak acronym “LSO” – were promoting a low-interest bank account.

Ads for opera range from the totally unfathomable – as in English National Opera’s recent poster for its Cosí fan tutte which won’t tell you a thing if you don’t know the opera (or, even, if you don’t know that opera is live theatre in which characters sing out their feelings with beauty and rawness over a live orchestra) – to the borderline conceited – as in the Royal Opera’s pre-Christmas poster for Carmen emblazoned with a strapline that was both smart-arse and vague while also managing to give the story’s ending away (presumably born of a belief that the three million people who use the tube really should be familiar with the narrative layout of Bizet’s opéra comique).

What opera needs is a new audience intake, people who aren’t on the mailing list and don’t have the CDs at home. These are the people to whom mass-media advertising should be attuned – the eight million in London who won’t think “ah yes, Terry Gilliam directing Berlioz’s outlandish and traditionally maligned Benvenuto Cellini, that’s bound to be interesting” because they don’t know who Berlioz or even Terry Gilliam are. But that’s what too much opera advertising does. It follows the industry’s favourite communicative norm: conceived by people who already love the art form for people who already love the art form.

In his speech to the Association of British Orchestras conference in January, the journalist Paul Morley urged the classical music industry to embrace its radical brilliance and begin to take pride in the fact that its offering is arguably more thrilling, shocking, emotionally overwhelming and (if you want it to be) intellectually nourishing than a lot of the other stuff on stage in the UK. Instead of endlessly telling people that they can now wear jeans to watch opera – wow! – we should be picking up Morley’s mantle and attempting to communicate what a poleaxing experience that opera can be. In the cutthroat world of big-city advertising, any attempt to achieve “cut-through” needs to be unpredictable, shocking, or possessed of some sort of compelling micro-narrative. Put the raw ingredients of any opera in front of the creative bods charged with making insurance companies and airlines appear so rhapsodically tantalising on tube ads, and they’d have a field day.

As hard as it might be to stomach for those of us who believe in the universal power of the art form, if we think opera’s audience in London is representative of the city’s populace then we’re living in a parallel universe (or maybe Kensington and Chelsea). Arts education and artistic relevance – not marketing – will ensure opera thrives in this country in the future (things look pretty good for the latter, not so much for the former). But in the meantime, our state-subsidised orchestras and opera companies must start telling the public that they have the capacity to move, scare and pin them to their seats whatever their current level of understanding. Only then will we persuade more taxpayers to reap the extraordinary rewards of the tiny investment that’s made on their behalf.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Roger Moore made James Bond immortal

Roger Moore, James Bond actor, has died at the age of 89. 

Unlike every other actor to play James Bond, Roger Moore was already a star when he came to the role. Not a star of motion pictures admittedly, although he had topped the bill in some minor films, but a star in television. The lead of the adventure series Ivanhoe (1958-59) and The Saint (1962-69), the latter of which brought him international fame and reportedly made him the highest paid actor on television.

It was a far cry from his beginnings. Although he lived much of his life abroad (it has been said, for tax reasons, something the actor himself denied) and was regarded by many as the archetypal English gentleman, Moore began life as a working-class Londoner.  Born in Stockwell in 1927, the son of a policeman and his wife, he grew up in a rented three room, third floor flat in SW8, and attended Battersea Grammar School. There, he later insisted "looking as though I was listening", was the only subject at which he excelled. Battersea Grammar was, despite the name, then an overcrowded local school boxed in by the buildings and sidings of Clapham Junction Station and made dark and noisy by the still expanding railways.

As both Moore and his friend and fellow film star Michael Caine have observed, their backgrounds in urban South London are almost identical, something that has never fitted with public perception of either of them. The difference was, as again both noted, that when it came to National Service Moore, unlike Caine, was picked out as officer material and trained accordingly, in the process acquiring the accent he would carry for the rest of his life.

The common, near universal, ignorance of Moore’s origins (although he himself was never shy of them, writing about his family in his various books and discussing them in interviews) says something significant about Roger Moore the public figure. Despite being a household name for decades, an international film star and latterly a knight of the realm, he was, if not misunderstood by his audience, then never really quite what they assumed him to be.

This extends, of course, into his work as an actor. Moore was often mocked by the unimaginative, who saw him as a wooden actor, or one lacking in versatility. Often, he was somehow self-deprecating enough to play along. And yet, the camera loved him, really loved him and his timing - particularly but not exclusively comic - was extraordinary. To see Moore work in close up is to see someone in absolute control of his craft. His raised eyebrow, often mocked, was a precision instrument, exactly as funny or exactly as surprising as he wanted it to be.

It is more accurate, as well as fairer, to say that Moore was typecast, rather than limited, and he made no secret of the fact that he played his two most famous roles, Simon Templar in The Saint and James Bond 007 as essentially the same person. But he would have been a fool not to. Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R "Cubby" Broccoli’s EON productions wanted Templar nearly as much as they wanted Moore.

They had thought of the actor for the part of 007 as early as 1961, before casting Sean Connery and before Moore had played The Saint, so it was not just his success as Templar that made him suitable. Yet both producers knew that audiences in both Britain and America loved the way Moore played Templar, and that if that affection could be translated into ticket sales, their series would be on to a winner.

It was a gamble for all involved. George Lazenby had already tried, and as far many were concerned, failed to replace Connery as James Bond. When it came to 1971’s outing in the series, Diamonds Are Forever, David Picker, head of United Artists, which distributed Bond films, insisted that Connery be brought back for an encore before EON tried a third actor in the role, re-hiring Connery at a then record $1.25m and paying off actor John Gavin, whom EON had already cast. That’s how high the stakes were for both the Bond series and Moore’s reputation when he stepped into the role for 1973’s Live and Let Die. The film was a huge success, so much so that EON rushed out its sequel, The Man With The Golden Gun the next year, rather than after two years as it had planned.

The reason for that success, although the film has many other good qualities, is that Moore is brilliant in it. His whip-thin, gently ironic and oddly egalitarian adventurer, capable of laughing at himself as well as others, is a far cry from Connery’s violently snobbish "joke superman". It’s been said that Connery’s Bond was a working-class boy’s fantasy of what it would be like to be an English gentleman, while Moore’s was essentially the fantasy of a slightly effete middle-class boy who dreams of one day winning a fight. It’s a comprehensive reinvention of the part.

That’s not something that can be achieved by accident. One shouldn’t, however, over-accentuate the lightness of the performance. Moore’s Bond is exactly as capable of rage and even sadism as his predecessor. The whimsy he brings to the part is an addition to, not a subtraction from, the character’s range.

Moore expanded Bond’s emotional palette in other ways too. His best onscreen performance is in For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which the then 53-year-old Moore gets to play a Bond seen grieving at his wife’s grave, lecturing allies on the futility of revenge ("When setting out for revenge, first dig two graves") and brightly turn down a much younger woman’s offer of sex with the phrase "Put your clothes on and I’ll buy you an ice cream". None of which are scenes you can begin to imagine Connery’s Bond pulling off.

Moore was not just a huge success as Bond, he remains, adjusted for inflation, the most financially successful lead actor the series has ever had. He was also successful in a way that guaranteed he would have successors. What he gave to the part by not imitating Connery, by not even hinting at Connery in his performance, was a licence to those who followed him to find their own way in the role. This, along with his continued popularity over twelve years in the role, probably the only reason the series managed to survive the 1970s and the EON’s finally running of Ian Fleming novels to adapt to the screen.

Actors have received knighthoods for their craft for centuries, but when Moore was knighted in 2003, there was some push back. Moore was understandably seen as not being in the same category as an Alec Guinness or a Ralph Richardson. But the citations for Moore's knighthood indicated that it was for his decades of charity work with Unicef that he was being honoured. It’s yet another of the misconceptions, large and small, that aggregated around him.

Moore himself was always clear that it was the profile playing James Bond had given him that made his role with Unicef possible, let alone successful. When asked about pride in his charity work, he always responded that instead he felt frustration. Frustration because as with, for example, the UN’s iodine deficiency programme or Unicef’s work with children with landmine injuries, there was always so much more work to be done than could be done.

It was an answer that, along with his energetic campaigning, at the age of 88, to ban the use of wild animals in zoos, pointed to the biggest misunderstanding of all. Moore was known for playing frivolous characters in over the top entertainments and this led to him being perceived by many, even by those he enjoyed his work, as essentially trivial. Ironically, such an assumption reveals only the superficiality of their own reading. The jovial, wry interviewee Sir Roger Moore was, beneath that raised eyebrow, a profoundly serious man.

0800 7318496