The bands are talented, but the music is terrible. Photo: Getty
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Proms 2014: Remembering WWI with anthems for doomed youth

Disciplined it might be, but military music is awful. Luckily, there's greater depth to this season than a first glance suggests.

BBC Proms 2014
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

Like many things now considered to be quintessentially English, what we think of as military music – ceremonial oompah-ing in red coats – didn’t come into being until the mid-19th century. During the Crimean war, a musical celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday descended into chaos when about 20 different military bands, lacking any overall direction, all launched into “God Save the Queen” at a different pitch and tempo. The result was a distinctly unpatriotic cacophony: a cousin of the queen was so appalled that he went on to create a system of centralised training for military musicians so henceforth they would always march to the same tune.

Disciplined it might be, but there is no escaping that military music is awful. It’s no accident that the presenters on Classic FM regularly exhort housewives to use it as motivation to get the dusting done. The musicians are often outstanding – anyone who has been to a do at a barracks will have heard the tootling, crashing morass transform itself into a tight jazz ensemble as soon as the drinks are poured – and being in a military band is, unfortunately, one of the few ways left for a musician to make a reliable income. Ordinarily, with very little effort it’s possible to give military music a wide berth. This year, though, its unrelenting tedium is threatening to intrude, as it is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

In poetry, the Great War has a well-known trajectory: from the initially patriotic pastorals of Rupert Brooke to Wilfred Owen’s blasted swamps. In classical music, the narrative is not so straightforward, partly because martial music yields so little of broader cultural value. The Proms are taking the war as one of the major themes this year and although the obvious stuff is there – music from War Horse and the Military Wives Choir (3 August) – there are some intriguing choices, too.

Favourites such as Britten’s War Requiem (21 August) and contemporary commissions from the likes of Sally Beamish (1 August) and the late John Tavener (4 August) sit alongside relatively unknown works by composers who went to war, some never to return. Three composers who lost their lives in the trenches – Rudi Stephan, Frederick Kelly and George Butterworth – are featured this season (17 August). When you know that Stephan, a young German from Hesse, died on the Eastern Front in 1915 aged just 28, it’s all too easy to find a doomed, elegiac quality in his Music for Orchestra. The slow tempo, the Mahler-esque flourishes, the achingly beautiful woodwind solos – although written in 1912, the piece seems to gesture towards the turmoil to come.

Frederick Kelly’s offering is more overtly connected with the conflict: he is said to have begun composing his Elegy for Strings, in Memoriam Rupert Brooke on a hospital ship in 1915 as the poet lay dying nearby (Kelly died at the Somme the following year). But it is Butterworth’s 1912 piece Six Songs from “A Shropshire Lad” that typifies the music we associate with the war. By using these A E Housman poems, he was joining an English composing tradition – including Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland – of harking back to a non-existent English Eden of folk music, rural pleasures and honest toil. Although Housman was writing in the aftermath of the Boer war, lines such as “The lads that will die in their glory and never be old” have a new resonance in this context.

The English pastoral is present in so much of this First World War music, both a reaction to and an evasion of the horrors of the conflict. Also featured in the season is A Pastoral Symphony (17 August) by Vaughan Williams, begun in 1916. One of his lesser-known works, it has now been re-evaluated as a “war requiem”. The shadow of death intrudes upon its idyllic landscape with subtle dissonances and a swelling sense of sorrow. The haunting trumpet cadenza in the second movement was inspired by a bugler the composer heard practising, who kept playing a seventh instead of a true octave. Even the pastoral can fall short of the ideal.

Englishness is a major topic for the Proms. One of the featured composers is the 20th century’s William Walton who, although he moved between styles and genres during his long career, has always remained resolutely English in the minds of critics. Indeed, just days before the post-imperial flag-waving of the Last Night, Walton’s Viola Concerto will be the centrepiece of a Prom devoted entirely to English music (10 September). Not all of the pieces that night are easy choices: Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 4 in F Minor is notably severe. Yet the message is clear – in a year of martial commemorations, when Scotland is voting on independence and politicians are shying away from Englishness as something toxic, English music is still something worth listening to. 

The Proms run until 13 September

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.