Clare Teal with the Count Pearson Proms Band & Duke Windsor Proms Band at the Battle of the Bands, BBC Proms 2014. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2014: a triumphant blaze of 1930s jazz with Clare Teal's Battle of the Bands

Clare Teal brought an imagined “jazz off” between the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands to the Royal Albert Hall.

The Proms is, of course, primarily a classical music festival. Other kinds of music are regularly featured, but the rule is always that it must be the very best that it could be. Novelty for novelty’s sake is not welcome.

This directive was amply fulfilled in jazz singer Clare Teal’s “Battle of the Bands” concert. The “Late Night” slot on a Friday evening was extremely appropriate for this programme - an imagined “jazz off” between the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands. To the best of our knowledge such a clash never actually took place between these two celebrated bands of the 1930s and 1940s, although others regularly went head-to-head in New York’s clubs, taking it in turns to try and outdo each other with their interpretations of favourite tunes. As she explained at the start, Teal constructed this battle out of her “wildest imaginings”. Seeing and hearing her vision realised was something special.

Vula Malinga, Grant Windsor & the Duke Windsor Proms Band. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Vula Malinga, Grant Windsor & the Duke Windsor Proms Band.
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

For one night, James Pearson became “Count Pearson” and Grant Windsor “Duke Windsor”. From the piano, they each directed an identical band of musicians drawn from the UK’s top jazz ensembles. Each “round” consisted of six tunes, three from each band, with guest appearances from vocalists Gregory Porter, Vula Malinga and Teal herself (maintaining her impartiality as referee and announcer, she divided her talents equally between each band). Swing dancers from the JazzCotech ensemble joined them onstage for some numbers, their tapping and twirling adding to the generally gleeful atmosphere.

Particular highlights came in the form of Teal’s vocal on “Moon Nocturne” with the Count Pearson band, her voice blending perfectly with the mellifluous saxophone solo; Vula Melinga’s riotous “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with the Duke Windsor lot; and all the trumpets, most of the time. The bands were set out on the stage in a sort of mirror image, and it was lovely to see the musicians eyeing their counterparts on the other side, assessing their performances. Count Pearson’s drummer especially didn’t seem to be able to help himself - whenever his opposite number was performing, he was tapping along on his knees, testing out the rhythm.

Finale with Clare Teal, James Pearson & Count Pearson Proms Band, Grant Windsor & Duke Windsor Proms Band, Gregory Porter, Vula Malinga & JazzCotech. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Everyone was a winner.  Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Although ostensibly a competition, the climax of the evening saw both bands play together in a triumphant blaze of big band sound. People were dancing in the arena and in their boxes, unable to keep still. Both bands were eventually declared the winners, as was only right - each had played their part in what was an unforgettable night.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.