Would the BBC have taken a risk on “Luther” if Idris Elba hadn't been in The Wire? Photo: BBC
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What does it say about Britain that our best black actors have to go abroad to succeed?

For a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism, our television is shockingly unrepresentative of what the UK is really like.

A group of leading actors and writers have written an open letter to the five senior executives of the UK’s major broadcasting institutions, in which they have called for greater diversity of employees within British television. Noting that “only 5 per cent of employees in our creative industries are black and minority ethnic (BME), despite BMEs making up 12.5 per cent of the total UK population,” they propose that a sum of money be ring-fenced for investment for BME programmes. Well aware that their suggestion may be accused of tokenism, they explain that “it is about quality of programming, not quantity: money is only spent when quality projects are identified – not to fill a quota.”

The most striking thing about this letter – beyond even its radical call to arms and the calibre of those who have signed it – is how many of those signatories had to leave the UK in order to find the best platforms for the talent. Perhaps the most feted of them all, Idris Elba, had to go all the way to Baltimore before his breakout role in The Wire. David Harewood had to make a similar pilgrimage to the United States before starring in Homeland. And last year, David Oyelowo told the Guardian that “when I went to British film investors with stories of the black experience in a historical context, I was told verbatim: ‘We’re looking for Dickens or Austen. Your story is a hard sell.’ Britain is not inclusive of how I look or who I am, so I looked to America.” In the same article, Oyelowo made clear where he thinks the problem lies. “There’s a reluctance in our cinema to accept the real Britain we live in,” he observed, “and that’s because we still operate within the auspices of a class system motivated by nepotism.”

Oyelowo’s claim, when combined with the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in his industry, seems to indicate that something is badly awry. If there is indeed widespread bias in the commissioning process, then it will have – or continue to have – a pernicious and knock-on effect, in that writers will only pitch work that is thoroughly conventional in its content. It is sobering to think, had Elba not already entered the realms of superstardom, that Luther might not have graced our TV screens and enthralled panels of judges both here and abroad. Commissioners may simply not have taken a chance on a brilliant yet unknown actor.

This open letter, with regard to Oyelowo’s claim, implicitly goes further in its scope than race itself: it also raises the question of class, and of British television as an establishment that is by definition slow to evolve. That same establishment may look enviously at the extraordinary success of HBO series after HBO series, and if so it would be wise to heed the central lesson of that brilliant channel: which is that it seems committed, as much as any western media outlet, to recruiting the best talent wherever it may find it. Indeed, it seems strange, given that Britain’s diversity was the cornerstone of one of the best pieces of popular entertainment in recent years – namely, the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games – that this same diversity is still struggling for expression.

Part of that responsibility, it must be said, may also come down to British television’s most successful writers, some of whom have not yet consistently managed to incorporate BME storylines into their shows. Perhaps, broadly speaking, there are two reasons for this. The first is that they themselves have narrow frames of experience, and are simply writing what they know. The second is that they would rather avoid the complexity of writing such storylines, wary of getting them wrong: a modern-day version of the concerns of Charles Schulz, who agonised over introducing a black character into Peanuts. However, neither of these grounds, though logical, is satisfactory; least of all in a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism. They may speak, more than anything else, to a failure of imagination; and, though the actress Naomie Harris has described progress in this area as “extraordinary”, the numbers suggest that there is still substantial work to be done. 

It may rankle, that several of Britain’s leading success stories on both the big and small screens have been despite, and not due to, the structures in place within the TV industry. (Most recently, and most famously, the 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen found his way to Oscar success after a nomadic career outside the UK.) Yet given the talent present within the UK’s BME ranks, it should not take too long for this proposed investment to start bearing fruit. Here’s hoping that we’ll one day see home-grown television every bit as epic as The Wire. It won’t be a moment too soon. 

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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