Family values: the cast of Citizen Khan
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What would Tony Hancock make of Neville’s Island and the muezzin app?

Mark Lawson’s weekly Critics Notes.

The Swiss are currently applying for national heritage status to be given to the art of yodelling and so maybe the British should seek similar cultural recognition for the ­sitcom. There is a certain type of humour – involving a group of people with one comic characteristic each swapping puns and misunderstandings in a closed setting  – that is as associated with the UK as Basel is known for rolling high notes around the throat.

While situation comedy is primarily associated with television – Citizen Khan starts its third series on BBC1 on 31 October – the genre occurs more generally. For the next five weeks, BBC Radio 4 is running new recordings of five editions of Hancock’s Half Hour, the radio series by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson that began in 1954 and which is one of the progenitors of Brit sitcom. These are recast re­-creations of some of the Hancocks that do not survive in the archives.

Even in theatre, the ­Hancockian influence is felt. Tim Firth’s much- produced 1992 stage farce Neville’s Island, in which four Salford businessmen are stranded during an outward-bound bonding exercise, has the feel of a tele­vision comedy and the revival that has just opened at the Duke of York’s in London acknowledges this heritage by casting four familiar TV faces: Adrian Edmondson, Neil Morrissey, Robert Webb and Miles Jupp.

Although originally a protégé of the great stage craftsman Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Firth has been drawn more towards television, especially with his Territorial Army series Preston Front. And, while Neville’s Island conjures some very funny stage pictures – including two blood-spattered tableaux in which the mood seems to have shifted from comedy to horror – the plot and characterisation constantly betray a desire to stop
after 30 minutes and pick up in a week’s time. The audience seemed to warm more to Edmondson, cast close to his dangerous TV persona, than to Webb, playing against telly type as a psychotic Christian.

In the Muslim sitcom Citizen Khan, the basic set-up of tension between relatives echoes family comedies from . . . And Mother Makes Three to Mrs Brown’s Boys. Co-written by Adil Ray – who also plays the title character, a self-elected “community leader” – the show is a combination of English jokes very old (the protagonist clashes with his mother-in-law) and very new: Khan has a muezzin app on his iPhone to call him to prayer.

Because religious hypocrisy is a running gag – one of Khan’s daughters hides her enthusiastic western values behind a ­hijab and piety – the show has been accused of racism, although largely, in the modern way, by white liberals, perhaps because that tribe is a target of many of the best jokes: Khan often extracts himself from slapstick embarrassments by telling non-Muslim authority figures that his behaviour was “a cultural thing”.

The treat among our trio, though, is The Missing Hancocks on BBC Radio 4, in which Kevin McNally proves a spooky auditory substitute for the late Hancock and Galton and Simpson give a masterclass in joke writing. The biggest risk of English comedy is the reduction of dialogue to punning but these writers show – as they would continue to in their later TV classic Steptoe and Son – the ability to play with language at a much cleverer level.

“I promised your mother I’d never let you go to Paris after what happened last time,” someone says.

The protesting reply: “But I’ve never been to Paris!”

“No. But your mother did!”

Literature and its double

The big autumn film releases include The Imitation Game (released next week), a movie about Alan Turing and the Bletchley code breakers, which activates the memory circuits of those who grew up watching the BBC Play for Today series because one of the standout achievements of that franchise was an Ian McEwan screenplay with the same name and subject, directed by Richard Eyre. The title is the only overlap between the projects.

And, in another soundalike, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – shares its name with a 1968 play by Edward Bond about the Japanese poet Basho whose travel sketch (of the same name) was the inspiration for both Bond and Flanagan. As all three texts are still in print, let’s hope that no online book buyers are sent the wrong one.

A really narrow road at the moment seems to be the naming of travel books. Just last month, both Clare Balding and Sonia Choquette published hiking chronicles called Walking Home, which Simon Armitage had used only a couple of years before.

Titles can’t be copyrighted but it feels sad, in the case of The Imitation Game, that the Hollywood movie should, in effect, paint over the memory of a fine tele­vision play, which would now be hard to repeat in case it looked like passing off or cashing in. Greater baptismal imagination seems needed to prevent entertainment schedules becoming like classrooms that have four Georges or five Sophies.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis