"Emotions burst out like molehills on an immaculate lawn": family tension in The Legacy
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Greed, lust and great knitwear: The Legacy is a Danish drama that’s smarter than Borgen

Everyone is white, and everyone is rich – or about to be. Where’s the grit in that? But grit there is: it is stupid to assume that for a drama to be a hit, it must be filled with “people like us”.

The Legacy
Sky Arts 1

Why didn’t the BBC snap up the Danish drama The Legacy (Wednesdays, 10pm)? Did Sky outbid it, or did its executives take one look at the series’ irredeemably middle-class characters and run a mile? It’s not difficult to imagine some nervous BBC type watching the antics of Veronika Grønnegaard (Kirsten Olesen), the bohemian matriarch at its heart, and thinking: hasn’t Alan Yentob got this stuff covered in Arts? Yes, Grønnegaard, who is basically Tracey Emin with a pension and vastly more taste, conveniently dies at the end of the first episode. But even in her absence, the show is peopled with the kind of metropolitan pseuds one usually only comes across in tiny art-house cinemas: an avant-garde composer who looks just like Catweazle; a gallerist who speaks to waiters in roughly the same tone as David Mellor addresses cabbies; a spoiled hippie who’s building a dodgy eco resort in Thailand. Everyone is white, and everyone is rich – or about to be. Where’s the grit in that?

But grit there is: it is stupid and not a little patronising to assume that for a drama to be a hit, it must be filled with “people like us”. Emotions are universal, and in The Legacy they keep bursting out all over the place, like molehills on an immaculate lawn. Here are greed, envy, loss, lust and, above all, sibling rivalry. Grønnegaard’s children, however wealthy, privileged and articulate, are the victims both of her spite – her deathbed will is about to cause all kinds of trouble – and of their family being so very modern, by which I mean complicated (four children by three different fathers). Rather predictably, the series has already been compared to Hamlet and to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (Trine Dyrholm, who plays Veronika’s elder daughter, Gro, also starred in that film). But it’s also very much its own thing, singular and odd, as if the Turner Prize ceremony had suddenly morphed into a novel by Edward St Aubyn.

Episode two (3 December), like St Aubyn’s At Last, centred entirely on a funeral: Veronika’s, to which she was late, the undertaker’s satnav having failed en route to Grønnegaard, her vast house. Unbeknown to her three elder children, she has left this palace to her daughter Signe (Marie Bach Hansen), who until about five minutes ago believed her mother was someone else entirely. As a result, her face throughout was a picture of controlled amazement. So many new relatives, and all of them so very peculiar. Signe moves tentatively, as if there were a Ming vase hidden in her jeans – come to think of it, she does have a bomb in her pocket, given that she’s in possession of Veronika’s last will and testament.

The coffin was white, and thanks to Gro, became a kind of installation, winched into the house like one of her mother’s sculptures; two vast wings were then draped above it, as if she would literally ascend to heaven from the drawing room. Meanwhile, everyone else was in hell. Gro’s lover had unhelpfully brought his wife to the bash; her brother Frederick had stormed off, having discovered that his mother had done a Chapman brothers and defaced an oil painting of his grandfather; her mother’s lawyer had revealed that Veronika had failed to sign the crucial papers that would ensure the house would be placed in trust and become a gallery under Gro’s direction. Worst of all, there was her father (Catweazle): he performed Veronika’s favourite song: “Riddle-me-ree”! It was as if Lou Reed had decided to channel the Sixth Form Poet.

I don’t discount the chic factor when it comes to The Legacy. Danish furnishings, sweaters, haircuts and jewellery are extremely attractive. And subtitles act as a distraction when there’s bad dialogue (I give you the plodding, cheesy Borgen, acclaimed by plenty who should have known better). Yet even taking these things into account, it looks to be an absorbing series. In coming weeks, allegiances will be built and broken, and many rattling skeletons exposed to the bright winter light of Veronika’s studio. Is Signe a latter-day Cordelia? Or is she in possession of sufficiently Goneril-like qualities to take on Gro? Either way, I’m in. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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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