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Will Self takes afternoon tea at the Savoy

It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet and soup kitchen combined.

I’ve written before in these pages about the terms of my grandparents’ gustatory existence: born in the late 1880s, they stuck fast to their ­agglutinative Victorian roots by putting away three square meals every day, and a couple of hefty snacks hardly less angular. Even as a child I thought they must be involved in some strange act of religious mortification (my grandfather was a lay preacher and president of the Modern Churchmen’s Union) in so flagellating their own insides.

Breakfast was tolerably full and English, with eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes, several rounds of toast, and sausages so thoroughly baked we named them “Granny’s Wooden Sausages”. Elevenses was bearable, because it consisted at most of a Bakewell tart, and possibly a Welsh rarebit. Lunch was solid – but by then we’d usually been out for a windswept walk on the seafront (they lived in Brighton) and so could just about choke the meat down, if not all of the three veg, and the roly-poly jam pudding. Making so much as a feint towards the cheeseboard was well beyond me until I reached my teens. However, even at that age, by the time tea hove into dyspeptic view the game was usually up.

My grandparents’ cook, the redoubtable Doris, would lay the table for exactly 4.30: white lace tablecloth; floral-patterned Royal Doulton crockery; silver teapot and hot water jug; cow creamer, honey pot, etc. There would be a plate of cucumber sandwiches, one of ham or tongue, and one of fish paste. There would be scones, or triangles of buttered white bread. The pièce de la résistance was an ornate cake stand, atop which sat the brown and menacing presence known as “Doris’s Chocolate Cake”, a ­comestible of such legendary heft and density that my father maintained, were anyone to choke down a slice without adequately masticating, that its sharp corners could be seen poking through the taut walls of their belly.

Anyway, you can imagine that with such childhood experience I have never found myself lying in some foreign field and wondering whether the church clock stands at ten to three – let alone if there’s still sodding honey for tea. But an American friend was in town and wanted the whole English-afternoon-tea experience, so I arranged to meet her at the Savoy. True, you can summon a repast styled “afternoon tea” in many less elevated establishments, but it usually consists of a desiccated macaroon and a stewed solecism of Twinings English Breakfast. If you want the real and authentic afternoon tea, such as would have gladdened Doris’s heart, it has to be the Savoy.

Mind you, I can never enter in under the art deco portico of the great hotel without thinking of Georges Bataille’s emetic-erotic classic Le bleu du ciel, which opens with the dissolute protagonist, Henri Troppmann, holed up in the Savoy with his still more rackety lover: a dipsomaniacal English aristocrat whose sobriquet, Dirty, is amply justified – the reader realises – when she calmly pisses herself in front of the chambermaid. I felt pretty dirty myself, striding across the foyer in my scuzzy blue jeans and descending to the famed Thames Foyer, the fons et origo of that great British institution, the thé dansant. Waiting for the maître d’ to find my name in the reservations ledger, I reflected that my adipose grandparents could have done with a lot more corybantic ­activity and rather less of Doris’s chocolate cake – and then my friend arrived, and beneath the wan, vernal light that fell from the restored glass cupola, we began seriously pigging.

A selection of finger sandwiches, including Wiltshire bone ham on coriander bread and coronation chicken on olive bread; freshly baked scones with home-made lemon curd and clotted cream; pastries, including a particularly toothsome éclair filled with vanilla pastry cream and slathered with lavender icing – and the whole schmozzle washed down with lashings of flowering osmanthus tea. Mmm-mm. You may wonder, gentle and socialistic reader, what possible justification I can provide for pigging out so egregiously in such a fat-cat environment. The answer is simple: afternoon tea at the Savoy is billed at a flat rate, £50. Steep for a stopgap smackerel, but not quite so appallingly plutocratic if you treat it as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

So we kept on – calling for more finger sandwiches (smoked salmon with lemon-infused crème fraîche and watercress this time), more pastries and yet more blooming osmanthus. The trolley was stopping at our table so frequently that other tea-timers were beginning to look askance; I’d drunk so much diuretic I was in danger of doing a Dirty, while my companion was surreptitiously unzipping her skirt to allow for further expansion. Then they brought the cake. I suppose in homage to Doris I should have had the Three Chocolates, but I couldn’t risk it, so instead carefully took the slice cut for me by the waiter and enfolded it in a napkin together with some spare finger sandwiches and a rather dishevelled scone.

A few hundred yards along the Strand from the Savoy, a “selection” of London’s homeless gathers each evening to receive soup and sandwiches from the Sally Army. I beat the evangelists to the punch with my Savoy doggie bag, which seemed to hit the spot – although an ex-soldier on crutches said the Three Chocolates cake was “a little on the heavy side”.

Doris would have approved.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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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