Mark Gatiss and Matthew Sweet in action at the Sherlock Prom. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2015: The Sherlock Prom goes inside the mind of the great detective

Fortunately, there was more to this programme than just a lot of TV adaptation soundtracks.

With the licence fee under threat and charter renewal on the horizon, the BBC is on a mission to remind us why it is worth every penny that we give them. The Proms is a big part of that - now in its 121st season, the world-renowned concert series could only exist in its current form with the emphasis on accessibility and low-priced tickets if underwritten by public money. This is partly why the announcement of every year’s programme sets off a rash of comment pieces debating exactly what kind of music we should be supporting: new compositions and artists, genre-crossing innovations, highbrow and serious performances of major works, or populist programmes that will get new punters into the hall?

The answer, of course, is all of the above. Yet when I saw the inclusion of a “Sherlock” Prom on this year’s programme, I was still a bit apprehensive. The BBC’s Sherlock is one of the corporation’s most on-brand and successful global exports, so I could absolutely understand the desire to do a bit of cross-pollination and remind the Proms audience that there’s more to it than Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones - namely, its Emmy award-winning soundtrack. But as the NS’s Elizabeth Minkel has pointed out in a great essay about the Sherlock fandom, there just isn’t very much of it: “falling for a show with three episodes every two years does terrible things to your mind”, she writes. Unless they were actually going to wheel out Cumberbatch (unlikely, given his current Hamlet commitments) and fill a lot of the time with clips from the show, I just couldn’t see how it would even be long enough.

I was very relieved to discover, then, this was a concert dedicated not to Sherlock, but to Sherlock Holmes in all his various guises. Subtitled “a musical mind”, the programme was filled with a combination of the themes to the various film and TV adaptations as well as the music that Conan Doyle’s original character is said to have an affinity with in the stories. Thus, we got the themes from 1985’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the main title music from 1970’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but also two Lassus motets (upon which Conan Doyle’s Holmes once wrote a monograph) and a movement of the second violin concerto by the detective’s most admired violinist, Paganini.

The programme also served as a useful reminder that in many cases, TV and film music isn’t quite what it was. So while Frank Skinner’s (not that one) spectacular and dramatic suite for 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was thrilling and amusing in its propagandistic, camp way, Hans Zimmer’s rather insipid music for the 2009 and 2011 Guy Ritchie detective films was barely memorable. When we finally got to David Arnold and Matthew Price’s music for Sherlock, I was all soundtracked-out - although it was intriguing to see quite how much percussion their themes require.

Christine Rice. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The highlights of the afternoon, though, came from the non-soundtrack portions of the programme. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, resplendent in a nineteenth century opera gown, gave us two arias that Sherlock Holmes’ “woman”, Irene Adler, is supposed to have sung - “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville and “Ah, Tanya, Tanya” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Her deep tones and smooth delivery brought some much-needed contrast to the mostly-instrumental programme. Jack Liebeck’s Paganini, too, gave a bit of flair to the proceedings. Less successful by far was the inclusion of Wagner’s Ride of Valkyries, in a slightly ponderous and muted version by the BBC Concert Orchestra.

In between pieces, presenter Matthew Sweet and Sherlock co-creator and star Mark Gatiss provided the “musical mind” narrative that linked the music together, as well as short readings from the original stories. Although this was a long way from the full-costume pageantry of the Doctor Who or War Horse Proms of the past, there was a bit of effort made with the wing-backed armchairs the presenters occupied when not speaking and their velvet and tweed costumes. The glee of Sweet and Gatiss, clearly visible throughout, reminded me just why Conan Doyle’s characters have endured the way they have, to be adapted and remixed by every successive generation. As Laurie Penny has pointed out, Sherlock, its latest TV reincarnation, “doesn’t just engage with fan fiction - it is fan fiction”, created by lifelong fans of the Holmes canon. Judging by the knowing chuckles from the audience at all the nudge-nudge-wink-wink references in this programme, quite a lot of their peers were in the hall yesterday afternoon.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

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 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution