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Review: BBC1 Breakfast


By the time you read this, the BBC will have been broadcasting Breakfast from Salford for a month. How’s it doing? Have the predictions by the doom merchants who said that no one of any interest – no high-octane celebrities, no top politicians – would be willing to travel up north to appear on the show turned out to be true? Is that tumbleweed we spy blowing across its expansive sofas?
Not exactly. The sofas are (periodically) occupied. But the owners of the bums on these plump red cushions are hardly fascinating: a couple of blokes from the Welsh band Feeder; Julia Donaldson, the sweet but unexciting ­Children’s Laureate; Graham Gouldman of 10cc – come on, you remember them! – who popped in to tell Charlie Stayt and Louise Minchin the good news that his ageing band is still touring. Meanwhile, Stayt, Minchin and the other regular presenters, Bill Turnbull and Susanna Reid (the latter replaces the Salford ­refusenik Sian Williams), are spending ever more of their shifts with necks crazily twisted so as to address guests speaking to them from London via an awkwardly positioned screen.
The BBC should watch this: if it goes on too long, the corporation will have to add the cost of an osteopath’s bills to all the other expenses (it is rumoured to have spent more than £750,000 bringing in staff since the Salford site opened, a tab that can only rise, at least until a year is up, at which point – or so I gather from my spies – the relocation period ends and employees must pay their own train fares).
On paper, I’m pro-Salford. There is so much talent outside London, so much going on. It must be possible for licence-fee payers who live outside the capital to be more fairly represented by the service they fund. I understand neither staff’s reluctance to move north nor the BBC’s apparent willingness to accommodate this reluctance. Recently I met a BBC executive who commuted to London from Berkshire. Would he be going to Salford? No, he said, faintly appalled. Yes, if he moved, he could afford a bigger, nicer house and his commute would be vastly reduced; yes, Manchester has Selfridges, an orchestra, theatre and restaurants and is bordered on every side by beautiful countryside. Nevertheless, he was staying put. He muttered something about schools, as if Manchester – birthplace of Nicholas Hytner and Howard Jacobson – were a school-free zone.
Yet Breakfast is looking like a huge own goal right now. As Private Eye has noted, its agenda has narrowed. It feels like a local programme, not a national one. It reminds me of the Look North I watched growing up, only minus the reports of dastardly goings-on in Bradford’s Council Chambers (though if the producers become stretched, these may follow). The desperate efforts to spin out an already too-long interview. The slight air of embarrassment on the part of presenters who think – who know – they’re better than this (Turnbull, never animated at the best of times, looks actively bored). The features that you sense would never make it on to screen in London (a Coronation Street musical at the Manchester Arena; a stunt in the window of Lush cosmetics).
So, the problem remains. How to make the BBC less London-focused without also making it less good? And how to make best use of the shiny MediaCity? This seems straightforward to me. First, move a lot more radio north; on the wireless, you can’t tell where a guest is. Radio 5 Live, which also broadcasts from Salford, is as good as ever. Radio 2 could be next. Second, ensure that existing programmes make more regular forays out of London. It makes not one iota of difference – save to Kirsty Wark’s travel arrangements – that The Review Show is broadcast from Glasgow. But it would be transformative if, say, more of the theatre it featured were regional. Arts programmes will cover the opening of whizzy galleries such as the Hepworth Wakefield; only rarely do they return to review subsequent shows. Third, invest in regional television. As for Breakfast, politics and face-saving dictate that it won’t be returning south any time soon. Someone needs to get a grip on it. But I say: better a fabulous guest in London than a rubbish one in Salford. Reposition those enormo-screens, pronto.

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 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue

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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