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Dallas - review

The revival of Dallas makes Rachel Cooke nostalgic for the 1980s.

Channel 5

One of my many worries about the return of Dallas (Wednesdays, 9pm) was that its producers would attempt to make the cast look like real millionaires and Southfork like the kind of place a real millionaire would live. But, no: the family ranch still looks like Barbie’s house, its swimming pool the size of a Chigwell hot tub, its kitchen so dinky Sue Ellen can reach for the ice box and the drinks trolley at the same time, no problem. The women still favour earrings that look as if they came from Walgreens, and the men the kind of high-waisted jeans you would have to ransack J C Penney to find.

The producers still don’t splash out on extras either – at Christopher Ewing’s wedding there were 30 guests max, for all that the Ewings are at the very pinnacle of Dallas society. And when the Southfork cook passes round the canapés, you can’t help but notice that her platter is laden with something that was probably made by Sara Lee and only recently defrosted.

All in all, this is unexpectedly comforting. So, too, is the presence of quite a few of the original cast: Patrick Duffy as Bobby, Linda Gray as Sue Ellen, Larry Hagman as JR, Charlene Tilton as Lucy, Steve Kanaly as Ray Krebbs. (Come on, you remember Ray! He was Jock Ewing’s illegitimate son. Lucy? She was, um, some sort of miniature cousin.) They have aged so spookily little, it’s as if some far-thinking network executive had them all cryogenically frozen. The only thing that has changed even slightly is JR’s eyebrows, which are now so fabulously luxuriant and perky they resemble a pair of bull-horns.

Also immaculately preserved: their ropy acting skills. When Bobby is in pain – apparently he is dying of stomach cancer – he looks like he is trying to fart silently. When Sue Ellen is angry – Bobby wants to sell Southfork, which will destroy the plans of her son, John Ross, who has just discovered a two-billion-barrel reserve of crude in one of its fields – she looks like she is trying to remember if she applied her deodorant. Later on in Dallas 2012, Sue Ellen is, I read, to stand for governor of Texas. I can’t wait to see her face when she starts grappling with the state’s budget deficit.

Oh, it’s so hard to explain, now, why Dallas once meant so much to me! Think of it this way. I was a teenager. I had nothing to do, and nowhere to go, unless you count cider drinking in the park. Lots of things were grim: school, the city, the state of my parents’ marriage. But once a week, I could plunge into this ridiculous world of lip gloss and shoulder pads and ten- gallon hats, and forget about everything else. It was silly but it was soothing, too – the wheels of the plot always turning in the same direction (booze, infidelity, sibling rivalry). Was ever a theme tune more irresistibly cheery? And remember: whatever people tell you, Dallas had relatively little competition in those days. American television had not yet begun producing ace dramas such as The Sopranos. Sure, we had The Jewel in the Crown. But that only ran for 14 weeks; the evenings, long and dark, had to be filled somehow.

Not that this means I’m in favour of reviving it – and I’m truly amazed that, thanks to good ratings in the US, TNT has already commissioned a second season. Nostalgia is almost always a fatally underpowered engine for creativity and you can feel its feeble putter in pretty much every scene of Dallas 2012. There is something dreary and tokenistic about the way the writers have tried to update the storyline (Christopher wants to invest in renewable energy because even in the world of American cable TV there is a vague awareness that oil is mucky).

The young actors – Josh Henderson as John Ross, Jesse Metcalfe as Christopher – are so bland, so identikit handsome, I can hardly tell them apart; and the compulsively watchable Larry Hagman is, thanks to his poor health, on screen far too rarely (though at least the scriptwriters still have him use words like “foundling”; I love it when JR comes over all Antebellum). Perhaps, though, things will pep up a little when Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), who now owns Ewing Oil, strides into town. Eyebrows at dawn? Here’s hoping.

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 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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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