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John Williams at 80 - review

The composer finds elegant ways to say very little at all.

John Williams at 80

Two programmes promised specifics and intensity but only occasionally delivered. Classic FM interviewed John Williams for a two-hour special (27 August, 8pm) and failed to get much beyond his fantastically impressive politesse.

Williams was less a giant lolling on his Hollywood Hills promontory endlessly boring forth and more an absolutely perfect gentleman sincerely but doggedly not answering any questions put to him. Of the Jaws theme tune he said “I think it works on some primal fear that we all have of reptiles and monsters” and pointed up the score’s “simplicity and repetition”. Yeah, and?

At this point the interviewer might have asked precisely how, or at least where, Williams thought of those two devastating opening notes (is it a tuba? Is it a double bass?) and whether it was always in his mind to write something that is at once so skittish and so solemn. “Steven and I thought it was a fun pirate film,” Williams demurred. “Steven is very fond of saying that the music made the film . . . but the film also really made the music, you know.”

It is possible that Williams has no idea how he does what he does – and why should he care about letting us in on it anyway? – but his carapace was so startlingly pristine that one felt this was a personality who would have been right at home in some 17th-century court. Indeed, Williams’s white, slightly pointed, perfect beard and fondness for high collars has a touch of the Holbein portrait to it.

A Radio 4 documentary following a bullet from its beginnings as a hunk of unmelted lead in a Cheshire factory to Helmand (28 August, 8pm) was also full of non-information. “As far as how many have been fired in anger, you know, that’s a difficult number to account for’ said an ammunition wrangler.” “The majority manufactured are used for training. Another proportion is used on operation engaging the enemy. But generally we’re moving from highkinetic lethalities to illumination rounds . . .” And so on. One fact, however, is constant. A British bullet is 4mm in diameter and weighs 2 grams, and soldiers are always – in the beginning, at least – stunned by how small and powerful it is.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.