Friends is gone for good. Could we BE any sadder?

The creator of Friends, that cultural juggernaut we all love to love, has confirmed there won't be a reunion any time soon. Will anything ever live up to it?

 

Something huge happened this week. We shared a collective human moment, in which we finally laid to rest a huge cultural icon which had cast a long, inescapable shadow. Everything that came after it was forever marked by it, directly or indirectly, for good or for ill. It was finally confirmed, chums: that Friends reunion you were secretly hoping against hope for, desperately willing into existence? It’s not happening. It will never happen. Marta Kauffman has said so, and she should know, seeing as she is one of the creators of what became a cultural juggernaut. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. In my best approximation of Chandler Bing, could I BE any sadder? (No. I could not.) 

Of course, we knew it could never happen. Are you crazy? Remember Adam and Joe’s marvellously silly low-budget but high-entertainment Channel 4 show, called, er, The Adam and Joe Show? They did an excellent spoof of Friends, called FURENDS in which the glossy Hollywood cast was played by stuffed furry creatures. Here’s a clip: 

In case you missed it, the refrain goes: “we’ll be here for you, for a hundred grand a show”. 

It would take all the money in the Emirates to bring new Friends to any screen – big or small – near you. And anyway, everyone’s moved on. Jennifer’s keeping a cottage industry of tabloids going by remaining unwed, female and attractive, Matthew’s working on Go On (and guest starring on The Good Wife from time to time, one hopes), Courtney made quirky comedy Cougar Town, David wears a beard and directs and Lisa (for my money the best actor on the show) continues to do interesting film and TV work from time to time. Friends is over. They were there for us, for ten years, and now they are no longer there, except via DVD and Comedy Central. In a world where Matt Le Blanc – reborn as an older, more silver and even wildly more attractive version of his 90s self – is in turn playing a version of himself/Joey Tribbiani on the very enjoyable Episodes, the message is clear. We rocked your TV worlds and changed your TV lives, we get it. But you need to let us go. In any case, “a hundred grand a show” was laughably modest. If nothing else, they must be too busy counting their money (pre-recession interest rates, no less) to consider a reunion. 

I’ve thought about this a lot (too much?), and concluded that Friends is probably my favourite show of all time. I was awed by State of Play, flabbergasted by The Shadow Line, charmed by Frasier, warmed by The Cosby Show, excited by Misfits and moved by The Wire. But I loved Friends. I’ve watched every episode, from beginning to end, over and over. It’s comfort food, familiar and requiring little to no effort from me at this point, which I appreciate as I get older and the boxsets accumulate. It is often betrayed by its scene furniture: the music references (oh, Hootie and the Blowfish), its now-dated cultural icons (Jean-Claude van Damme and Noah Wyle and George Clooney, at the height of their ER fame, playing doctors etc.) and its awful, awful fashion. But the gags display a calibre that was often hard to beat. Yes, they were self-absorbed, privileged twenty-somethings living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but they were funny and real and human. After a lifetime of watching television in unhealthy quantities, Friends provides the biggest chunk of the references I have stored away in the intricate pop culture Rolodex in my mind. Sometimes, I still whisper "seven" when giving out a number. And when the person gets it, I give them a mental – or sometimes physical – high five. 

It is not perfect, of course. At the New Statesman Centenary debate earlier this month, I bemoaned the lack of diversity in Friends, from a curiously monochrome New York to the recycling of a storyline for two black female guest stars over the course of the show. And the fat-suit-clad young Monica (a standard TV trope of the "ugly duckling made good") always struck a weird note, even if it tried to pinpoint a solid and satisfying back-story for the character. The central relationship of Ross and Rachel was finely observed, their initial breakup actually harrowing for a sitcom. It had great recurring guest stars with proper arcs – Paul Rudd, Aisha Tyler, Lauren Tom, Tom Selleck, Jane Sibbett – as well as the type to draw a whoop from the studio audience – Bruce Willis, Jeff Goldblum, Kathleen Turner, Christina Applegate and Reese Witherspoon aka the Green sisters. It’s a hard trick to pull off stunt casting without you know, looking like stunt casting, but when Friends was the biggest show in the world, it managed just that. It had its doldrums seasons too: 9 and 10 were often watchable, but showcased a show that was a former shadow of itself. As for the Emily debacle of Season 4/5, the less said the better, even though it did give us a corker of a season finale and also this marvellous quiz. When one considers a ten-year run which contained an unbroken string of sparkling seasons, it would be churlish not to forgive and forget those indiscretions. 

The legacy of Friends is best seen in the television its absence has bequeathed us. From New Girl to Happy Endings, nothing quite lives up to it and perhaps nothing ever will. And we need to be okay about that and just let it die, already.

 

 

Oh, look how ridiculous good-looking and clean-cut they were.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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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