A sobering experience

Is this the beginning of the end for tabloid-style TV news? Let's hope so

<strong>Ten O'Clock New

So, the BBC news operation has a £550,000 new look. Was it really worth it? The main innovation is a spinning-globe logo in red and white stripes. At least, I presume it's a globe. I was a little tipsy the evening that the new look "went live" and, as I draped myself soddenly in front of the Ten O'Clock News, it looked to me more like a pool ball than our wretched and abused planet (older, colour-blind viewers may even have mistaken its appearance for the return of Crown Green Bowls to prime time).

Whatever. Such cosmetic adjustments are the outward face of a big reorganisation of news at the BBC: more than 450 staff will be lost over five years and, for the first time, radio, television and internet journalists will sit beside one another, working closely across every "platform". Money will be saved, efficiency improved and Huw Edwards, the main presenter of the Ten O'Clock News, will - or so I read - have only half an hour in which to rehearse his lines rather than three hours.

Huw Edwards. It's a sign, surely, of the irredeemable direness of ITV's News at Ten that the BBC programme regularly pulls in more than twice its audience (4.8 million viewers to ITV's 2.2 million) even though the programme is presented by the sullen-looking Edwards and, thanks to the credit crunch, despite being increasingly hampered by the stretched vowels and mangled consonants of Robert "Smarty-Pants" Peston, the BBC business editor. Imagine what the ratings would be if Fiona Bruce was given the job of presenting this bulletin, or if Stephanie Flanders, the BBC economics editor, on whom I have a major crush - strictly intellectual, of course - elbowed Peston out of the way.

The only people left watching ITV would be Sir Trevor's wife, Julie Etchingham's mum and Prince Harry (it's my hunch that HRH Mahiki and his bro are more likely to go for loud bongs than pool balls: aren't they supposed to be rather fond of Tom Bradby, the ITN political editor with the baby-bottom cheeks?). At which point, someone would be duty bound to turn off all the lights on set on the grounds that their effect on global warming was greater, and more pointless, even than that of the Rolling Stones' last tour.

It's hard to explain why exactly News at Ten is so unwatchable. Obviously, there's Sir Trevor, whose unpoetic delivery almost matches Peston's for weirdness. But Etchingham, poached from Sky, is perfectly competent, if bland. The aforementioned Bradby is excellent, especially when he's doing analysis to camera; he resists hyperbole and hamminess with every fibre of his posh soul, which is a wholly good thing. No, the problem is not with staff, but with tone: the straining for excitement, the desire to tease and titillate, the patronising way it explains complicated matters such as science or mortgages to us dumbos. The word I'm looking for, I guess, is tabloid.

When ITV reclaimed the 10pm slot three months ago, I worried that, in order to compete, the BBC would go the same route. We started hearing the word "exclusive" more often, and there were more pointless outside broadcasts, featuring Edwards standing white-faced and anoraked beneath an arc light (I despise these: presenting from the Zimbabwean border rather than inside Zimbabwe is, in reality, no different from presenting from London, and presenting from Praia da Luz is just plain sick). But things have calmed down now - even if Nick Robinson can be somewhat excitable, especially when he has been drinking frothy coffees with naughty backbenchers.

There is something pleasingly safe about the BBC's reporters. I'm not talking about its stars so much as its infantry; I'm not talking gravitas so much as diligence. You feel instinctively that the likes of Richard Bilton and Adam Mynott have worked hard to bring their reports to you. The success of the Ten O'Clock News gives me hope: that we are finally tiring of tabloid values; that the shouting match that is the multimedia age is leading us, slowly, to crave sobriety, to be grateful for considered and judicious editing.

Journalists everywhere, take note. Though this isn't to say, of course, that I don't admire Fiona and Stephanie's natty blazers very much indeed.

Pick of the week

Grand Designs Live
4 May, 8.05pm, Channel 4
New series of the only property show that deserves to survive the economic crisis.
The South Bank Show
4 May, 10.50pm, ITV1
Melvyn Bragg meets Liza Minnelli.
Women in Black
May, 7.30pm, BBC2
Amani Zain, a British Muslim, looks at women’s fashion in Yemen.

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 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

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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