This is what should be on a TV Studies degree curriculum

A swift jog through past the TV shows that laid the bedrock for the programmes we're enjoying today.

I am the beneficiary of a good university education. I studied journalism – a long ago time when we believed we could save print media. Now, we know we’re doomed but the skills and knowledge I picked up in those three years – shorthand, media law, how government and politics work, radio and TV editing – have held me in good stead in this brave new world.

So let’s turn that logic to a possible TV studies degree. What television shows of the past 10-15 years would we include in the curriculum? What would we consider utterly indispensable to understanding modern telly? What laid the foundations for the telly landscape of today? What is worth studying for clues on how to do it, or how not to?

The list below is entirely subjective and not at all exhaustive, and crucially, the shows listed are not flawless: they all have issues around racism and representation, and the treatment of women. But they also planted the seeds of whatever TV goodness we are reaping today. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

Deadwood. On first look, this HBO series starring Timothy Olyphant and Ian “Lovejoy” McShane looked like worthy American drama: real “how the west was won” stuff. But then it slowly becomes something altogether more complex, with two amazing men at its centre: one an opportunist in the best (and worst) way; the other a principled, rigid man who falls and cannot forgive himself. Alongside their stories are smaller, less showy ones, urgently told, with a cast and direction that is basically flawless. Without Deadwood, there would be no Game of Thrones and no Justified, and how much poorer would we be for that?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is television and television is Buffy. It’s that simple. Every show that came after had a little Buffy Summers sprinkled on it. Iconic episodes such as “Hush”(where there are only 17 minutes of dialogue in a 44-minute show), and the gut-wrenching “The Body” (where Buffy discovers her mother, dead from a brain aneurysm, on the sofa) are as good as any television show has a right to be. It had season-long storytelling arcs, complex heroes to root for, villains to despise but understand, tricky pairings and truly high stakes (the end of the world, several times). Ten years after it ended, it’s still influencing telly. Every zippy pop-culture reference in Happy Endingshas some DNA from Buffy; and Teen Wolf, Fringe, The Vampire Diaries and so many more series owe it a huge debt.

State of Play. The TV version, not the Russell Crowe film. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since this was on. A Paul Abbott script and acting masterclasses from James McAvoy, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald and David Morrissey created a memorable BBC drama. Its impact can be seen in everything from The Shadow Line to Spooks (after series one) to the recently reimagined House of Cards, Hunted, and Scandal.

The Office. Whatever he has become in the years since his defining sitcom, Ricky Gervais invented one of the great television characters in David Brent.

This was human telly, cruel and funny and tender, with no laugh track to guide you. A properly influential programme, as evidenced by its many, disparate offspring: Parks and Recreation, Party Down, Armando Iannucci’s Veep, and its own US version, starring Steve Carell.

Sex and the City. It has become fashionable to call SATC vapid, dated and just plain silly. This is largely, I think, down to the two movies it spawned, although I will loudly and passionately defend the first of them with my dying breath.

But it bears repeating that the TV series succeeded in every way that it set out to do: it was a damn fine comedy, bold and often unflinching, unafraid of criticism, and crucially, it captured the zeitgeist. Girls is what it is because of SATC, as is Entourage, and any number of recent comedies.

The Wire. You knew this was coming? If you still haven’t watched it – why? Every small-screen, long-form narrative show of the past decade is a descendant of this, from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Homeland to The Killing. To say The Wire is great is only a cliché because it’s true.

Every show that came after had a little Buffy Summers sprinkled on it.

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

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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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