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23 November 2017

Chance encounters of the classical kind

Strauss from a student’s window; Bach behind an unattended door – my most memorable experiences of music have often been stumbled upon.

By Armando Iannucci

Sometimes planned excitement can be superseded by an unexpected reality. On the night of Tony Blair’s first election win in May 1997 I fronted a three-hour live TV comedy show covering the results as they came in. It was the longest satire show in BBC2’s history, and viewer-wise we gave the commercial opposition’s more serious coverage a run for its money. Among other things we had the great comic actress Sally Phillips dressed up as a whore in a helicopter, ready to land live in the constituency of the first MP to be elected that night and create the first sex scandal of the new parliament, so you’d expect my main memory of that night to be doing the show itself.

In fact, my most treasured memory is of something that happened after the show was over, and it’s of me at about two o’clock in the morning, possibly drunk, sitting next to Valerie Singleton on a beer-Stusodden carpet cheering loudly at the proper television coverage as the Cabinet minister Michael Portillo lost his seat. To those of you from outside the UK or under 35, Valerie Singleton is a fabled TV presenter from the childhood of people my age. She’s an icon. Sitting drunk next to her was possibly the UK equivalent of finding yourself standing next to Wonder Woman.

I was similarly usurped by a pleasant surprise last month when I was directing a feature film. Directing a film is normally something one should get very excited about. Not a lot of people get to do it, everyone treats you like you’re important, and you get to boss actors around and tell them to do anything you want. It’s an astonishing ego trip, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has the slightest psychotic tendencies. But it was fun. I was filming a political comedy and, for budget reasons, the scenes set at the UN in New York were being filmed inside the Royal Festival Hall in London. Which is where, while I was meant to be concentrating on directing an enormous crowd scene recreating the UN Security Council preparing for a major vote authorising international military action, I was instead popping through an unattended door that led into the concert hall itself. There Krystian Zimerman was rehearsing on his own all afternoon. Standing listening to a piano master playing a Bach partita seemed much more important than anything else, and for a brief moment film-making seemed like a lot of expensive buffoonery. Eventually I got my act together and left the hall to go back to the day job. Filming was fun and fulfilling, but my memory of that day will always be of the man at the piano.

It reminded me of a similar stumble about ten years ago when, for my sins, I found myself hosting a telecom conference in Birmingham. It was at the newly opened Birmingham Symphony Hall and, during a toilet break, I went through the wrong door and turned up in the upper circle of the concert hall itself as Simon Rattle was rehearsing the CBSO and Chorus in John Adams’s Harmonium. I found myself the only other person in the hall and got treated to a performance of the whole piece before I suddenly remembered I was meant to be next door, introducing a thousand businesspeople to the UK’s leading telephone marketing strategist. That day job was less fun than the filming.

I love stumbling upon music. Especially when the music catches you unawares, but so completely that all your other priorities are dumped for a moment. I first got to know Bruckner in the early 1980s when there was a trend for playing it in the background of TV space documentaries. Hearing it for the first time, the music seemed much more interesting than anything the presenter was saying or any of the wonders of the Universe his team of computer graphicists were simulating.

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We can easily complain today that music is so omnipresent, blasted out of the corner of every room or public building we stagger into. But that at least gives us the increased possibility we might happen upon something unexpected or new. Wandering into a church at lunchtime in a busy city and hearing someone practising the organ. Going for a walk and overhearing a piece playing loudly on someone’s home system through an open window. That’s how, when I was an undergraduate still working out what his attitude to classical music was, I found myself rooted to the spot absolutely mesmerised by the sound of Strauss’s Four Last Songs drifting out of a student’s open window. I’d never heard such unashamed but sincere romanticism before and it had me frozen to the floor.

These unexpected surprises remind me of music’s unique ability to come at you like an overheard conversation. Such moments leave you speechless and still; neither do you want the moment to pass nor the time of day to start up again. They’re reminders of what one must never take for granted.

This is an extract from “Hear Me Out: All My Music” by Armando Iannucci, published by Little, Brown

Armando Iannucci appears at Cambridge Literary Festival – in association with the New Statesman – on Saturday November 25 at 7:30pm