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A concrete epiphany from the Multi-Story Orchestra

This concert in a Peckham car park offered an unusual sonic experience.

Yet again, the Prom of the season was broadcast from a car park in South East London (26 August, 3pm). “This is going to be a performance of thrilling intensity,” promised Tom Service, who’d been listening in on rehearsals of John Adams’s three-movement, Mahler-ishly shattering Harmonielehre, played by the Multi-Story Orchestra.

In Peckham, the venue was so rammed that the orchestra was sitting almost amongst the audience, the sounds of the street rising loud from below, even though the concert was happening on a floor near the very roof of the building. My sister was one of the orchestra’s violinists, and she said that when the time came to start, you just picked up your bow and immediately felt the music in your blood. It was something to do with the heat of the afternoon and the low ceiling of the space and the smell of meat and bread being sold in the shops beneath, and the fact that people were crying – players and audience – rattled by each flinch and pulse of the opening surge of E chords. These had been inspired in Adams by the sight of a gigantic tanker in San Francisco Bay, and some of the rest of the piece came from a dream about his young daughter flying through the cosmos on the back of a medieval theologian.

“I could feel my belly fat wobbling,” texted my sister later, still experiencing the near-neuralgic reverberations that had been concentrated and amplified to such a degree that the car park had acted as one immense concrete speaker flinging sound across the city. What exactly had she been doing on her instrument? “Slow high tunes with precise bow control. Solid rhythmic quavers crossing all the strings. Harmonics, fast tremolo, glissandos…”

Occasionally, we heard the cry of nearby trains hurtling past, “casting our applause into silence” as Service gasped during his radio commentary. He sounded increasingly like someone experiencing great love for life. When he interviewed members of a local youth choir, also singing on the programme, one of them – 12 years old perhaps – said that the afternoon had made him want to rise up and think. Somebody should print that on a T-shirt.

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.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game