Prom 38: BBC Concert Orchestra/ Gamba, Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio 3

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The Independent Culture

It was billed as the "Great British Film Music" Prom. Our host, the actor Timothy West, spoke of a golden age in British cinema, of "great music for great films and great music for terrible films". He didn't elaborate. No need. They know who they are. And so do we.

It's true, though, that the period surrounding the Second World War was prolific for Brit-ish film production. When Colin Welland stood up at the 1981 Oscars and announced "the British are coming", the fact is they'd already been and gone.

The prestige of British cinema in the early Forties could be measured by the succession of leading British composers (most of them Knights of the Realm) queueing up to score movies. Even Ralph Vaughan Williams (and where was he in this retrospective?) was moved to comment that film composition was turning into a fine art. In those days, of course, directors were more inclined to fashion their films around the music. Sir Arthur Bliss composed most of his score before filming began for HG Wells's Things to Come, the last and most substantial of the items to feature in this BBC Concert Orchestra Prom under Rumon Gamba.

There can be no doubting that Gamba is a real conductor, with real feeling for the context of a fragmented programme like this. That's always a problem with film music: the big tunes stand tall, but the underscoring means nothing. With Things to Come, men and machines were summoned with the urgency of an over-running soundstage session. The anvils clanged, the brass roared their bellicose rallying calls, swaggering their way through one of the best marches a Brit has ever given to the world. The band sounded galvanised, and Bliss's best clip - the "Epilogue" - was properly aspirational.

And yet, earlier in this second half, John Barry, one of the "modern screen masters" represented, must have been wondering what he had done to deserve such a flaccid realisation of his rather fine score for The Lion in Winter, the BBC Singers sounding as though they'd picked up their music on the way on to the platform. His "John Dunbar theme" from Dances with Wolves briefly ennobled proceedings (even the trumpet solo was almost clean as a whistle), but then came Goldfinger, and Barry without Bassey just didn't hack it. License to thrill revoked.

Of the earlier offerings, Alan Rawsthorne's The Cruel Sea had lachrymose cor anglais and bassoon solos alluding to Shostakovich, Richard Addinsell's "Warsaw Concerto" from Dangerous Moonlight (though I'd much rather have had Goodbye Mr Chips or Tom Brown's Schooldays) aped Rachmaninov - a tune to remember, a film to forget - and Sir Arnold Bax recycled a gorgeous theme from an earlier, unfinished work (In Memoriam) for David Lean's Oliver Twist.

But then on came Gamba, in headmaster's gown, dragging two scruffy schoolboys (Roderick Elms and Alistair Young) to the piano, there to bang out their tawdry school song to the accompaniment of seven male percussionists in fake pigtails. The Belles of St Trinian's were never this scary. But, joking aside, Sir Malcolm Arnold's inspired musical jesting will probably endure longer than anything else on this bill of fare. Miss Fritton's crème de la crème have soured nicely.