TELEVISION / Pop opera

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The Independent Culture
'WE CAN all discuss the relative merits of Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa and Nigel Kennedy,' said Evelyn Glennie at the beginning of her new series Soundbites (BBC 2). Oh yeah? Who y'all calling we? I would, with some nervousness, venture money on being able to have a conversation about Domingo's diet, Kiri's dress-sense and Nige's spray-painted BMW in the local pub but you'd have to give very good odds to tempt me on anything more high-minded than that. Still, it is virtually obligatory for cultural popularisers to be blindly optimistic about the public appetite for art and this could be forgiven as innocent exuberance, entirely fitting for a series which will attempt to bring classical music to a wider audience. Only a Tex Avery cartoon separates this in the schedules from Def II, the BBC's entertainingly didactic pitch at the 'I'm not a bloody kid anymore' audience, which perhaps explains something of the determinedly cheerful style.

On Channel Four Harry Enfield is currently assuming nothing about the audience for his introduction to opera, barring the fact that they will want a comedy sketch now and then. Glennie doesn't offer any gags but her starting point is similar - like Enfield she finds her first toehold for the ascent on the cultural heights in theme tunes and adverts and is groping with the other hand for the tiny ledge afforded by the racier styles of classical music marketing. On the evidence of the little taster at the start of the programme the series will feature the sort of musicians who are young, attractive and don't stomp out when asked to recline semi-naked on a Harley-Davidson for the cover photograph for their recording of Bach Partitas. Indeed it may have been an itchy conscience that prompted a brief discussion about attempts by record companies to brush away the fusty image of classical music, because this is essentially a lively version of one of those sampler CDs you find taped to the front of most music magazines.

Around a mixed programme recorded by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and special guests, Glennie introduces brief interviews and profiles. Last night included Messiaen's Turangalila, so we were also introduced to the ondes martenot, the musical instrument which underpins the piece (and makes it, to my ears, sound as if it is being broadcast from Hilversum during a bad storm). They could be a little less tentative about telling people hard facts but the programme is nicely ambitious about what people will listen to and they don't (mostly) talk over the music.

Anyone unwittingly switching over to find Russ Abbot delivering a short lecture on William Blake could be forgiven for thinking that cultural outreach had got out of hand, but this was just a bit of character brushwork, filling out the mild, bereaved teacher he plays in September Song (ITV). The jury must still be out on whether he can act, I'm afraid; he didn't put a foot wrong here but the character is so inoffensive and obliging that it wouldn't challenge a speak-your-weight machine to turn in a convincing performance.