TELEVISION / Talking out of his arias: Giles Smith on Harry Enfield's Guide to Opera

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The Independent Culture
Harry Enfield said his interest in opera was awoken like any other ordinary punter's: he caught a few bars in the adverts; he dabbled at home with some arias and highlights on record; he started to experiment with the harder, full-length operas on CD; he began going out to score at concerts. And from there it was just one inevitable slow slide into presenting his own Channel 4 series on the subject. (Ordinary punters may find this last stage of the addiction less easy to get to.) So, here's Harry Enfield's Guide to Opera, dedicated to popularising Puccini and his chums, but more importantly (let's face it) dedicated to popularising Harry Enfield, which, after the brilliant Harry Enfield Television Show, hardly seems necessary.

'Getting into Verdi,' Enfield assured us, 'was as easy as getting into Michael Jackson.' This is a cheerful thought, though it runs the risk of recognising no difference between Rigoletto and 'Heal the World'. There clearly are distinctions between Verdi and the King of Pop. (Verdi, for instance, has never been considered good enough to perform in the interval at Superbowl.) But one doesn't need to get into the tricky area of deciding whether they are specifically qualitative distinctions or not in order to recognise them. Maybe Enfield really did cotton on to Verdi as if he was a singles artist, but it does seem hugely unlikely. That statement, like a number here, came across as a rather desperate push for the popular vote - like the patent untruth which is the slogan on English National Opera's current advertising campaign: 'Everyone Needs Opera.' No they don't, and the fact that so many people clearly find their bearings with Whacko faster than they do with Verdi should probably be something which a beginner's guide tackles rather than denies.

Still, the skits were fun. With his superb sidesman, Paul Whitehouse, Enfield brought on Dad and Son, the market traders. 'We know op'ra, don't we, son?' 'Corse we do.' Best of all, they summed up standard opera procedure in under two minutes. A few clips: 'Act One: bird comes on - warbles.' 'Act Three: mixture of snoggin' and violence - bit of mistaken identity - 'alf time.' 'Act Four: one of the blokes has a bit of a sing by 'imself - reads a letter from 'is mum.' 'Act Five: . . . total audience mayhem.' This was as funny as anything in The Harry Enfield Television Show and yet, in a way, its humour was outside the programme's beginners- welcome brief. If you didn't already know something about opera, and probably enough to make your own mind up about it, these jokes would not work.

The biggest barrier to opera is probably not musical at all, but rather monetary (just about the only people who can afford to attend regularly are, ironically enough, pop stars), and Enfield had no answer for this, though he tried. During an audience scene, the camera panned encouragingly to some ordinary-looking people in jumpers. 'If you can afford Andrew Lloyd Webber,' said Enfield, 'you can afford Puccini.' But then, what kind of people can afford Andrew Lloyd Webber? And how many of them can afford him more than once a year?

A conspiracy theory lurks somewhere in the programme's margins and runs something like this: the people are desperate for opera, but they're excluded by a small but vicious guard of buffs and ponces. In fact, when people can afford opera (in Hyde Park, on the Three Tenors video) they take it, and have been doing so for years. And perhaps the oddest thing about the programme is how behind-the-times it seems. Its equivalent, in terms of missing the sociological boat, would be a programme heartily recommending football to the middle classes. We know op'ra, don't we, son? Corse we do.

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