Television: Three orchestral studies

A new fly-on-the-wall documentary series focuses on real life behind the music stands
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Christopher Warren-Green was Leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra for six years in the 1980s. He was so busy during that period that he didn't even have time to hang the curtains in his London flat. He admits that he came close to burn-out: "They used to say London Leaders aren't found growing on trees - they're found hanging from them." He reckons that you have to share the responsibilities of being Leader - "otherwise, you die". Now, he unwinds after a day's playing by taking an axe into his wood-shed and bringing it down hard on a block of wood which "you pretend is the conductor's head... It's a very good antidote."

Other members of the orchestra - who play in excess of 600 sessions a year - are equally pressurised. Violist Mike Lloyd discovers that 18 years of alcoholism and clasping his instrument under his chin have contributed to a life-threatening thrombosis in his left shoulder. Principal clarinettist Mike Whight, frustrated by the orchestra's failure to employ a co-principal to ease his workload and desperate to see more of his family, is forced to walk out of his job. He says that playing in an orchestra means you have to "subjugate your own personal ideas. You have to say `I don't matter'. Only the guy on the podium matters."

Meanwhile, violist Carol Hultmark regularly drives hundreds of miles home late at night in order to be there to cook her children's porridge in the morning. And you thought being a member of an orchestra was just a matter of turning up and busking along to the "Pastoral" Symphony.

The Phil, Channel 4's new three-part fly-on-the-baton view of the band, featuring Christoph von Dohnanyi (above) may well do for the Philharmonia Orchestra what The House did for the Royal Opera House. It may have no Keith Cooper figure indulging in macho phone-hurling or sacking, but the series zooms in on the sort of difficulties that beset almost all hard- pressed arts organisations. The personnel manager has to oversee rehearsals to ensure that they don't run a single minute late and incur costly overtime payments. Pavarotti cancels a performance at the last minute and the sales and marketing manager confesses that her first reaction is "panic". Most seriously, the orchestra's benefactor and president is arrested after a young girl commits suicide.

Lol Lovett, the series producer, admits that "the orchestra weren't happy that we focused on problems such as Mike Whight's, but in any film you look at how people deal with problems. If an organisation expects excellence and doesn't accept second best, then there are bound to be difficulties. But the most effective way of getting across to an audience how an organisation works is to show how it solves problems. Caricatured films just focus on the problem rather than the solution."

The Philharmonia is a paradigm of many modern companies where employees feel overworked and underpaid. "What we were looking for were universal stories," Lovett confirms. "When you're a mother and you work hard, it's very, very difficult. Carol is fantastic at articulating that story. She has the joy of producing wonderful music, but it's tough going because it means leaving home at 6am and not kissing her kids goodnight until midnight. But you do it because you want all that in your life. That could be any working mother."

For all that, the fly-on-the-wall documentary is a genre that is increasingly falling into disrepute, with regular reports of scenes being mocked-up for the camera. Lovett, however, is robust in his defence of his style of film-making. "I don't go in for that sort of thing. When things are staged, it just looks two-dimensional. The real thing may look awkward - it's not always smoothed at the edges - but you know it's true. In docu- soaps, people are often parodied - there's been enough in the papers about that kind of film - but what I've tried to do is tell things as they are. If you don't go for the cheap gag and you make sure you're accurate, you get a much stronger film. People can see it's from the horse's mouth. It has that resonance."

Lovett denies the other accusation perennially levelled at these type of films - that they're all a stitch-up. "It's a matter of building trust between the film-makers and the organisation. I've worked with Roger Graef [a highly respected documentary director], and I once spent a year in Wandsworth Prison making Turning the Screw. I've never filmed anywhere I couldn't go back to. The thing is not to behave in a duplicitous way. I've been in and out of favour with the Philharmonia - sometimes within the space of a week - but I've worked to maintain a constant relationship, even though our agendas are different. If anyone says `why?' about a particular scene, I can always justify it."

At a preview screening, both the managing director and the chairman of the orchestra were reportedly happy with the documentary. The key to developing that trust is simple: being there.

"We spent eight months filming 400 hours for a three-hour documentary," Lovett says. "At one point when we were with the band on tour, we notched up 44 days without stopping. We followed them everywhere, even into the toilets - only joking. We weren't just flitting in and out. When there's that kind of effort, it's reflected in the film. The honesty of the film- makers towards their subjects shows through. That's the relationship that counts."

If the films have an aim, it is to shed light on the sometimes opaque universe of classical music. "I hope the viewer will say `that world was obscure to me, but now it's more clear'," explains Lovett. "The films are meant to open up classical music to people who otherwise might not be interested. I hope it makes that music available to them because they'll realise it's made by people like them, people with the same concerns. I hope they'll say, `oh, this stuff isn't just for others'."

So on Monday morning, if you hear someone next to you on the train humming Brahms's Violin Concerto, you'll know why.

`The Phil' starts tomorrow at 8pm on C4

Comments