Take Anthony Collins's Vanity Fair, played on Monday, and supposedly a portrait of Regency England. If you think the central characteristic of Regency England was a brisk, optimistic prissiness, then this little canter might have had something to say to you; historical insight aside, it was a bland, uninventive piece. And most of the other music heard followed the pattern. The only pieces that seemed to have any life at all were those that borrowed it from elsewhere - like the March from Trevor Duncan's Little Suite, better known as the theme tune for Dr Finlay's Casebook. So the idea of this stuff having a renaissance is anything but welcome.
This probably wouldn't bother me if there didn't seem to be so much of the rubbish around. On Sunday, Radio 2 devoted a whole hour to the composer of The Typewriter (aka the theme to The News Quiz), in Sleigh Ride: The Leroy Anderson Story. "Story" was pitching it a bit strong: Anderson's CV didn't feature much in the way of incident (it is emblematic that he spent the war working for US Army Intelligence in Iceland), and David Jacobs was hard put to assemble a narrative of a life without landmarks. Still, that is in keeping with the music, which is basically Eric Coates with sound-effects - typewriter bells, sleigh bells, coconut shells. (Those were in The Syncopated Clock. As Jacobs pointed out, composers since Haydn had used clocks in their music, but only Anderson had thought of making them syncopated. Which makes Haydn look pretty dull and unoriginal, doesn't it?)
This all seems to be part of a conspiracy to soothe, along with the Easy Does It Christmas Special (R2, Sat - Jacobs again), Classic FM's nightly Smooth Classics at Seven, A Merry Maxmas (with Max Bygraves, R2, Christmas Eve) and Des O'Connor... With a Christmas Audience (R2, Mon - though O'Connor at least has a degree of vim and professionalism). It can't be a coincidence that all this blandness comes creeping out of the woodwork at Christmas. It looks like a deliberate response to a time of year when people's thoughts turn towards ways of restraining themselves from throttling their loved ones. Perhaps we should welcome it; but it leaves me depressed. Music as a means of transcending circumstance seems to be getting thrown aside; this is music as a means of suppressing feeling, of achieving spiritual numbness.
Just to prove that soothing need not mean bland, Radio 4 is broadcasting a short season of work by Piers Plowright, the BBC's most distinguished features producer, who retires on his 60th birthday this Tuesday. In An Artist in Sound (Christmas Day), Plowright recalled a story of his father's about the General Strike, when he heard the sound of a revolutionary mob advancing inexorably towards him, which turned out to be a flock of sheep. The moral? That sound is ambiguous - open to interpretation in a way that the visual is not.
The point was beautifully demonstrated in two other programmes in the season: Mr Fletcher, the Poet (Christmas Day) and Mr B (Boxing Day). Both consisted essentially of a lone voice telling its story. Jeff Fletcher was a Leicestershire builder who wrote poetry in his spare time, winning the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1951; Mr B was James Bellamy, an elderly schoolmaster who taught Plowright's own son, and who professed a passionate, distinctly old-fashioned blend of discipline and kindness.
A less subtle producer might have challenged their stories, poked at the self-pity and self-love that was an undertone in both; or might have tried to draw out the emotional aspects of the story with music: something in a minor key, say, to underline Mr B's grieving for a boy who had died. But in letting them speak for themselves, Plowright gave them an integrity, a wholeness as well as an honesty, that won respect. In their way, these programmes hinted at a kind of wisdom and generosity that, well, seems rather in tune with the spirit of Christmas.Reuse content