THE CRITICS TELEVISION: If music be the food of love, I want to know why

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
It doesn't seem quite fair to blame a programme for not living up to my (wrongly formed) expectations of it - but I can't help it. I was all ready for Music and the Mind to explain at last, in the most exciting terms, the baffling function of music in our lives. I assumed Lord of Misrule, with its starry cast of British comedy actors, would be funny. And I thought Captives was going to be a serious treatment of compulsive sexual love. No such luck.

Why do we respond so profoundly to abstract manipulations of sound; how does music communicate? Paul Robertson, first violinist with the Medici String Quartet, hopes to explain in his three-part Music and the Mind (C4). He's a very amiable fellow, and he plays unaccompanied Bach lustily at the drop of a hat. Somewhere in him is all the info I need and want on this subject - but that doesn't make him an expert at TV documentary. He assured us that music was deeply emotional, then ruined it all with one graph of alpine zigzags after another, and lots of intimate cross- sections of the brain (revealing tiny areas of activity when a patient was listening to music). Ho hum. I'd expected something intriguingly philosophical, or psychological, or anthropological. What we got was arid science.

The footage of people actually playing music was fine. An interpretation, based on Robertson's scientific research, of how that music acts upon the listener would have been fascinating. But most of the experiments were done with bland computerised music, and Robertson's conclusions seemed to spin off aimlessly in all directions. Look, if all humans are born musical and programmed to dislike "wrong" notes, why do some people involuntarily play or sing out of key, and why do some composers deliberately write discordant tunes? If the comforting nature of music relates to memories of hearing the heart in the womb, why don't we respond similarly to digestive gurgles, and why do we want tunes rather than merely a persistent drum- beat of some kind? I need some answers here! (And don't just give me another chart, or a lingering look at some human guinea pig with electrodes stuck to his head.) Why is it, for instance, that my brain is not happy with Paul Robertson's explanation?

"Is that your car down there? You must look like something out of a tampon ad," says Richard Wilson in his grumpfest voice at the beginning of Lord of Misrule (BBC 1). The joke, if that's what it was, fell flat. Perhaps it was the domino effect, but all the subsequent jokes fell flat as well, and many of them were equally unintelligible. Did he think his granddaughter looked like a woman advertising tampons, or like a tampon itself? We'll never know, but she was immediately put in charge of leaks.

Wilson played an ex-Lord Chancellor with dirt to dish on his former colleagues, including a photograph of the PM with a rent-boy in Singapore. The details are offered to a sleazy journalist and to the Tories, depending on who can produce pounds 500,000 the quickest. An attempt is made throughout to poke fun at the present Government, but it is so mild and meaningless that they're unbesmirched. Who's appalled any more by a Tory sex scandal, especially a fictional one? It didn't help that Prunella Scales made much too genial a Fisheries Minister. The only people efficiently mocked here were Cornish folk in the village, stoned on smuggled cannabis and subject to weird pagan rituals. The ex-Lord Chancellor's granddaughter Emma arrives, like the heroine of Cold Comfort Farm, to sort it all out.

There was a hedgehog flap in the kitchen door, a housekeeper named Ethel who scratches herself with a thigh bone her late husband brought home from WW2. The house is lit by wind-powered electricity, so is always dark, the ceilings are falling in, and at night the family plays poker with photographs of relatives, the ugliest only trumped by the maddest. Down in the village, the GP is a punk and most of her patients trot about in festive horse or dragon costumes. Like the hash-brownies everyone's eating, the whole thing was effortfully spiked with all the ingredients for comedy - but it wasn't funny. Funny, that. Perhaps Wilson's familiar irritable act can't carry a one-and-a-half-hour drama. (And there were too many dead animals about.)

Theoretically, Captives (Screen Two, BBC2), about an erotic relationship begun during a dental appointment, could have been hilarious. But the sense of gloom and doom overcame the inherent silliness of a tale in which part-time prison dentist Julia Ormond, beautiful of course, reaches parts of a convict (Tim Roth) other dentists might avoid. When asked what she knows about this new lover, she replies, "Well, I know he doesn't wear dentures!"

What seemed to be developing was a melancholy study of the thrills of illicit love (he grabs her bum while she attends to his gums), the odd power of a woman over an imprisoned partner, and her own susceptibility to suggestion (he has killed his unfaithful wife; she has just left an unfaithful husband whom she may yet kill). Tension climbed as they partook of physical delights in a loo (nowadays, simulations of sexual intercourse are acceptable where simulations of defecations wouldn't be) and fought their way through difficulties in communication but, like many an affair, it all seemed to fall apart when too many other people got involved. There was Keith Allen as a psychopath with a mop, convicts who need to be kicked in the groin at a moment's notice and a highly improbable murder at the end, with repeated visits to the same pub and cafe, where surreal blue neon lighting contrasted with the drab prison environment: this modern Romeo and Juliet were tragically torn asunder by decor.

Witness: Trying Tadic (C4) admirably filled us in on Dusko Tadic's background in the mainly Muslim town of Kozarac. The Tadics had a reputation for fighting, possibly bullying, and in their home movies seem to have been forever roasting whole pigs on stakes. There was footage of the previously lively town, now totally empty, but Tadic's wife is unrepentant: "[The Muslims] have done better than we have. They all went to the West ... and they all have flats. My fate has been a hundred times worse than theirs." That's if you don't count all those who died in the detention camps the Serbs set up on a previous fun-fair site.

We're a pretty sick species. Richard Mabey's unexpectedly powerful series Postcards from the Country (BBC2), makes of nostalgia something poignant and unsettling. A Kentish man recalls looking out of an aeroplane, upside- down, at his old village, "and there was nothing there. Everybody that I'd ever known or loved was gone. Even the house I'd lived in." Kent's apples, cherries and hops are going, and with them any remaining understanding of how to coexist with nature. The disappearance of the old world, vividly illustrated here with archive footage to corroborate personal recollections, began, according to one commentator, with the arrival of the first bus in the village: hello, comparison shopping. But I think it was the guns they used to kill the pretty bullfinches who ate the cherry blossoms. From there it's but a small step to feeding cows meat. Mabey is somehow optimistic about the future - I can't see why.

Comments