The sounds of snow and silence

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WITH the death of Sir Michael Tippett, the country's most intrepid composer becomes its most distinguished too. I refer, of course, to the adopted Orcadian Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who for a quarter of a century has lived and worked in a crofter's cottage on the bleak Scottish island, in conditions of austerity that would send most musicians hurrying back to the cosy salons of the city.

For the past month, however, Sir Peter has gone to still further extremes. Donning almost enough protective clothing to clad the Albert Hall, he has been seeking inspiration in Antarctica of all places, as a guest of the British Antarctic Survey. And last week I talked to him via a satellite phone link that was so clear it made Sir Peter sound as if he was sitting only a few desks away from me.

Culturally enlightened body that it is, the British Antarctic Survey - in conjunction with the Philharmonia Orchestra - decided to commission a symphony to mark the 50th anni- versary of the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, the score for which was Ralph Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica. Sir Peter was obviously the man for the job.

Vaughan Williams wrote his work without ever getting closer to the South Pole than the music room of his Surrey home. But for Sir Peter, even at 63, the challenge of experiencing the icy wastes at first hand was irresistible. "I'm still reeling from it all," he told me as his expedition drew to a close.

Visions of Sir Peter striding out across the snow in a compositional reverie, or sitting at a grand piano as it drifts away on an ice floe, would be somewhat wide of the mark. "I've spent most of my time alongside teams of BAS scientists," he said. "We've flown out to remote stations, picking up and dropping off research people, and delivering supplies." Scherzos and recitatives have been less a preoccupation than melting snow for drinking purposes, and "going to the toilet without it freezing your bum off".

The nights Sir Peter has spent in the barracks-type accommodation at the BAS headquarters in Rothera have been relatively comfortable. But he has also camped out in temperatures as low as minus -15 C - not bad for someone who is officially too old to visit Antarctica (the BAS's age limit is usually 60) and who had to pass a special medical to do so.

Then there have been the crevasses. "That's what everyone is constantly aware of," Sir Peter said. "We've flown trial runs over stretches of the ice trying to spot them. When you're green like me you have an assistant to look after you, and he walks ahead of you with a stick, feeling for any holes in the snow."

The overall effect on Sir Peter as a composer has been profound. "It's pushed me to the edge of something I'd had intimations about," he said. "It's to do with a silence broken only by the sounds of wind and snow. I'll come to terms with it only when I sit down to write the music."

The Philharmonia Orchestra will premiere Sir Peter's Antarctic Symphony - his eighth symphony - at the Royal Festival Hall in May 2001. "It will probably be quite large - a serious statement." In the meantime he has to finish a BBC commission for a seventh symphony.

Having to follow where Vaughan Williams has gone before - musically, at any rate - is daunting, Sir Peter admitted. But there is an appropriateness about it too, and not simply because the scale and growing lyricism in Sir Peter's work make him British classical music's closest heir to the Vaughan Williams tradition.

When the Sinfonia Antartica was given its first concert performance - by the Halle Orchestra at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1953 - the 18-year-old Peter Maxwell Davies was in the audience, having paid 7/6 for a ticket that would give him a seat from which he could see Vaughan Williams, then aged 80. "He was a very dignified old man with a hearing aid that kept whistling during the performance," Sir Peter remembered.

Not that Sir Peter has much time to dwell on the past. This weekend he was flying back to London and then on to Linz in Austria where he conducts a concert of his music on Thursday. It should feel positively tropical there.

TO THE National Film Theatre for a special screening of Quentin Tarantino's new film, Jackie Brown, and the Guardian-sponsored interview that follows. Radical chic is in the air. Noel Gallagher and Maxim Reality, member of rock controversialists Prodigy, give each other big hugs; Sharleen Spiteri, lead singer of Texas, is there; so too film director Terry Gilliam.

A bigger surprise, perhaps, is that Jackie Brown departs from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in its restrained depiction of violence. And Tarantino's image softens further when he reveals in his conversation with the NFT's Adrian Wootton that one of the few occasions on which he has been star- struck was when he went backstage at a London theatre a few years ago and was introduced to Peter O'Toole.

At the reception that followed I asked Tarantino to elaborate. What was the play? He looked a little sheepish. No, really he did. "I can't actually remember," he said. "But I do remember that Tara Fitzgerald was in it." That narrowed the field down to one: Our Song, a love story based on a book by Keith Waterhouse.

What about O'Toole? Did the meeting make as big an impression on him? He needed little prompting from me to remember it, loyally claiming Tarantino as an artistic brother-in-arms. "Pulp Fiction is the present-day Titus Andronicus," the acting legend pronounces.

Do you believe in deja-vu?

I SUPPOSE one should admire a theatre critic who keeps himself in blissful ignorance of his rivals' opinions. Nevertheless, it was surprising to read Sheridan Morley begin his column in this week's Spectator with the words, "Along with no other theatre-goer I have ever met above the age of 10, I have all my life believed that JM Barrie's Peter Pan is the greatest British play of the century." Surprising because only four months ago Michael Billington caused quite a stir in the Guardian when he listed his Top 10 Plays of the Century - with Peter Pan at No.1.

THE PROSPECT of a new play by Tom Stoppard always causes a frisson. But the one that recently ran through BBC Radio seems to have been unwarranted. It won't be happening, at least not for the forseeable future. Why not?

The version of events doing the rounds at Broadcasting House would have us believe that the BBC under John Birt is as bureaucratised as its critics have been claiming: a producer of long acquaintance agrees with Stoppard that he will write a new play for Radio 4. Delighted, the producer reports this to a meeting of his superiors - a tier of commissioning editors recently introduced as part of changes to the network's internal structure. The editors aren't impressed. Has Stoppard made a formal proposal? Of course he hasn't. This is Tom Stoppard we're talking about. That doesn't make any difference. Still needs to fill in the forms. As a result - no play.

Stoppard says that after a conversation with a script editor in which he said he "would do one if I can", the BBC sent him a form. But they were jumping the gun. Stoppard didn't have a play to offer them. He would do so "only when I've got one". And since he averages new plays once every five years, and his latest, The Invention of Love, has been running at the National Theatre for less than six months, we may have to wait a while.

Brideshead postponed

WHILE on the subject of cultural highlights that might have been, how many people, I wonder, tuned into Channel 4 last night expecting to see the start of a re-run of Brideshead Revisited? Channel 4 had included it in its original listings, and many of last weekend's papers went to press accordingly. Since then, though, the re-run has been put on hold, because of "difficulties over the rights". I'm assured by Channel 4 that it will be shown "at some point in the future". Director Charles Sturridge remains sanguine. "I don't know very much about it, I'm afraid," he tells me. "But I wouldn't have thought it can be that complicated. I'm curious to see what sort of reaction the series would get now."

AT LEAST Jeremy Irons - who made his name in Brideshead - is a happy man. He is one of five "stars of British cinema" who will be be at the French Embassy in London tomorrow morning to receive the Ordre des Arts et Lettres from the French Minister for Culture and Communication. Felicitations also to Stephen Frears, Peter Greenaway, Mike Leigh and Michael Radford.

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