arts, books, other reviews

GUYS AND DOLLS

Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling

Piccadilly Theatre,

current cast confirmed until 3 December

Any production of this finest of all Broadway musicals must contend with the memory of the classic film starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, and also with the National Theatre production of a decade or so ago, which persuaded many of us to love and admire this work as near perfection as we are likely to see this side of heaven. This production by Michael Grandage for the Donmar Warehouse bears comparison. If, overall, it does not transcend its predecessors, it nevertheless possesses many merits and virtues of its own and can reasonably be mentioned in the same breath. In one scene, the show-stopping production number ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,’ it does go one better than the film and the National Theatre production.

One of the great attributes of the piece is the language. Based on novels by Damon Runyan, Guys and Dolls sketches a stratum of New York society, a petty criminal sub-culture, centred on illicit gambling. No doubt it is an overly romantic view, never quite seedy enough, never dangerous, never violent; but it is viewed with a heightened sensibility and a graceful formality. The script employs the vernacular, the argot of the hoodlum, the jazz-inspired conversational speech of the Thirties and Forties, but rendered with grammatical exactitude. For its full richness to be appreciated, the actors have to speak with an almost Shakespearean precision. The great mistake of the modern actor is to speak Shakespeare’s verse as if it is prose, chopping it up in modern speech patterns and invariably losing the spring and pulse of the writing. The same can be true here. The dialogue must be phrased with an idiomatic formality, just hovering on the edge of artifice. Not all of the players here manage that. Too often the dialogue went for too little, too rushed and unidiomatic. The best was Norman Bowman who played the relatively small part of Harry the Horse.

The plot involves the attempts of Nathan Detroit (Douglas Hodge) to find the money to engineer a floating crap game and to avoid marrying his long-time girlfriend Miss Adelaide (Jane Krakowski). This runs parallel to and overlaps the attempt of Sky Masterson (Ewan McGregor) to win a bet by taking the Salvation Army Sergeant Sally Brown (Jenna Russell) to Havana while she is intent on saving souls. It is a musical plotted with precision and with little or nothing extraneous. The songs usually help to further the story.

There is no weak link in the cast. Ewan McGregor was criticized in some early reviews for a hollow central performance. It may be that he has grown into the part since opening night, because he was far from an anodyne Sky Masterson. Although he did not have the undercurrent of threat and danger that Marlon Brando memorably brought to the part, he was a superficially much more attractive character, an engaging chancer rather than an unsettling presence. He sang well, danced with some panache and brought verve and pace to his performance. Jenna Russell as the Salvationist Sarah Brown was a perfect foil. She was warmly human and threw herself into the nightclub dancing without losing a sense of innocence: a neat trick to pull off. Douglas Hodge as Nathan Detroit was magnificent. He moved about the stage as if constantly aware of his shadow, dodging and weaving. He captured the desperation at the heart of such a character, the restlessness and anxiety. This was a subtle, generous portrayal. His relationship with Miss Adelaide was judged to perfection: devoted, yet reluctant to commit matrimony. Jane Krakowski was beyond praise. She was touching and tough, wounded and sassy, sharp and naïve, knowing and too-trusting. She gave a sparkling and sympathetic performance. The set pieces in the seedy nightclub, ‘Bushel and a peck’ and ‘Take back your mink’ were brash and brassy, full of inventiveness. Of the other great set-pieces, ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’ stopped the show, but the audience was denied its encore, and ‘Luck be a Lady Tonight’ was gangster chic at its best.

It was a superb ensemble production and performance, pit and stage as one. Tickets are as hot as the Havana nightclub, but go to any lengths to see this wonderful, literate, tune-packed show.

John Grainger

art

Nelson and Napoleon –

a look at two heroes

Greenwich Maritime Museum

Entry £9. Concessions £6

The exhibition at the Maritime Museum Greenwich commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. It looks at two very different men, both brilliantly successful in their separate spheres. Nelson on sea and Napoleon on land were outstanding leaders, strategists and administrators. They were at the centre of the struggle for power and dominion in the eighteenth century. Both men were aware of the importance of their public image, and extremely careful of how they were presented. This makes the portraits and cartoons in this exhibition of special interest.

Their early careers are compared – Nelson was the son of a country clergyman, and went to sea as a midshipman under the patronage of his uncle Maurice Suckling. He rose quickly through the ranks, and was distinguished by his quick, decisive thinking and personal courage. His uniform, on display, shows that he must have been a small, slender man. There is a delightful painting of him as a young captain among the memorabilia of his early years.

Napoleon, coming from a minor aristocratic family in Corsica, went to the Military School at Brienne at the age of 10, was a brilliant student at the Royal Military School in Paris, and played a distinguished part in the siege of Toulon in 1793. Two short years later he was Commander of the Army.

The exhibition follows both their careers, with details of the battle campaigns, and wonderful paintings, both of sea battles and land engagements. There are models of ships, diagrams of sleeping arrangements, charts of the firing positions of gunners. There are mementoes, souvenirs and letters – giving a glimpse of the human side of the conflict.

On both sides of the Channel there was an explosion of patriotic artefacts – plates, buttons, mugs, jewellery, embroideries, and printed fabrics. There is a huge range of these to be seen.

Cartoons were, and still are, a powerful way of communicating political truths and untruths. Gillray’s savage drawings are well-known, and were matched by the equivalent in France. Posters and caricatures in both English and French give an idea of the ferment of contemporary feeling.

Both men were painted frequently during their careers. There is a marvellous life-size painting of Napoleon by Ingres. It shows him not as a military commander but as a civic benefactor. Dressed in a magnificent red velvet suit, frogged in gold, he rests his hand on a large scroll. Here is a man who is not just a soldier but a mature statesman, with care for the welfare and administration of the country.

The portrait of Nelson by Beechey, which hangs nearby, was criticised as showing him as much more burly and substantial than he actually was. It is interesting to compare this finished portrait with the preparatory oil sketch, which shows a much thinner and more expressive face than in the finally accepted version of the naval hero.

The Battle of Trafalgar itself is displayed on a large, horizontal computer screen, with the ship movements described by an excellent running commentary – five minutes of easy-to-absorb naval tactics!

The sequence of the battles, both naval and military, in which both men were engaged, is well laid out and explained. The struggle for political and trading supremacy, combined with the love–hate relationship which existed between the two countries was, for many of their countrymen, epitomised in these two men, Nelson and Napoleon.

The exhibition, which is labelled in both languages, is the result of co-operation with French museums, with many pictures and artefacts not previously seen in this country. A lot of information is available in a very attractive and lively layout.

Anne Gardom

books

WAY OF THE CROSS

Pope Benedict XVI

Catholic Truth Society, 64pp, pbk

1 86032335 1, £1·95

These Stations of the Cross were written by Pope Benedict XVI as one of his last acts as Cardinal Ratzinger. They were written, at the request of Pope John Paul II, for the traditional Via Crucis procession on Good Friday around the Colosseum in Rome. Pope John Paul, for the first time in his long pontificate, was unable to be present and he died fifteen days later.

The Stations follow the traditional pattern of a gospel reading and meditation at each station, and a prayer, followed by the Our Father and a verse of the Stabat Mater between Stations. It is a beautifully produced and attractively presented booklet, as are so many published by the Catholic Truth Society, and priced to be well within the range of all.

Stations of the Cross stand or fall on the quality of the meditation and the prayers, or the suggestions for intercessions. This set will not disappoint. There is much competition in the field and many will be attracted to more modern presentations. My template is always the tried and tested Stations of St Alphonsus Liguori, which never fail to satisfy at public or private Stations.

Pope Benedict’s meditations deal with some themes that have emerged from his pen during his years in the public eye, and are underpinned by scriptural references well-integrated into his commentary.

At the first Station he writes of the crowd, ‘They are shouting because everyone else is shouting, and they are shouting the same thing that everyone else is shouting. And in this way, justice is trampled underfoot by weakness, cowardice and the fear of the diktat of the ruling mindset.’ ‘Mindset’ may be a tad inelegant, and may be the fault of the translator, but the point is well made.

At the third Station we read of the ‘arrogance which makes us want to be liberated from God and left to ourselves, the arrogance which makes us think that we do not need his eternal love, but can be the masters of our own lives.’ There could not be a more succinct or telling critique of modern secularism and its aridity. The same is true of this statement: ‘the great ideologies, and the banal existence of those who, no longer believing in anything, simply drift through life, have built a new and worse paganism, which in its attempt to do away with God once and for all, have ended up doing away with man.’ These are important things to hear.

But this should not be read as a political tract or manifesto. There is much to sustain and to contemplate, to refresh and renew. There is much of consolation, and how consoling these words must have been to Pope John Paul as he heard them from his room in the Vatican watching the Stations on television: ‘Let us look upon him at times of trial and tribulation, and realize that it is then that we are closest to God.’

The prayers that are offered for use are excellent; specific and concrete. These Stations could profitably be used either when making a personal Way of the Cross, or with equal benefit if used corporately. There are many versions of Stations on offer, many of which offer insight and uplift, and these Stations are worthy of the best. They can be commended with confidence and gratitude.

D.R.E. Williams

BEING A DEACON TODAY

Rosalind Brown

Canterbury, 140pp, pbk

1 85311 624 6, £12·99

Ask the average church-goer what or who a deacon is and, if they know at all, they will say something to the effect that it is the person in the parish who is doing their final year of training in order to become a priest. While this is indeed true, the Church as a whole is grave danger of forgetting that it has a threefold ordained ministry, and that the deacon is as much part of that ministry as are priests and bishops.

This book tries to address the issue of the diaconate in a manner that can easily be understood by cleric and laity alike, and roots the ministry of deacons firmly back into their New Testament origins.

Although she was not a deacon, rather a religious, to many people Mother Theresa exemplified the work of a deacon. Although in a public role, she was motivated by the love of God and carried out her ministry in essentially practical terms. In the CofE, when the diaconal ministry was lost in the nineteenth century, the orders of sisters did the diaconal work of calling for the sick and dying, looking after the poor and neglected and working with children in our inner cities; now with the restoration of the permanent diaconate there is a chance to reclaim this vital aspect of all ministry.

However, the deacon’s role is far wider that this, as a bridge between priest and people, and as an enabler to the laity, and this little book deals with these areas, and further explores that concern in the liturgy, where they work with others in expressing Christ, being servant of the servers, cantor of cantors, reader of readers, enabling the Body of Christ to worship in harmony.

Similarly there is the pastoral ministry, the catechetical ministry, the intercessory ministry and the mission at the margins of the world. It is a varied ministry explains the author, and those who seek a theological explanation for its re-emergence as a distinctive ministry will find it here.

Patricia Turner

THE TRINITY APOCALYPSE

Edited by David McKitterick

British Library,

188pp & CD-Rom, pbk

0 7123 0690 0, £19·95

Among illuminated manuscripts, this mid-thirteenth century edition of the Apocalypse is notable not merely for its unusually large size and the superb, detailed and highly imaginative illustrations, but as an exemplar of a cultural world of which we are now largely ignorant. Both the New Testament text and the extensive commentary upon it are in Anglo-Norman. This was a work open to aristocratic lay participation (and this included women), using the book from Scripture which was most open and encouraging to imagination and speculation.

This book was an item of prestige in itself, and it most probably had some close connection with Eleanor of Castille when she married Henry III’s son, Edward, in 1254. It was also an expression of an intellectual involvement in the theology and politics of the period. This illustrated study is scholarly and technical, but it shares with the ordinary reader an understanding of just how many fields of inquiry can be encapsulated in a single book. The moral ordering of the universe, the progress of history, perhaps even an explanation of the invasion of the Tartar tribes into eastern Europe; the wealth of nations, the integrity of the individual, the salvation of the soul. Next to contemporary millenarianism, this thirteenth century tome is a wonderfully sophisticated and coherent artifact.

John Turnbull

Paul: His Story

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

OUP, 260pp, hbk

0 19 926653 0, [£16·99]

In the culture wars which have laid waste Protestant Christianity in the last seventy years, Paul the Apostle has been par excellence the ideological football. Every eccentric grouping and more eccentric opinion has been attributed to him. He has been portrayed as a bigoted misogynist, a supporter of women’s ordination, a closet gay, the man who perverted the simple teaching of Jesus into a theological distortion which ended up as the Catholic Faith. The authorship of many of his letters (or substantial parts of them) has been hotly challenged. Did he write Ephesians? And what about the Pastorals?

Small wonder that new Christians, and those who are returning to the faith after a substantial vacation, are confused and bewildered. They come to the New Testament and the writings of Paul from a world dominated by Dan Brown, where the hermeneutic of suspicion and innuendo rules OK. They enter, moreover, a church (as the Bishop of Winchester asserted in last month’s New Directions) ‘many of whose members, and indeed lay leaders, do not regularly and expectantly read Scripture.’ We are a ‘gobbet church’ – fed, not on the wholeness of the Scriptures, but upon lectionary segments selected on a thematic basis.

Here is a brief and manageable book which, with remarkable success, tries to summarize what we know of Paul; to provide a plausible pattern and chronology of his life and mission, and to demonstrate the development and essential coherence of his written works. This is not A-level stuff (‘Paul’s missionary journeys’), nor is it post-Christian special pleading (Andrew Wilson’s Paul: the Mind of the Apostle); it is, from the pen of the somewhat pedestrian guide to the Holy Land, a careful and useful account of what we can, with confidence, say about the life and ministry of Paul.

Give this book to intelligent lay people who have been bewildered by recent developments. If you are a parish priest read it to reaffirm the background to your preaching and exposition. It is not a work of systematic theology. It is an intelligent attempt to create, for our time, a credible psychological portrait of the most influential and controversial New Testament personality, after Jesus.

Geoffrey Kirk

A MINSTRY

sHAPED BY MISSION

Paul Avis

T&T Clark, 148pp, pbk

0 567 08368 3, [£14·99]

Despite a stunningly dull cover and banal title, this is a clear, sane and comprehensible survey of much serious current thinking on new forms of ministry. I did not agree with all he said, but I was greatly heartened that a book like this can still be written in the crumbling CofE. From an Anglo-Catholic perspective, he may perhaps detach ministry too much from Church, but he does offer what the title promises. He describes what mission is and then describes how (principally ordained) ministry makes sense with this imperative.

Above all, he gives a coherent unity to the three orders of ministry by comprehensively rubbishing the patronizing servant model of the diaconate. ‘If service is the defining characteristic of deacons, how does this distinguish them from all lay and ordained Christians and why do they need to be ordained? It is almost as though, in the case of deacons, ordination is a sacramental sign of a morally virtuous disposition, a fruit of the Spirit, humility. That is not what ordination is for. Churches have been agonizing about the diaconate, but their perplexity is created by theologizing on a false premise.’

Relying on the work of the Roman Catholic writer, John Collins, and re-reading Paul’s teaching, he comes to a more solid and coherent understanding of the deacon as ambassador or envoy, one who is sent to fulfil the commission, to obey the orders of the king, to carry out the service of the lord. As Jesus might have said, ‘The Son of Man came not to give orders but to carry out orders, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

Let us lay aside this false emphasis on ever so humble service and return to the carrying out of the mission of Our Lord. Then there will be a coherent and biblical unity to the three orders of the sacred ministry. ‘If we can get the diaconate right this will help us to reach a true understanding of presbyteral and episcopal ministry as well.’ Quite so.

Nigel Anthony

THE FAHRENHEIT TWINS

Michael Faber

Canongate, 276pp, hbk

1 84195 673 2, £12·99

A collection of seventeen short stories. I checked with reviews of his earlier work, and sure enough the word ‘dazzling’ was used to describe his prose. I now see why such an adjective should be used: I quite agree. Not that it is a particularly useful description, but a quick browse of any page should reveal whether you warm to his writing or not.

His treatment is generally satirical and hugely inventive. What intrigued me most was his quality of sympathy. In some stories, he shares a deep empathy with the struggle of the central character – the young heroin-addicted mother yearning to establish a relationship with her young son, whom she has been allowed to take to the swimming baths, under the watchful supervision of the social worker, before handing him back to the foster family, was moving and powerful. In others, there is a vicious streak – the suppressed lust of sixty-seven businessmen as they gather to listen to the luscious Miss Soedhono lecture them on the efficient fertilization of coconuts was harshly mocked.

Most fascinating of all was the eponymous story. The twins, boy and girl, are at an indeterminate stage of pre-puberty, living with their parents in the far north of Siberia, in a world of cold and snow. Their strange world on the edge of fantasy requires of them that they establish rituals and myth to make sense of and to give structure to the boundless, featureless environment.

It is powerful writing and a convincing thesis: the need for ritual, so that if one is not given it, one must go out and find it. The opening stories of Genesis have here been transported to the present and moved to the north. In its strange way, I found the tale convincing. What proved fascinating was the cruelty of the rituals and the meanings taken from them. Post-Christian or pre-Christian? This is how the world would be without the biblical revelation of compassion. Chilling.

John Turnbull

Why Terror – is there no alternative?

Edited by Abduljalil Sajid

Caux Books, 40pp, bklt

2 88037 600 9, £2

This is a booklet compiled by a Brighton imam and recently published, which gives a humble, thoughtful approach to how the world addresses terrorism.

Imam Abduljalil Sajid watched nineteen evil men change the world on September 11, 2001. His response, inspired by a Christian friend, was to gather thoughtful contributions from nineteen Muslim friends as a counter to that evil. Each contribution has about it a note of humility, with a facing of their own prejudices, fears and hatreds. It is an eloquent attempt to conquer evil with good through a speaking out of the truth in love.

The contributors see the truth about the evil in the world as having a balance about it so that all interest groups should be self-critical. The arrogant self-interest of Western powers is balanced by the lack of democracy and human rights in Muslim societies, which is a prey to an extremism directed against the West. The writers see violence as abhorrent to Islam. Fanaticism can be overcome only by justice and not by violence. It is a question of tackling the roots of injustice.

Amongst the stories is one of a former Lebanese militiaman, Hisham Shihab, trained to kill Christians but now a journalist and lecturer. He writes of a moment of truth when looking through his rifle sights he saw a Christian woman resembling his grandmother and could not fire. He quit the army and became a passionate agent in the defusing of hatred in Lebanon. ‘I decided to move from the house of fear to the house of love.’

‘There are Muslims who claim to be religious but try to impose their views on others by force,’ writes Imam Sajid, and what Christian viewing history would not say the same of their co-religionists? ‘Like other religious traditions, Islam recognizes the right of peoples to challenge aggression, even though it puts a higher premium on forgiveness.’ In the light of this, and the world’s present crisis, it is heartening to read so many personal testimonies to the ultimate priority of love and humanity

This booklet is remarkable for its generous, humble tone and an underlying conviction that the world needs to address the causes of the evil behind terrorism – the gap between rich and poor, the plight of refugees, the perceived indifference of the West – as much as she needs to identify and apprehend the terrorists themselves. As the book cover states, ‘the greatest danger is not the weapons, but the wells of hatred and anger, injustice and corruption that power the people who wield them.’ Islam is one with other religions in being a resource to cleanse such wells.

John Twistleton

The Genius in the Design

Bernini, Borromini

and the rivalry

that transformed Rome

Jake Morrissey

Duckworth, 320pp, hbk

0 7156 3383 X, £20

For all its eccentricities this is good and useful book. If you are going to Rome, you could do worse than pack it in your hand luggage for bedside reading after a long day in search of culture.

At the heart of the book is the curious and dangerous relationship between Bernini and Borromini, which ended in the suicide of the latter. Bernini is portrayed as the Mozart of the piece – urbane, polished, assured in society, the protégé and darling of Popes and Cardinals; Borromini as the Salieri – a social disaster, driven by black moods and personal jealousies, gauche, awkward, his own worst enemy. The difference, of course, is that both were equally talented, Borromini perhaps the more brilliant architect of the two.

Morrissey takes us through the major building projects of their respective careers, from their collaboration on the St Peter’s baldacchino (was the final solution for the crowning volutes Borromini’s rather than Bernini’s?) to Bernini’s plagiarism of the perspective gallery at the Palazzo Spada in his Scala Regia. In a way that enlivens our appreciation of the buildings themselves, we are asked to take sides in a battle of giants and a battle of taste. Bernini emerges as the master of the grand and sweeping gesture, of which the St Peter’s colonnades are the startling example. Borromini is the carver of cherry stones; his San Carlino on the Via XX Settembre the most inventive and perhaps the most beautiful building of its generation.

And what of the spirituality of these two men which together transformed Rome into the epitome of the Counter Reformation, which it essentially remains? Bernini, it seems, was a conventional Catholic with an eventful sex life. (Said a French roué of the glorious statue of St Theresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria: ‘If this is Divine Love, I know all about it.’) Borromini was an ascetic, a regular communicant at his parish church (San Giovanni dei Fiorentini), a celibate and a recluse. Morrissey portrays his willingness to give his services for free to corporate religious clients as a counsel of despair. I doubt it. The records seem to indicate (certainly in the case of San Carlino) that a deeply, privately religious man was giving to God the talents which God had bestowed so generously on him.

Was Borromini a ‘gothic’ (or even a ‘gothick’) architect? In the days when the term was one of abuse it was certainly levelled against him. Morrissey associates the claim with Borromini’s northern origins (he was born in Lombardy). But there is nothing derivative about the ‘gothic’ of Borromini. His masterpiece, the dome of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, is like nothing which preceded or followed it. Comparisons with the Tiburio on Milan cathedral are fanciful and misdirected. The floating solemnity of the interior and the goats-horn spiral of the surmounting turret are personal assertions, at the heart of an institution devoted to classical leaning, of the glorious freedom of individual genius.

Despite Jake Morrissey’s type-casting, Borromini is no Salieri. He did not do mediocrity. This book will help you appreciate the genius of both its protagonists; but of Borromini the more. A walk from Santa Maria della Vittoria to the Palazzo Quirinale will never be the same again.

Mark Stevens

THE MYSTICAL LANGUAGE

OF ICONS

Solrunn Nes

Canterbury, 112pp, hbk

1 85311 657 2, [£14·99]

I remember reading the foreword to Rowan Williams’ book on icons of Mary (Ponder These Things). Its author, the Archbishop’s erstwhile professorial colleague in the Oxford Divinity Faculty, Bishop Kallistos Ware, remarks on the novelty and originality of Dr Williams’ interpretations. After a moment’s thought, I began to suspect that Bishop Ware was not being straightforwardly complimentary.

My suspicions have deepened since reading this superb book by the distinguished Finnish iconographer, Solrunn Nes. She is quite clear that the icon painter should eschew originality: ‘the content is determined by the holy Scriptures and the Traditions of the Church.’ And she explains ‘that is why the work process is marked more by discipline than inspiration.’ As she herself demonstrates, the interpretation of icons is similarly rule-governed. The book is full not only of her beautiful rendering of icons in different styles, Greek, Russian, Melkite, Serbian and Cretan, but also contains her learned and orthodox commentaries on their composition and theology.

As Nes reminds us in the wide-ranging introductory chapter (The Icon – A Glimpse of the Divine), icons are indeed works of theology. The icon ‘must express the true teachings in visual form, just as preaching is expressed verbally.’ And she goes on to tell us about the icon’s canonical status, dogmatic character and liturgical function, which explains why ‘the painter is subject to church discipline.’

This chapter also includes a succinct analysis of the issues at stake in the iconoclastic controversy (726-843). This leads into a simple but profound account of the Incarnation as the foundation of the art of the icon: ‘The Incarnation gives matter a holy capacity… The icon is a piece of transformed matter with a sacramental character – a physical sign of a divine presence.’

However, you will want to have this book above all for the pictures! The colour and clarity of iconic images can sometimes be disappointing; that is hardly surprising considering they are often centuries old. But I guarantee you will not be disappointed by the reproductions in this book of Solrunn Nes’ icons. The colours are vibrant and the faces of the figures arrest the attention of the viewer – as of course they should. ‘It is as if the spectator is being looked at by the person in the portrait,’ Nes explains in her extremely helpful account of matters of perspective (inconsistent, inverse and hierarchical) in iconography.

But as I have said you will want to have the book too for the lucidly orthodox interpretations which accompany each of the icons. Check out the difference between Mother of God Platytera and Mother of God Pelagonitissa – and bend the knee! Solrunn Nes’ website is <www.icon-painting.com>. Her icon of the Transfiguration can be seen at Aylesford Priory.

Simon Heans

endpiece

ON PROMS AND PROMMING

Royal Albert Hall

Unlike many European capitals, London in August is full of music and much of it at the Royal Albert Hall. The promenade concerts have come and gone but the sounds linger on. In recent years there has been a subtle, almost subliminal shift in the Proms. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts which were broadcast on the wireless, the Third Programme (Radio 3), and the second half of the Last Night was televised with Sir Malcolm Sergeant conducting; white button-hole, ramrod stance, perfect tails. Many will remember his agonizing last appearance. Gaunt from the cancer that would kill him only a few days later, he addressed his beloved Prommers (‘Young ladies, young gentlemen’) for the final time. Things changed after that.

But we now notice that we have something called the BBC Proms, over which Sir Henry (‘Timber’) Wood’s bust presides. No one could grudge the BBC its prominence. It is an expensive enterprise, and its coverage is more comprehensive than ever. All the Proms were broadcast on Radio 3, several were televised, including the complete First and Last Nights, on the main channels, and the excellent BBC 4 devoted some three or four weeks to the evening’s concert. This is all encouraging and commendable, if somewhat undercut by the witless explanatory subtitles for the opening concert, but we might begin to see something of a corporatist culture developing. This was always a suspicion of that greatest and most flamboyant of English conductors, Sir Thomas Beecham.

There is a tendency to puff the Proms as the greatest of musical festivals. It may have some justification in calling itself the largest, but ‘greatest’ requires a degree of critical detachment that the BBC may not possess. What about Bayreuth? What about Salzburg? What about Edinburgh? Where the Proms do score highly is in their audience (and not just those who stand in the Arena). Those in the Arena certainly attract most attention and can be smugly annoying; a self-regarding coterie, a clique, if not a claque, who manage to make even their charity collection self-righteous. And yes, the ‘heave’ when the piano lid goes up; the chanted puns and witty lines can all pall and appal, but virtually every artist who performs in front of them says they are the most attentive, the most concentrated audience they know. The best place to be is not the Arena but the Gallery. If you want the real Prommers, go there.

Nor should they be judged on the high-jinx of the Last Night. The BBC always seems uneasy about the Last Night. They accept it in a grudging way. From time to time they are gripped more firmly by political correctness than usual and try to modify and tone it down. They usually fail, and ‘Land of Hope and Glory,’ ‘Rule Britannia’ (sometimes cruelly curtailed) and ‘Jerusalem’ survive another year. The BBC fears it because of what it is, an expression of a national culture, of a shared sense of belonging, of a common heritage that goes deeper than the shallow soil of multiculturalism that is the be all and end all of the chattering classes today.

In recent years, when we wear our emotions on our sleeves and reticence is no longer a valid option, the Proms has responded to the death of Princess Diana, the wicked terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, and this year to the outrageous and unspeakable events of 7 July. It is as if our emotions are only genuine and can only be expressed by some public display and some corporate spasm.

Despite the reservations, despite the liberal consensus of the BBC, even despite the appalling Alan Titchmarsh (who is responsible for promoting him from the compost heap to overblown, pretentious and preposterous documentaries, and allowing him to spout platitudinous, cloth-eared, threadbare musical clichés from a box at the Royal Albert Hall? What is he for? Is he capable of anything but self-promoting mediocrity?), the music is what matters, and this season all could be forgiven (although not Mr Titchmarsh) to have heard Placido Domingo and Bryn Terfel in a searing and titanic performance of Die Walkure with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera in stupendous form under Antonio Pappanno; or to have listened to the Hallé under Mark Elder perform the Dream of Gerontius. It is a work deep in the orchestra’s soul and it was given an incandescent performance. If Anna Coote did not efface the great Dame Janet Baker as the Angel, she touched the hem of her gown, and Paul Groves was the most ardent, fervent, passionate Gerontius since Richard Lewis.

Thomas Bowling

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