Friday, June 19, 2015


"Architecture, said Hegel, is frozen music; and Donald Swann's music has often been compared with defrosted architecture." - Michael Flanders

They certainly don't make them like they used to. Nobody would ever make a television programme about music like David Munrow's 1976 Granada series Early Musical Instruments. It would have to have a much sexier title, for a start (or at least a weakly punning one like "Sounding the Past"). And there's no way it could just include performances of music interspersed with very knowledgeable commentary by one man - at least one character representing us, the viewers, would have to be included to show us when to be impressed, when to find the music sad, when exciting. Having said all that one can't entirely regret that the delivery of presenters has changed. As astonishing a man as Munrow was, the patrician plumminess both of his delivery and his scripts is something we can no longer take with a straight face, and this is by no means to be regretted. Not that he is in the least patronising - his sheer enthusiasm shines through at every moment. But some scenes rise to the level of true - albeit entirely unintentional - comedy, such as the percussion demonstration made in one take, where we can see the percussionist behind Munrow desperately hurrying to make sure he gets the next instrument ready in time. (And I love the farting bagpipe.) But laughing at something doesn't remove its value - in fact it is a component of what we might call charm, something which I think is lacking from much recent television. A compilation of moments from the series is below; the DVD can be ordered here and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Lord Rogers appeared on the radio this morning, calling for Robin Hood Gardens to be designated as a building of special architectural interest. This put me in mind of an entirely different example of "they don't make 'em like they used to" programming, a neglected item in the great B.S. Johnson's oeuvre: his 1970 BBC film The Smithsons on Housing, made when RHG were still under construction. (Though if you don't know Johnson's films, start with his greatest work.) As with Munrow, their is no doubting their absolute commitment, but whereas the Munrow films are joyfully ridiculous, here the affinities are with the horror film. The Smithsons' flat delivery and blank eyes are chillingly cold. Were they just uncomfortable with the camera? The standard narrative would be that they were arrogant mandarins, and clearly something of that remains in force today, as evidenced by the way Rogers this morning brushed away the information that a recent consultation claimed that 75% of the inhabitants of Robin Hood Gardens want it demolished. And yet despite everything their passion does come through in this film, and the complete absence of any ingratiation is, in the context of today, quite astonishing. Perhaps it is the pain of the confrontation of utopian desire with the disappointments of fact that cultivated such attitudes. If we really want to examine the meaning of elitism in the arts and public life - something which is mentioned with a frequency that is intended to prevent its interrogation - these two films should be central texts. 

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