On Television.
John Robert Brown

The television in my hotel room is showing a long and lively concert of orchestral lollipops. Surprisingly, the following programme is given over to an interview with an elderly composer. Then - unbelievably - comes a performance of the Poulenc Sextet. From this richness of classical music on television you'll have guessed that I'm not watching terrestrial television in Britain. No, I'm in Tokyo, the interview is in Japanese, as are the credits, and therefore I can't even tell you the name of the orchestra, or who the conductor was. Nor, for that matter, do I recognise the venue. But from the appearance of the western audience, with a preponderance of men wearing Gunther Grass moustaches and women wearing dirndls, as well as musicians playing brass instruments with rotary valves, it is easy to guess that the programme was recorded in Southern Germany or Austria.

It doesn't matter, because as a gaijin (Westerner) in Tokyo, rendered illiterate and isolated by my inability to understand more than a few words of Japanese, classical music is a great consolation, whether or not I know who's playing. Good music soars across national boundaries as serenely as the sun and moon. Yet even with televised classical music programmes such as these, a complete evening on which has been lavished loads of love and lucre in a way that we'll never see in Britain, televised orchestral music is still a night of a thousand disappointments for those viewers who, like me, are players. As ever, the production style is frustrating. I sit alone in my Shinjuku hotel room wondering how producers of classical music on television still get it slightly wrong, however good their intentions, whatever the budget, and wherever in the world they are working. South Bank or Suntory Hall, it's the same.

It all comes down to what we're shown, what we're not shown, of course. It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. Looking through manuals dealing with television production I discover much about lighting and plenty of advice about what's normally done. One entertaining site I found on the web, written by Steve Hall, a BBC lighting cameraman, gives all sorts of advice. "Unlike rock and pop coverage, you are usually expected to start and finish on a static shot," he confides mysteriously. "There is usually a principal viola, but rarely is a shot of them asked for, he says. No explanation for that. I wonder why? Mr Hall also reveals to aspiring cameramen just how contrary orchestral musicians can be. Really? "Beware the second flute," he warns. "These have a habit of leaning forward just when you have a down-the-line shot of the principal playing his or her solo. They do this deliberately just to wind you up." Flautists take note.

Steve Hall also helps those TV crew members new to classical music by describing some of the more unusual instruments. "The Cor Anglais looks a bit like an oboe that has sucked up an apple," he says. There must be a 'core' joke in there somewhere, but he spares us that one. Whatever, even television crews have their problems and preoccupations. I suppose I should feel sympathy. But I still think that they could do better.

As a player, I want to see action, information, details. I want more specifics, fewer generalities. Of course we have to look at the wide shots of the auditorium, the orchestra, the audience. Naturally it's nice to witness pictures of dignitaries, beautiful women, handsome men, celebrities, and views of the hall. And it's fun to include a few (but only a few, please) of those clichés of rows of string scrolls, the insides of the piano, and the bells of instruments - even those which have sucked up apples.

Close-ups of perspiring faces and bulging veins make for good drama, I have to agree. I've never forgotten seeing the shaking fingers of a British clarinettist caught in a close-up as he embarked on a taxing cadenza during the last night of the Proms, long ago. Neither has he, I'm sure. Yet there is so much more action that could be revealed. Let's be shown more fingers, faces, not ears, and feet. Don't forget an occasional peep at a page of music.

Some shots of hands and fingers are frustrating to watch. Both hands of woodwind players need to be seen, not one. The backs of violas have elegant grain patterns, but don't give viewers much insight into playing methods. Please show the fingerboard, preferably with bow and left hand in shot.

Particularly irritating are those pictures taken by that cameraman crawling around on the floor. He's trying to be unobtrusive to the live audience, no doubt, though I question this when he wears white trainers. But pictures of a keyboard taken from somewhere below the pianist's elbow have limited interest. Dramatic and unusual the shots may be, but they are not revelatory of any special keyboard technique if we can't see the performer's fingers.

While he's on his knees, let's remind the cameraman and his director that some of us regret the fact that feet are usually completely out of the picture, neglected. It's regretted because that's precisely where television could help us to view what's, er, afoot. Let's see what pianists and timpanists do with their pedal extremities. Let's have a peep at what keeps harpists on their toes. And while you're down there, don't leave out the rest of the band. Many times I've sat in the stalls at a concert with the string players' feet in my line of sight and been fascinated to see how many musicians surreptitiously waggle their toes inside their shoes in time to the music. Even conductors sometimes tap their feet. Once, long ago, working in a theatre pit, my seat was close to the conductor's rostrum, so much so that I was more aware of his feet than I was of his stick. The difference in beat between boot and baton was instructive.

And the editing of a television programme can sometimes leave us baffled. In particular I'm thinking of the Young Musicians' competitions, where we are only shown recorded highlights. It's obvious that mainstream television hasn't got time to take us bar by bar through every performance. We understand; but television producers love perfection. They want to show us the good bits. Therefore, what ends up on our screens is a series of heats where each performer is presented as having performed note perfect. We don't hear what the judges heard, so we can't come to the same conclusions. To viewers, the subsequent adjudication is astonishing, the programme perplexing.

There's an old Woody Allen gag about two old ladies chatting in a summer resort on the Catskills. One says, "The food in here is terrible." "I know," says her friend, "And the portions are so small." Like those old ladies, I am grumbling about the quality and the quantity of televised classical music - at least in Britain, if not in Japan. Maybe the two are connected? Get it better, more people would watch, and more programmes would follow. Worth a try.

First published in Classical Music magazine. Used by permission.

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