Monday, 26 January 2009

The idiots in the EMI reissue department

One sometimes has to wonder at the tests companies conduct when hiring people. For example, when hiring for its call centres, does BT have a rigourous process for eliminating helpfulness and honesty? Similar questions exist concerning the staff who have responsibility for the back catalogue of EMI.

In these days of broadband internet connections and other such technology it really shouldn't be possible for any issue to go out of the catalogue. And yet, and yet.....

In recent times one of the most egregious examples has been Carlo Maria Giulini's recordings of the Brahms symphonies. Now, I am a self confessed Giuilin fan and was first turned on to the notion that his Brahms might be something special by a blinding live performance of the first symphony that he gave with the Philharmonia in the early 60s, now available on BBC Legends (with an equally fine rendition of Mozart's Linz symphony).

Then EMI had the sense to issue something, a largely excellent box of Brahms concerti, which includes Arrau for the piano works, accompanied by Giulini and the Philharmonia. These are very special, and more convincing in the second than any recording I've heard. Though, to listen to Jonathan Swain's review on Radio 3's CD Review, you'd think Walter Legge was more important to the musical qualities than Giulini (when I challenged him about this on the Radio 3 message boards he replied that the young Giulini had clearly taken guidance from the legendary producer; he did not reply to my request for evidence to substantiate this and to say how it squared with reports that Giulini drove Legge mad by NOT doing what he wanted).

However, as this website indicates, the Giulini discography contains far more Brahms, including a complete EMI cycle of the symphonies with the Philharmonia from the same period. They cannot be had for love or money. I managed to obtain the 3rd in a Japanese pressing via the Amazon marketplace. EMI's response from when I contacted them last April should be filed under 'don't hold your breath':

Thanks for your suggestion - I'll pass it on to those who are concerned with catalohue reissues.

Some might argue there is insufficient demand, however, I would only note that at the time I wrote to them, the Vienna 3rd (on DG) was going for around £60 on the Amazon marketplace. This has now roughly halved, doubtless because you can download all the discs from DG's online store at 320kbps. This is better, though still not ideal. It's also worth noting that these late performances do not appear to be the equal of Giulini's 60s fire.

Arkivmusic perhaps offer the way forward. In consort with various record labels, they will press discs to order. Again, there is no reason for EMI to NOT make the Brahms available in this manner. You can buy the Giulni DG Brahms this way (though, given it is an import from the States, it costs, hopefully a UK equivalent will spring up soon).

It isn't just Giulini. Should you want Jochum's third and final Beethoven cycle, with the LSO, again recorded for EMI, you have to turn to Silveroak (they do offer very good value for money). To my mind, they represent his best performances of the third and the ninth.

EMI France seems to be much better run. Should you want Helmut Walcha's harpsichord recordings of Bach (and you ought to - they're inspired), it is to them that you must go. EMI UK have no apparent interest. This is in stark contrast to the verve with which DG trawl their back catalogue for the Original Masters series (though even they haven't issued Walcha's second Well Tempered). Even then, you can only get the Well Tempered and the Golbergs in one very good value five disc box. For such works as the French and English suites you must venture further afield to EMI Japan.

So what brings on this rant? Well, a while ago I was prompted to see if Christian Zacharias, whom I have admired before both in concerti and chamber music, had recorded the Mozart concert. I'd read that he'd performed the complete concerti with the SCO at the Edinburgh festival a few years back, so this gave me hope. After much trawling of Amazon this box showed up. However, £65 from the Marketplace still felt a little dear. More searching got it for around €25 from the German Amazon. (You'll note it says 21 concertos and may be thinking there are 27; but, sadly, most sets miss the first four as they are now thought to be only arrangements by Mozart, concertos 7 and 10 are those for three and two pianos respectively and, again, missed from most sets.)

From the picture it is clear that the box was French in origin, and there isn't even an English translation of the notes, not that you need them (though even EMI France now seems to have deleted it too, and only issues a box of the sonatas and 13 concerti). Having listened, I cannot understand why. I also wish I'd bought it sooner.

Unlike many sets, the orchestra varies a lot, and the conductor changes too (but it is mainly Zinman), though, having said that, the sound on the three discs I've worked through so far is remarkably consistent. Playing is wonderful and never intrusive on the soloist.

Until now I have felt nothing could beat Mitsuko Uchida for sheer beauty. However, criticism has been levelled against her set (with the English Chamber Orchestra and Jeffrey Tate) for being too pretty and rich. I've never agreed, though now I can see where those comments come from.

Zacharias has no shortage of beauty, but this is mixed with clarity (of the order Paul Lewis showed recently) and poetry. And what poetry. It is a combination that has had me listening almost non-stop in my free moments this weekend and no more so than to the 26th concerto, the coronation. Now, I have never, not with any of my many recordings, quite got on with this before. Listing to Zacharias, I really am at a loss to understand why that might be.

This appears to be a set well worth tracking down, and one which I'll review more fully when I've worked my way through the rest. It is worth noting that Zacharias is currently midway through a second cycle with his own Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, and those discs have also just arrived. In some ways I'm very glad BT have been messing me about so completely over the last few weeks, as it prompted this wonderfully fulfilling shopping spree.

Fortunately, for the consumer, if you have a UK Amazon account, ordering from the French and German sites is fairly painless. It should not, however, be necessary. Please, EMI (and others) buck up your acts.

Not quite Monday Night Film Club (Slumdog Millionaire and Seven Pounds)

The Cameo Monday Night Film Club has got off to a shaky start this year. In the first full week of January, the illness of one of our founders put a stop to proceedings; the following Saturday an excursion was made to see Che, but your correspondent was in London; then Monday 12th was knocked out due to a clashing meeting for our other founder.

Eventually, Tuesday 13th found an outing I was able to attend. The film in question would be Slumdog Millionaire which looks set to clear up just about every award created (including the Best Picture Oscar, which I firmly believe should go to The Dark Knight, and given my choices never win that was doomed to failure, not even securing a nomination).

I came out of the film feeling deeply ambivalent. There are some remarkable things about it: director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have shot a beautiful picture that affords stunning shots of India and powerful scenes of life around the margins. This is further reinforced by a superb soundtrack.

However, it is, to my mind, a rather depressing film for the most part. I'm not sure I'd have minded this so much, but I went in expecting something very different and was taken aback: the posters that presently seem to adorn every bus in Edinburgh call this the "feel good movie of the decade". Obviously using some new definition of the term with which I'm not familiar.

As the film opens Dev Patel, strong as the lead Jamal Malik, is being tortured by police who presume he has cheated his way to the last question (which poses another question - are these shows really aired live with an overnight break like that, I would be surprised; surely they are shot back to back and then parcelled up for broadcast). I bet Charles Ingram and Tecwen Whittock are glad they didn't try their act over there.

This is interwoven with flashbacks that tell the life story of Jamal, his brother and Latika, the girl he is in love with (each well played by several actors) as they work they way from the slums, through organised beggary and crime, deprivation and entrapment, to the millionaire studio. Along the way we learn how Jamal has, by sheer chance, managed to acquire the knowledge that got him so close to victory. There is a nice moment when the police captain complains that he must have cheated since he didn't know the Indian national motto, to which he asks if the captain knows who stole a superior's bike (which is common knowledge in the circles he inhabits).

There is no shortage violence and other disturbing images, which range from child abuse to Hindu zealots tearing through the slums murdering and beating their inhabitants for being different.

The film also wins credit for its frequent references to Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, my favourite novel, and I find Jamal's drive to find Latika, and his faith that he can do so, powerful.

The closing Bollywood dance sequence feels a little out of kilter. This is clearly not a Bollywood film, and pretending so briefly that it is only jars.

As someone who once wrote pub quizes, I also felt that the questions were not genuinely in ascending order of difficulty: would the penultimate question in cricket mad India really about a cricketing record. Then, the final question asks for the name of the third musketeer. Given even slum children appear to study the book, it would seem to stretch credibility somewhat. Is this really a harder question than whether Ben Franklin appears on the $100 bill (hard mainly for non-Americans, obviously) or who invented the revolver (Samuel Colt)?

Two weeks later, I'm really struggling to think what it was I didn't like about the film and I'm left with the conclusion that expectations can make an incredible difference.

Speaking of which, expectations were running pretty low for last week's offering. Finally back to Monday but, owing to one of our founders going Skiing, we opted to steer clear of the Cameo and sample some Hollywood trash (at more than three times the price, for significantly less comfortable seats). As we filed into the Lothian Road Odeon we wondered if we would be the only two attendees for Will Smith's apparent flop Seven Pounds. In the end we weren't, but there were probably more in the preceding week's film club party than there were in the total audience for this.

The film is being sold as a departure for Smith and as having a neat twist. It probably is the former, but it certainly does not possess the latter. I took much longer to see it coming than my companion, but only because my brain was in full sixth sense mode, expecting something really clever, that the glaringly obvious was obscured for some time. Expectations were low after a Metro review giving just one star. Having endured a truly awful performance only a few days ago, I find this rating unfair. That said, it is by no means a masterpiece.

It's very hard to discuss the film without giving things away, but since it isn't really much of a twist, I'm not going to mind (but if you haven't seen it, and want to steer clear of twists, look away now).

Will Smith plays a man who, in a past life, was a rich and successful aerospace engineer. We learn through flashbacks, and presumably deliberately confusingly cut current story, that he caused an accident and is trying to redress the balance by helping an equal number of needy people. He is now an IRS tax collector and is judging whether people who plead desperate circumstances, such as Rosario Dawson's heart transplant needing Emily Posa, deserve an extension.

However, it becomes clear that his real motive is much more than this, as he donates first a kidney and then his bone marrow to two deserving cases. Along the way he meets and falls in love with Dawson and it becomes clear he's going to kill himself to give her his heart (the method by which he will do so is also readily apparent and highly problematic, of which more anon). There is a baffling relationship with his best friend who seems to be do doing nothing to try and stop this.

The moral questions surrounding organ donation aren't really addressed, since no right persons would argue that any of these wonderful people deserve saving; things become more difficult with questions such as whether a recovering alcoholic should get a liver? The film offers no debate of such questions but does appear to imply that only the worthy should be saved.

Smith is certainly very different in this role, though whether that is a good thing is another question. He is wonderfully entertaining in comic roles, and in the few laughs the movie provides he is here too. Unfortunately, on the whole, he is less convincing.

The title might be guessed to refer to the weight of the organ Smith donates in the climax, but since human heart weighs less than one pound it seems more likely that it is reference to the "pound of flesh" from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, multiplied by the Smith's seven victims.

Possibly the thing that bugged me most, and certainly will have annoyed me more than most other viewers, is Smith's alleged engineering acumen. Sure, he went to the prestigious MIT, but the fact that he is an expert in astronautics would not normally be expected to confer the ability to fix an antique printing press, which nobody else can, without any prior experience. Worse, the early scene showing him in an aerospace office is fraught with problems. The model sitting on the conference table appears to be that of the X-38 (part of proposed shuttle replacement system). This was unpowered but behind him are diagrams of linear aerospike engines of the kind that destroyed the Venture Star shuttle replacement programme (Lockheed Martin erroneously assumed that these were lighter as well as more efficient, they were not and by the time the correction was made, there was no way to rebalance the vehicle such that it would be light enough to get into orbit - the project was cancelled with over $1bn wasted).

A much bigger flaw is Smith's suicide. His obsession with the box jelly fish (actually a group of different species which are highly poisonous) gives an early clue. From the moment he moves his pet into his hotel room, you know that's how he means to top himself. Now, I'm no transplant surgeon, but surely you cannot transplant the heart of someone who's just been stung by the most venomous creature in the world without killing the recipient (I've seen House). Nor, for that matter, their eyes, which wind up with Woody Harrelson.

It's perfectly watchable, if not especially rewarding, and I suspect even less so on repeated viewings. With luck the coming weeks will offer far greater fodder with the likes of Milk and Frost/Nixon

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Benjamin Grosvenor and the Philharmonia

After last night's horrors, anything the Philharomia did this afternoon was going to be a breath of fresh air. However, even had that not been the case, it would still have been worth attending.

I hadn't originally planned to, but, for reasons already outlined, tonight's LSO concert was abandoned (by your correspondent, if not anyone else) after Donald Runnicles dropped out. However, the Philharmonia programme seemed a more than ample alternative. The principal enticement was not the orchestra, the conductor or the music, but rather the presence of young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. The sixteen year old musician first came to my attention back in 2004 when he won the piano section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, before it was dumbed down out of all recognition. He should have won the whole thing, but, in keeping with the fact that nobody I want to ever wins these things, the judges gave first prize to Nicola Benedetti. He impressed not simply in his ability in getting around the keyboard with such small hands, but in the beauty and delicacy of his playing and the intelligence with which he discussed the music. I've wanted to hear him live ever since.

But first we had the orchestra on their own, conducted by Alexander Lazarev, in Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet. This provided a wonderful opportunity for them to showcase just what a superb instrument they are. The playing was beautiful in the slower moments and simply breathtaking when the score caught fire. Indeed, the players displayed a dexterity and a co-ordination that called to mind the Cleveland Orchestra, and I know of few higher compliments. I've said it before, but it eludes me how any group of critics could rank the LSO amongst the best orchestras in the world but not the Philharmonia. If there was a reservation, it would be there was too much contrast between these different parts of the work and Lazarev didn't entirely convince in how he went between them.

There was a brief pause as the stage was rearranged for the piano. The featured concerto was the Grieg, a wonderful work and one that is not, for my money, heard often enough in the concert hall. Grosvenor is now nearly five years older than when I last saw him and, as one might expect, his hands are now a size where merely traversing the keyboard isn't an impressive feat. He still retains a lot of the delicacy that endeared him to my ears, impressively so in the quietest moments. However, he has also found a lot of weight. For the most part this was of the Paul Lewis variety, in that it wasn't overly percussive and didn't consist of a lot of ugly thumping, but he needs to watch he doesn't go down that route. Lazarev's accompaniment could have been a bit more sensitive too. Nonetheless, it was a spellbinding performance.

He was warmly received and we got an encore, which I couldn't place with any certainty. However, I think it may have been some Chopin, possibly a waltz. Listening now on my computer, if I had to guess, I would have said it was op.34/1, but I may be off by miles.

The second half featured Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, making this the second time in three months I've encountered it in the concert hall. However, with a significant difference: last time round it was the Stokowski orchestration. Lazarev opted for the traditional Ravel and served principally, in my mind, to underscore the extent to which I feel the former is the superior. That's not that it wasn't nice to hear, and certainly the orchestra played it very finely: saxophonist David Roach and trumpet Mark David making especially impressive contributions. However, it felt nowhere near so richly evocative as when the RSNO played the Stokowski, which makes it all the more galling that Stokowski's stereo recording is currently deleted. Please Decca, get your act together: in these days of broadband internet, no recorded need ever go out of catalogue.

One other note should be made: these 3pm Sunday concerts seem incredibly civilised (not least as it would mean I could get back to Edinburgh without needing to take Monday off work). It was also nice to see so many children, almost all of whom were extremely well behaved (with the exception of one in a box, whose father decided that the best way to respond to his question in the quietest moment of the Grieg was to open his mouth as well).

Finally, I sincerely hope that the Festival Hall didn't waste a lot of money getting Sir Ian McKellen to do their mobile phone announcement; if they did, I can't help thinking it could have been better spent (not least reducing the programme charge from a rather extortionate £3.50, one thing you can say for the LSO is that at least they're free).

Beggar Off! (The anatomy of a train wreck: The Beggar's Opera at Covent Garden)

I've seen some pretty awful productions over the years, and, as I think back, three stand out. There was Scottish Opera's 2006 Don Giovanni, which had so much promise given the return of the triumphant Ring team of conductor Richard Armstrong and director Tim Albery, but which ended up being an invisibly lit, musically tedious evening, mainly marked out by Peter Savidge's Don discarding pair after pair of white gloves in a piece of patronising and ineffective symbolism. Then there was Glyndebourne's 2007 Matthew Passion where Katie Mitchell's inexplicable decision to move the action to Beslan, and worse besides, found a partner in Richard Egarr's limp musical direction.

Perhaps an even greater achievement was made by Polish director Krystian Lupa who, despite not speaking the language, directed Chekov's Three Sisters in English at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival in one of the most torturous productions it has been my pain to endure (and one which had me, and others like me, who decided the the only way to survive was to see the dramatic irony in lines such as "Beyond this point, disaster", described by Michael Billington as a philistine and by the Metro as a moron, though I notice that Billington went on to give it two stars, which seems pretty derisive to me). I struggled to fight the urge to heckle, though someone elsewhere in the Kings twice had to shout for them to speak more loudly. In his balcony, Lupa sat beating a drum for his actors to keep pace to and swigging what looked like vodka. It was beyond surreal.

So why this trip down memory lane? Well, it was prompted by a half-time question at tonight's performance of The Beggar's Opera at Covent Garden as to whether this was, in fact, the very worst thing any of us had ever sat through.

Certainly, things did not augur well from the outset. In common with the last time I went to the Lindbury (their basement studio theatre), to see Powder Her Face, sales of programmes were rather poorly managed with just one salesman for the whole theatre, leading to a huge queue. Still, at least this time round they didn't run out, which caused a baffling ten minute delay as they searched for more. However, it does seem a little poor at this level. Poorer as I descended to my seat and found that row P, at the back of the stalls, is shorter than the others, though the same price, and thus extraordinarily cramped if, like me, you have long legs. I think it's outrageous to charge the same when some seats have more room. An excess of dry ice hung ominously in the air.

The stage had been cut to shreds, with a faux auditorium from the main house having been constructed. This was a doubly weird choice given how little room there is down there to begin with; talk about shooting yourself in the foot. An usher, in the role of the beggar, delivered the opening narration. Given Sirena Tocco is credited in this role, one must assume she is either an actor or a singer, though so poor was the delivery of her lines, that it was entirely plausible she really was just an unlucky member of the front of house team who'd lost a bet after a long night in the pub. The programme indicates that her strength is in dance and choreography, so perhaps she was just massively out of her element. But wait, you may be thinking, why expend so much energy and venom on the beggar which is, after all, a tiny part. And so, usually, it is. No so in director Justin Way's inept hands. No, as Peachum takes to the stage from the faux auditorium, she lights his way with her torch and spends much of the rest of the evening haunting the stage looking appalled as the actors go about their business and as though she doesn't have a clue what to do. Well, if she's reading this and wondering, the answer to that question is to leave the stage and not come back until you have another line at the end. Then, during the overture, members of the chorus filed in doing their best impressions of badly behaved audience members.

It got worse: things had been updated. Now, I'm not against that in principle, some of the best productions I've witnessed have done some updating (see Scottish Opera's biker-chick Walkure). Here things were more problematic. The characters become east-end chavs, and the cast grapple with the accents with, to put it politely, mixed success: Leah-Marian Jones sounds very curious as Polly Peachum and Tom Randle doesn't bother at all as Macheath. To make matters worse, they then sing (not especially well or beautifully) in nothing remotely resembling their spoken accents. The result is somewhere between absurd and unintentionally hilarious, no more so than with Sarah Fox's Lucy Lockit, whose best Vicky Pollard impression is about as far from her singing voice as it is possible to be.

More bizarre work is at hand from choreographer Steve Elias who manages to make a bunch of prostitutes move as unsexily as can be possible (including one dressed, for reasons passing understanding, in a yellow jump suit, a la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill). Certainly, she didn't use her nunchaku to visit well earned vengeance upon the production team. Action progressed to HMP Covent Garden for act II, where an interesting metal detector was set off by Macheath's ankle tagging device (in place of handcuffs) but not by the bevy of chained dancers whose reason for being there at all was opaque, to say the least. Then, as Lucy sang of revenge she photocopied her bottom. Quite how this was meant to have the desired effect was never made clear. But it did fit with the complete lack of inspiration in Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays' designs.

The second half, weighing in at over eighty minutes, was all the more of a slog, in the numbing seats. Frances McCafferty, somewhat past it, was frankly embarrassing as Diana Trapes. Google seems to indicate she is actually Scottish, yet her accent seemed a horribly unnatural caricature. It's hard to say that anyone stood out most in terms of bad performance, the thing was so uniformly awful, but she came close. Of course, one doesn't want to be too harsh on the cast. Work is work, actors and singers who haven't yet made the big time must earn their bread somehow, and it must be pretty soul destroying to have to go though as badly conceived and directed a fiasco as this night after night. Is it any wonder that there seems to be little approaching enthusiasm from anybody? Lucky for them, and unsuspecting punters, a week from now it will all be over.

At the end things just got absurd (in the manner of the finale of the Prisoner, differing mainly in not having been preceded by sixteen hours of genius). Following Macheath's reprieve, the whole chorus joined the stage for a dance whose choreography couldn't easily have seemed more out of place. The men of the gang waltzed round with blow up sex dolls and, right at the end, two of the whores rushed one with prams. Then, something vaguely yellow in colour popped out of the prison toilet: what it was, and what it may have signified, is beyond my ken. Thankfully, though, it did mean that the ordeal was finally at an end and we could all go home and enjoy a much needed drink.

And what of the audience response? At best it was polite. When the actors called out to the audience to judge whether Macheath deserved a reprieve, answer came there none. I fought the temptation to yell for the hanging of the production team from the noose that had been conveniently lowered. The script is very funny in places, but there were no more than a handful of titters from a handful of people. Applause was lukewarm with many people, your correspondent included, declining to show any appreciation at all.

But I haven't mentioned the music. After all, many a poor production is offset by this, the recent Mackerras/ENO Vec Makropulos managed to still be one of the most powerful nights I've spent in a theatre, despite glaring flaws in the production. The Britten reworking of Johann Christoph Pepusch's score is used (Gay's libretto is retained), and this was my main reason for attending; whether or not the performance is to blame isn't clear, but it didn't come over as his finest work. Sadly, the playing was nothing to write home about either. Other reviews in the mainstream press have suggested that the chamber ensemble (drawn from the City of London Sinfonia), under the baton of Christian Curnyn, are the evening's one redeeming feature. We have no sympathy with that view. His conducting seemed lacklustre, with little apparent rapport between pit and stage. Worse, he seemed to take almost everything at a near uniform tempo (with a slight exception in one or two numbers in the second half). Certainly, it must be hard for a young conductor to find inspiration with such a calamity going on above, and he had stepped following the death of Hickox, who was to conduct it. Nonetheless, I will not be hurrying to hear him again.

One doesn't wish to speak ill of the recently dead; however, it is noted that there were charges against Hickox recently of nepotism, and of appointing people on the basis of factors other than talent, while he was musical director of Opera Australia. I mention it because the director and designers hail from there, have little else to their names, and the programme introduction from Elaine Padmore (Covent Garden's Director of Opera) notes that Hickox had been very much involved in casting and planning.

A little while ago we inaugurated a couple awards (The Jose Serebrier Award for Inappropriate Encores and The Rachel Barton Pine Award for Encores that Alone Justify the Ticket Price) so named for their first recipients. Along slightly different lines, I now propose The Niles Crane 'Sprinkling Hand' Award for Production Teams who Should Never be Permitted to Work in that Capacity Ever Again, so named for this wonderful quote, memorably uttered by the great David Hyde Pierce on the classic show Fraiser after a waiter does not make his coffee to the required standard:

Can you believe the incompetence of that man? I very clearly asked for a whisper of cinnamon, he's given me a full-throated shout! There are countries in this world where they would lop off his sprinkling hand!

This first award going to messrs Way, Kovac, Hays and Elias: congratulations to all involved, we remain somewhat shellshocked at just how bad a creation you have managed to concoct. Amateurs could do a better job than this. Indeed, while we were at school, I was in the production team of a staging that was in every respect more enjoyable and satisfying. I think it's hard to put it better than Kieron Quirke, writing in the Evening Standard, and giving the evening a mere one star, a rating that seems a little high:

Pay your local hobo a tenner to croon Nessun Dorma and you’ll have a Beggar’s Opera more coherent and gratifyingly shorter than this offering.

If you have tickets, ask for your money back, stick them on ebay or burn them to offset your rising gas bill. Even running them through the shedder would be a use orders of magnitude more productive and enjoyable. For the last two weeks I have been in pitched battle with BT, who have displayed the most staggering incompetence at every turn when asked to perform the simplest of transactions. I am still without an internet connection at home (or, less importantly, a telephone). They lie and screw up at every opportunity. If you do have a spare ticket, please send it to the BT senior management, knowing they'd had to endure the evening would feel like justice.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Verdi, Brewer, Cargill, Davis and the LSO, but somehow not greatness

About a month ago, I had an extended rant at the expense of the London Symphony Orchestra, questioning whether they really were one of the top ensembles in the world. At the time, I wondered whether there was an issue of chemistry with their principal guest conductor Daniel Harding and whether things would be better with beloved former chief conductor, and now the orchestra's president, Sir Colin Davis at the helm. Certainly he has made some impressive recordings with them, such as the live disc of Sibelius's 3rd and 7th symphonies, which I reviewed a while back, and the Messiah. There is also an excellent live recording of Fidelio which, coincidentally, features Christine Brewer in the title role. Coincidental because she was also singing in tonight's performance of the Verdi Requiem.

Sensibly they hadn't tried to programme anything else alongside it, and as the LSO Chorus filed onto the stage, things began to look a little cramped. Then came the soloists: soprano Brewer, mezzo Karen Cargill, tenor Stuart Neill and bass John Relyea. An announcement told us that the scheduled mezzo, Larissa Diadkova, was indisposed. However, given Cargill's superb performances with Donald Runnicles in Gotterdammerung and Das Lied von der Erde, it is always a pleasure to hear her again. Clearly, though, the switch was very last minute, since there wasn't even time to get an insert printed for the programme.

Davis had some of the measure of the work's slow opening, so much so that it was difficult to hear it over the heavy breathing of the man next to me, or the sundry other noises. By and large, he seemed to take it fairly slowly, certainly this was to be no white hot, fit on one disc, reading, in the manner of Toscanini. That said, it didn't tantalise as it did the last time I heard it live (though that was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Donald Runnicles at the opening concert of the 2005 Edinburgh Festival). The quality of the orchestra's quiet playing, though good, and certainly a cut or two above what they've been producing for Harding, wasn't breathtaking in the manner of the finest orchestras.

Things were much more impressive in the louder moments, and there was no end of drama and energy to the Dies Irae. But this too was not without its flaws: the off-stage trumpets came out and stood a few feet from the stage. In my view they should be somewhat ephemeral. In the Usher Hall, Runnicles, who always has a genius for instrumental placement, seemed to have put them somewhere back down the passageway to the dressing rooms. The effect was magical. Here the only reason they weren't on stage seemed to be so they could leave early.

However, vocally things were quite another matter, and there wasn't a weak link amongst the soloists. Brewer shone as her voice soared over the might of the orchestral forces going full tilt. Cargill was beautiful in the mezzo role and both Neill and Relyea were wonderful. That said, there wasn't quite the sparkle of chemistry between them that existed between Julia Kleiter and Thomas Quasthoff in last night's concert. Behind them, the LSO Chorus provide both weight and control in a manner that put the ageing Festival Chorus to shame.

However, while it was all good and enjoyable, it wasn't ever quite, as a whole, in danger of achieving greatness. Davis didn't quite hold the tension in the slower moments, as Giulini would have. As a result, the second half of the work, following on from the Dies Irae, was less successful. Here, too, the orchestra's relative weaknesses were more apparent. Perhaps we're spoilt with the SCO, but again I found the winds of the LSO a little lacking. Something, too, of the great romantic sweep was missing.

This is an intensely spiritual work, and should be transporting, especially in passages such as Lux aeterna and most of all Libera me. I remember Runnicles and the BBC Scottish, and, of course, Violeta Urmana sending me almost to another world. That's not to say this was in any way a bad performance, just that it could have been more.

It seems likely it's being recorded for LSO Live (there was no note in the programme to that effect, but they tend to tape most of Davis's stuff, and what with there being two performances and a fairly starry cast). When it comes out, I'm not sure I'll bother.

What are the LSO Playing at?

On Friday evening, as I was riding down to London on the train and trying my best to ignore the screaming children down the aisle, I got an e-mail that would have made me spit out National Express's rather nasty tea (owing to the UHT milk they will insist on using; we can land on the moon, but fresh milk on a train is apparently not possible), had I been drinking it:

We are delighted to let you know that a list of the LSO 2009/10 season concerts is now available to browse and download from the LSO website in advance of online booking opening on Monday 12 January at 9.30am.

We are just putting the finishing touches to our new brochure but as one of the most valued members of our audience we want to make sure that you receive the information as soon as it is confirmed.

The emphasis is theirs, but it's convenient since it is the offending passage. Most other orchestra's haven't even announced their seasons for next year (the Philharmonia gave details in their last brochure but booking doesn't open yet), but already the London Symphony Orchestra expect me to buy tickets. Sorry, no dice.

I attend a lot of concerts, with a range of orchestras, and it's thus something of a logistical fight to work it all out, the more so for planning my trips down south, to make sure I take the maximum advantage of them. If I don't know what ENO or the Royal Opera are also doing, then why should I book (not to mention that I don't know if SCO or RSNO concerts will clash)?

Who, in January 2009, wants to be booking tickets for July 2010. For goodness sake, the Aldeburgh festival hasn't even published it's full programme for June this year!

Last year it was a little later - 11th February. I struggle to comprehend the logic, unless the orchestra is massively strapped for cash, as headline story on their website appealing for donations indicates they may be. Still, constantly moving the season earlier will not solve the problem, only delay it.

Anyone finding themselves in a similar position should take comfort from this fact: I did my block booking for their 2008/9 season at the end of August, some six months after booking first opened. I was able to get reasonably priced tickets to everything I wanted. I would note that someone I know was even able to pick up a ticket for tonight's Verdi Requiem (with Colin Davis and Christine Brewer) less than a month ago. I should think buying tickets will be even easier this year, given demand will doubtless fall due to the recession. I won't be bounced by the LSO in this manner, and others shouldn't allow themselves to be either.

From the sublime to ridiculous (and most things in between)

Tonight's performance of Haydn's Creation had it all, but I will start with the sublime: the choral team. They were led by Thomas Quasthoff, whose magnificent bass-baritone I've not previously had the pleasure of encountering, at least, not in the concert hall. But the other two soloists had nothing to be ashamed of: soprano Julia Kleiter had a beautiful and, mercifully, vibrato free voice; tenor Maximillian Schmitt was very fine too. Behind them the RIAS Chamber Choir were on fine form.

Elsewhere there were problems. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra arrived on stage and took the longest time tuning, and tuning in a way that didn't sound particularly encouraging. Now, before anyone aggressively gets on my case, I'll save them the trouble and mention the word period, as in period instruments. Now, it's true that, as a general rule, I'm not a fan. I tend to believe that new instruments evolved because they were in some way superior to the ones they replaced and, in much the same way as we don't use cell phones from 1983 or invite neanderthals round to dinner, by and large one is better off not going back to them. That's not to say there aren't lessons to be learnt from period practice, Charles Mackerras is strong evidence that there are, just that these things can often be taken much further than is my taste.

I mention this because when I say what I'm about to, namely that the Freiburg Orchestra sounded terrible for much of the concert, some bright spark will say that's just the period sound and that's just how it should sound. Well it's not, and it wasn't. Certainly, the period sound is different (and rather thin, which is one reason I don't like it). It is also at a slightly different pitch. What it is not, and what the Freiberg were, is seriously out of tune and generally all over the place. Verging on painfully so on both counts. I'd use the word amateurish, but that's an insult to amateurs. To be that out of tune (and, I've been at one or two concerts where this has happened, though in both of those cases it was a failure of tuning between orchestra and soloist) must be patently obvious to players, and to conductors, Rene Jacobs I'm looking at you: I don't understand why they don't just stop and fix it, it surely isn't that difficult, if they think we haven't noticed they're living in cloud cuckoo land.

It was a massive shame, as it seriously intruded on the superb singing, so much so that, by the time we reached the end of part one, I half hoped conductor and band would depart and leave the singers to it (judging from the lukewarm applause at this point, I may not have been alone). It was not to be. Fortunately, they had another extended tuning session and this time got much closer to the mark, though they still weren't entirely together. It might be argued that the ear attunes to the period, but I've never had such an issue with, say, concerts from Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (another period ensemble). It doesn't, either, account for the sea change between parts one and two. Part three found the orchestra on their best, and actually fairly respectable, form. Though they still had a good degree of the standard period sound for which I do not entirely care.

Jacobs' reading was nothing to write home about. I suppose in some ways we should be grateful: what I have heard of him on disc, his Mozart recordings in particular, I find horribly mannered. That said, there were some odd touches. The overture was taken torturously slowly. Now, one of the things about period instruments is that you can't sustain slow tempi as well, in my view, and it really showed; which is, I'm sure, why such instruments tend to be accompanied by a quicker pace.

One last gripe was the continuo piano of Sebastian Wienand. On a very early piano, he seemed to be using a lot of ornamentation (something of the period), but in a manner that was horribly intrusive, for example swamping Kleiter's Eve at one otherwise lovely moment in third part.

It makes for interesting comparison with the last time I heard the creation. The band was not too different in size, but massively better - it was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras, and formed the opening concert of the 2006 season. While the soloists were very good, it was the beauty of the orchestral playing that really stands out in my memory, that and the SCO Chorus. Well, that and the Usher Hall fire alarm going off midway through part three, forcing evacuation; incredibly, they started up again, nearly half an hour later, as if nothing had happened.

However, for all those complaints, and there are a lot of them, I was still very glad to had gone. Mainly for the transporting experience one got every time Quasthoff and Kleiter opened their mouths - certainly these are two to watch, or rather hear. Interestingly, I note from his biography, that his Vienna Staatsoper debut was in the role of Amfortas (in Parsifal) with one Donald Runnicles conducting. Perhaps Quasthoff might join him for a concert with the BBC Scottish one day?

Friday, 9 January 2009

Paul Lewis makes a magical return to the Queen's Hall (and something very odd happens in the north gallery)

I first encountered Paul Lewis at the Queen's Hall. It was about two and a half years ago and he was completing the first half of his live Beethoven sonata cycle in a programme that included the op.79, the Pastorale and the Hammerklavier. I hadn't planned to go, and probably wouldn't have, had I not been ordered out of the flat for an evening so that others could have it to themselves, and casting around for something to do I stumbled across it.

From the first moment I was hooked. There was a freshness to his playing; I'll be surprised if I hear a more tantalising and magical account of the op.79. The Hammerklavier was in some ways the most impressive, not least because I don't always care for it. As regular readers will know, I don't like pianists who thump, and the op.106 is a minefield that often degenerates into an orgy of hammering. The magic of Lewis was the weight he managed to bring without banging. Then there is the clarity of his playing. I could go on, and indeed I have: when he played the final concert in the series (shortly after this blog was founded) and more recently when he came to Glasgow to play Beethoven's second concerto.

Tonight he was back for something a little different in the form of Mozart's final piano concerto, the K595 in B flat major. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are ideal accompanists for Mozart concertos. Anyone who's heard their recent discs of Mozart symphonies, or their concert or recorded performances of the concertos with Alfred Brendel and Charles Mackerras can attest to this. Unfortunately Mackerras wasn't on conducting duty. Instead we had to make do with Andrew Manze. However, there was no need for concern, at least not in the concerto. The orchestra played beautifully. Above them Lewis displayed the most incredible dexterity, not for him Goode's garbled notes. No, no matter how fast he played, everything was crystal clear. Manze kept the orchestra at a sensible volume and the balance between orchestra and soloist was always good. The cadenzas were spellbinding. It is true that the concerto didn't afford him the opportunity to display his power in the way that Beethoven's emperor will in June (with the LSO) but it allowed him to show the subtler side that first won me over in the op.79 sonata and which makes me hope that a future recording project is the Mozart concertos. I hope he picks the SCO for that. The performance was well received in the hall, indeed, most pianists the SCO plays with would have given an encore at this, Lewis knew not to. Good man. His biography in the programme has finally been updated to reveal with whom Beethoven concertos are being recorded. Sadly it is not my dream team of Mackerras/SCO or even Davis/LSO (I think Davis's Klempererian style would be a delightful match). Instead it is to be Belohavek (of whom I'm not nearly so much a fan as many other people) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Still, they will be a must hear for Lewis's pianism alone.

The rest of the concert was more mixed. It was part of the SCO's Mendelssohn anniversary celebrations, it is the bicentennial of his birth, though frankly rather tenuously so given what a small proportion of the concert the composer's music took. None the less they titled the concert The Fair Melusine, after the Mendelssohn overture that kicked things off. The programme note indicates that the overture of Rheingold was influenced by it, and certainly I heard that; I also heard things that sounded familiar from Verdi, but I can find no mention of that anywhere else. I'm generally somewhat ambivalent about Mendelssohn. He can be marvellous, but I think he needs to be played with real drive and zest, as, for example, Bernstein does in his late recordings with the Israeli Philharmonic or as Frans Bruggen did the last time he joined the SCO. Manze did not, and while there was nothing to be faulted with the orchestral playing, it was all just a little dull. As they played I remember the last time I had encountered Manze. It was in an SCO concert several years ago. The second half was a fairly indifferent performance of the Mozart Requiem. The first half contained a symphony by Eybler in D (with an incompetently written programme note by one Stephen Strungnell who neglected to list the movements, thus leading to applause between the fourth and fifth). Manze gave a very tedious speech before it about how he was an unjustly neglected contemporary of Mozart. He proceeded to give a performance that suggested to me that any neglect was fair enough.

After the interval he turned to address us. Interestingly, Lewis had sneaked into a stalls seat. Manze gave a long prattle about works composers had done when they were very young, told a few not especially amusing jokes, gave an extended advert for the rest of the Mendelssohn series and then told us they were going to play an extra work: the orchestration of the scherzo from his octet (which the SCO Ensemble are playing on Sunday 1st February, and which, infuriatingly, I will have to miss). Again, he told us, this was rarely performed. It sounded rather odd and thin, and, again, one could see why it was rare. He then insisted on speaking to us again before the finale - a performance of Schubert's fourth symphony - the tragic.

He suggested the name shouldn't be adhered to too rigidly. And, in fairness, his reading did eschew this. Probably for the best: heavy performances, such as Colin Davis's or Giulini's live BBC account, work because of their orchestras (in Davis's case the luxuriously heavy Dresden and the Philharmonia for Giulini). The SCO are different and a light approach is required. For the most part that was delivered, and the first two movements worked pretty well, solid if not in danger of being great. It was in the minuet that serious problems arose. The tempo was somewhat sluggish and the orchestra lacked the weight to carry it off. The finale was nice enough, but never any more than that. So somewhat disappointing, but it didn't really matter, it would have been worth sitting through anything for Lewis's performance.

But what about the north gallery mentioned in the title of this post? Well, midway through the slow movement of the concerto my attention was drawn away from the stage to the gallery standing space to my right. I saw a man storm out, turn, gesture and mutter something in a weirdly inaudible cross between a shout and a whisper. Standing at the far end of gallery were a man and woman looking furious. Then, midway through the finale, an usher came in and collected a coat from next to where they were standing. The couple were not there in the second half. All very curious. If you're able to shed any light, I'm curious.

Update 11/1/09

I've just been listening to a disc of Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra playing Mendelssohn that I picked up in the sales. He too plays the scherzo from the octet, but with an incredible delicacy and playfulness which makes for a wonderfully enjoyable performance, far removed from Manze, and one which does indeed make you wonder if it is unjustly neglected.

Comments less far along the same line could also be made of their take on The Fair Melusine, though even they don't make it seem a great piece of music.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The Thirty-Nine mis-Steps

Well, since the major part of this review is going to be a sustained and furious assault on the integrity of another writer (and a questioning of the intelligence of a production team), I suppose I should make sure that I am beyond reproach. I can't be sure there are precisely thirty-nine instances where the BBC's latest addition to the series of adaptions of this classic departs from the original novel, to be honest I lost count; however, there are certainly an awful lot, and very probably many more than thirty-nine.

So, why so much vitriol? It's true that, even at the best of times, I don't like to see a good novel getting ripped to shreds on the screen by people who are under the mistaken impression that they can do better. However, I seriously object when someone implies they're going to be faithful and then defecates all over it. And that's roughly what Lizzie Mickery does in this quote from the Guardian:

But screenwriter Lizzie Mickery insists she has done the right thing in going back to the original plot of John Buchan's 1915 novel for her inspiration. 'People ask me, "Where are you going to have your memory man scene?",' said Mickery. 'They think they know the story, but they are not talking about the book, they are talking about the films.'

Well, Ms Mickery, anyone who watched your film and thought they knew the story would be similarly wide of the mark.

Lastly, I should note that if you haven't seen it and are going to want to, you should probably watch it first, since this is going to completely spoil the plot for you. That said, even putting aside the inconsistencies and dishonesties, it's a pretty poor piece of drama and rather a waste of ninety minutes. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a good rant, then read on.

We open with Richard Hannay sitting in is club, bored rigid by the London world and yearning for the adventure of the African veldt, or perhaps his years as a mining engineer, all but resolved to quit London for good if something exciting does not happen to him soon. So far, so good, or, rather, so faithful. Good is a slightly problematic word since the woodenness of Rupert Perry-Jones's performance (narration sadly included) is not a million miles from Keaunu Reeves, and many of the less talented planks of timber in existence could out-act both of them without breaking a sweat.

Immediately we run into trouble though: Hannay has taken to staying out all night (which he didn't in the book). He returns to his apartment where Scudder, being chased by persons unknown, forces entry. Actually, the first digression came much sooner when, for reasons that were not initially apparent, the action had been moved forward a month or so to the 28th June 1914.

Scudder and Hannay face off with pistols, another invention. It further turns out that this Scudder is a British spy rather than being of American extraction, as in the book. He tells Hannay a very abridged version of the plot, which I suppose it could be argued is faithful, and immediately hands over the notebook (which isn't faithful). Similarly, Scudder's rather nasty anti-semitism has been exercised. I can see why, but it's in the book and, if you are trying to return to the spirit of that, you should include it (it receives adverse comment from other characters in the novel and this could easily be toned up; such sentiment was more common then and history shouldn't be airbrushed just because we find it uncomfortable). Then the milkman shows up, a German spy, and kills Scudder in front of Hannay. This is wrong on any number of grounds. In the book Scudder fakes his death and hides out with Hannay for several weeks before the latter returns home to find him dead one night, giving him time to plan his escape.

I can't see the logic for the change. Hannay's escape in the book is wonderfully clever: bribing the milkman for his uniform and leaving him to take the rap initially. Here, he merely hangs from the fire escape and chats up a maid. That he makes a go of this escape, despite all the blood on his shirt, is not convincing. Unlike in the book he does not run to Scotland, but instead to his club, despite the blood on his shirt, which must surely violate the dress code of such places. He tries unsuccessfully to phone the contact Scudder named (which he didn't in the book) and then decides to go to Scotland on the grounds that that's where the Germans are, according to Scudder, holed up (rather than because he has Scottish blood, he feels he will be able to hide in such an environment, and can fake a Scottish accent, as in the book).

Despite Scudder managing to convey various bits of superfluous information in their conversation, he does not mention that Julia Czechenyi has something to do with it. This could cause problems, since her name is the cypher by which the notebook can be decrypted. Not to worry: as the train puffs its way north it becomes clear why the date has been moved as we learn that Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated, rather than the fictional Greek Karolides of the novel. Bizarrely Ferdinand's name is the cypher. Scudder, therefore, hardly appears to be a terribly crack spy, since anyone with any sense knows you shouldn't choose a cypher that is linked to what you are encoding, it should be something utterly unrelated. The other thing Scudder doesn't mention is his fear of the man who can "hood his eyes like a hawk". In earlier films, doubtless due to the difficultly of achieving this, it was replaced by someone with a missing finger. Still, with today's make-up and CGI, it should be easy. Easier, than, say, a U-boat (to pick a not entirely random example, of which more later).

The police are hot on our hero's trail, fortunately the ventriloquist on the train aides his escape. The what? Indeed, you may well ask. That said, after his departure from the train, we are not a million miles from the book. Well, except that the literary innkeeper absents himself. Still, the Hannay does flee across the glens in similar manner, and is spotted by an aeroplane. He is then strafed by said plane in the manner of North by Northwest. Why? Well, ask Perry-Jones. According to the Radio Times:

"I said said I wouldn't do it if the aeroplane wasn't in it!" He says, referring to the picture on the cover of his edition of the book. "I've always wanted to be chased by a plane like Cary Grant in North by Northwest."

On one level, who can blame him. Which of us hasn't fantasised about being Cary Grant? And I suppose we should be glad he's at least got a copy of the book. Nonetheless the producers should have saved themselves the bother and hired a finer actor since it's far from clear he's actually read it: the scene is not only a pale shadow of Hitchcock, it is also not in the book (all the plane does there is spot him and fly off). More learned posters responding to the Guardian's review also note that plane is from 1916 and features a synchronised machine gun (i.e. one that could safely be placed behind the propellor, with the firing timed so as not to destroy it) which had yet to be invented in 1914.

Still, he soon falls in with the radical candidate of chapter four... and his sister! Sir Harry keeps his name, but becomes a thousand times more a mindless fool. The parliamentary candidate meeting at which Hannay is forced to speak is replicated, if the sense Hannay's speech is utterly changed and the whole thing is massively truncated. However, the police bursting in at the end is not correct. For reasons that are not remotely convincing Victoria, the sister, becomes caught up with Hannay as he flees. There is nothing even remotely approaching a love interest in the original, it has been a great and successful novel without it, so why on earth do all these people feel they have to stick one in?

I wouldn't mind the fact that so many great scenes have been cut from the novel, such as Hannay's impersonation of the road mender, even from a book as short as this things will need to be cut to get it into ninety minutes, but for the most part they have been crowbarred out so that we can have Victoria rub oil into Hannay's back or spout feminist rants (she has to be a spunky suffraget, of course). Not that I have anything against spunky suffragettes mind (or people rubbing oil into Rupert Perry-Jones's back, I'm sure plenty of people love that), but I don't think it's better than what Buchan wrote.

She also seems to have inherited the brains, and one wonders if this is still a Richard Hannay story in anything but name, since, for example, stealing a car becomes her idea not his. This gives rise to the car chase. The what? To be sure, in the book he drives several cars and at one point dramatically escapes a crash, but there is never really anything approaching a chase. The Radio Times article is full of guff about the wonderfully authentic 1924 cars used. Readers could be given to wonder how these can be authentic in a 1914 setting but producer Lynn Horsford tells us:

"They're rather more modern than they should be, but the models from the 1910s, when the novel is set, just weren't fast enough."

Come again! Doubtless she would have said to Charlton Heston: "Well, it's not that we don't like the chariots, and they certainly look very nice, but you can't argue that motorbikes are faster.". I don't doubt that the battle of Agincourt would be more dramatic with atomic weapons too. Moron. How do people like this get jobs in television (or have I just answered my own question).

They are forced undramatically off the road by the Germans, but the notebook has been lost. The Germans whisk them back to their lair. Again, this is a departure. In the more dramatic book, Hannay staggers desperately into a farm house and throws himself on the mercy of the owner who wards off the police but then turns out to be the man who can hood his eyes like a hawk. Hannay cleverly plays the innocent and pretends to be someone else. Here he owns up straight away. This creates problems. In the book they lock him away (giving him the chance to escape) while they can get someone who can positively identify him, here they do so to allow him to contemplate that they may pull out Victoria's finger nails. Why delay, if it really is that urgent to learn the location of the notebook?

The escape is in the same manner. Well, similar. The farmhouse has become a castle. Still, they locate explosives and blast their way out. Though, given it's a castle, this doesn't burn it to the ground. They are not, however, particularly badly injured. In the book Hannay spends the rest of the day lying on a roof and then two further weeks being nursed back to health.

The quantity of explosives also makes for bolder German schemes: not simply are they going to steal British naval plans, but then use the explosives to dynamite our ports (quite why they need the plans to dynamite our ports isn't clear, since I can't think they moving terribly often). It also turns out that Victoria picked his pocket and hid the notebook. It also seems that Scudder's notebook doesn't contain the full plan (and we have had no mention yet of the eponymous steps, indeed, one begins to wonder if we will see them anywhere but the title).

They return to Victoria's house and her and Sir Harry's uncle sort of takes the place of his godfather in the book (who is the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and exonerates Hannay - or so it seems). Doubtless for convenience, the secret meeting which the Germans plan to infiltrate is relocated to Stirling Castle (and by this point what little remains of the of the book has vanished). Hannay struggles at the castle to avoid arrest, by this point in the book he had sufficient skill to get himself cleared of the murder charges. It then turns out that Victoria is actually a spy, that the secret service knew he was innocent all along, but wanted him chased so they could watch the Germans. Of course, why they didn't just swoop in and arrest the Germans after they ran around firing guns from yet to be invented aeroplanes is never made entirely clear, doubtless these are spies of similar intelligence to those who cobbled together the dossiers on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, the thirty-nine steps make their appearance: they were written in invisible ink, something Hannay was able to deduce from the fact that Scudder dipped his finger in his tea. Now, in many ways this is the most implausible part of the adaptation. Well, perhaps not, but still. That he remembers such a small detail days later and, what's more, comes to that conclusion rather than, say, assuming that a little bit of something had got into his guest's tea and that he was trying to fish it out. After all, I do that every now and again, and it never signifies that I've been using invisible ink.

The thirty-nine steps turn out to be located at the villains' castle, so quite how they help (presumably because there are lots of staircases there), or why they needed to be written in invisible ink must remain a question only the writer can answer, and oh how I'd love to see her try. In the book, they, and the time of the tide, provide the clues that enable Hannay to deduce the location from which the Germans mean to flee, given this is somewhere entirely unknown to our protagonist it is a vital clue. Here, Hannay could easily have foiled the scheme without it.

But wait, didn't the naval plans need to be stolen first. Quite right, and they were, by the uncle, who it turns out is the traitor who cost Scudder his life. Clearly in these politically correct times we cannot have all the bad guys be German. I can think of no other reason for removing the wonderful scene where a German disguises himself as the First Lord of the Admiralty and Hannay's flash of recognition which allows them all to realise they've been duped, but too late.

So, post haste to the first castle. Down into the dungeon (so just as well they didn't destroy it with the explosives) and looking for thirty-nine steps. Helpfully, the chaps who built the castle wrote the number on the wall next to the staircase. Again, it isn't entirely clear why anyone would do that. Still, they do lead down to the sea, or at least an inlet where the Germans and the uncle are making their escape. Given the gravity of the situation, you would have thought slightly more by way of police and spies would have been mustered to stop them. However, the Germans have moved up in the world and no longer attempt their escape by yacht, so passe, after all. No, for this adaptation they have every 1914 super-villain's transport of choice: a U-boat.

Fortunately for our heroes, this has significant flaw. Apparently, as they shout via a megaphone to the ineptly escaping Germans, it can only stay surfaced for three minutes. Now, while I hold a masters degree in engineering, it is not an aquatic flavour; however, I am reasonably certain that usually the limitation on submarine design is for the length of time they can stay below the water, time above is almost indefinite (subject to food and fuel supplies). Indeed, Wikipedia (not necessarily the surest source, but surely better than the production team) tells us:

Because speed and range were severely limited underwater while running on battery power, U-boats were required to spend most of their time surfaced running on diesel engines, diving only when attacked or for rare daytime torpedo strikes.

An interesting choice of escape craft, then. For anyone wondering, the U-boat did at least exist at the time the story is set, indeed, Wikipedia notes that the Germans had twenty-nine on the eve of war; though whether the U-boat depicted is of the correct period I cannot say, I'd be pleasantly surprised if they'd managed to get this one detail of historical technology correct.

Hannay and company are sufficiently incompetent that they allow at least one German to get aboard before it submerges (in the novel everyone is caught). Then a dying German shoots Victoria. This, as will become apparent, in a way that again defies explanation, is oddly convenient. She falls into the water, and despite his attempts to locate the body, vanishes.

Well, it's deep, after all. Hannay then, in keeping with the book, joins up, since war has broken out, and is at a London station waiting to ship out when he is afforded a glimpse of Victoria (who is about to engage in spy work so secret she must fake her death). Hmmmm. Let's examine this for a moment. Was it just a lucky coincidence that a German happened to shoot her, which she then took full advantage of? Possibly. But, if so, she would have had to deal with a real bullet. Presumably she was wearing a bullet proof vest, though given at the time (credit again to Wikipedia), to be effective required some thirty layers of cotton (silk was also used but only slowed bullets rather than stopping them) this would probably have been quite obvious. It's also worth nothing that they were not cheap (around $800 in 1914, and that was a lot of money then). Even so, lucky he didn't shoot her in the head. And then she falls into the water and what? Bear in mind that even with a bullet proof vest, being shot still knocks the wind out of you. The aqua-lung and other underwater breathing gear had yet to be invented (1943, if you must know), so either she held her breath for an impossibly long time or swam an impressive distance prior to coming up for air out of sight. Or, perhaps it was all planned, and the German didn't really shoot her, but was in fact a British agent. Though given the guy then gets shot several times by Hannay this is also, to say the least, bad planning (though possibly he had a bullet proof vest). Either way, our writer has clearly not thought this one through. I've seen many a spy flick convincingly fake a death: this doesn't come close. Worse, what on earth was the point? She is dead for all of thirty seconds before we get the 'ha, got you' shot (though, Ms Mickery, in case you're reading this, I should note that you didn't).

In summary, unless you find Rupert Perry Jones jawdroppingly handsome, and even then, there is very little reason to watch this train wreck. The plot of the original novel is put through an industrial threshing machine and replace by a markedly inferior creation with no regard for what is possible, plausible or in keeping with history. The principal players involved should not be permitted to work for the BBC for a long time to come.

Perhaps one day someone will come along and produce Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps for film or television. I suspect, though, that we would be holding our breath even longer than Victoria must have had to.