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Fighting Spirit

1 hour, 15 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 27 May 2012

With just two months to go before the start of the 2012 Olympics, and inspired by the idea of what motivates athletes to compete, an exploration of the theme of fighting spirit in its many guises.
From Aesop's famous morality tale of the hare and tortoise, through Lewis Carroll's selfish Queen domineering in a game of croquet, to Henry V's call to arms on St Crispin's Day - a range of driven characters reveal what it is that makes them tick.

Actors Alison Steadman and Peter Egan read poetry and prose alongside music including Raymond Scott, Schubert, Wagner, Irving Berlin and Queen.

Music Played

29 items
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
  • Image for Raymond Scott

    Raymond Scott Powerhouse

    Performer: Raymond Scott Quintet

    Basta 30-9073-2, Tr 1

  • Aesop

    Aesop’s Fable - The hare and the tortoise, readers Alison Steadman and Peter Egan

  • Image for Raymond Scott

    Raymond Scott Powerhouse

    Performer: Raymond Scott Quintet

    Basta 30-9073-2, Tr 1

  • Stephen Kelman

    Pigeon English, readers Peter Egan and Alison Steadman

  • Image for Cole Porter

    Cole Porter You’re the top

    Performer: Ella Fitzgerald Performer: Buddy Bregman and orchestra

    Verve 537 257-2, CD 2 Tr 8

  • Image for Franz Schubert

    Franz Schubert String Quintet, Adagio (excerpt)

    Performer: Melos Quartet Performer: Mstislav Rostropovich

    Deutsche Grammophon 415 373-2, Tr 2

  • Rudyard Kipling

    If, reader Alison Steadman

  • Philip Larkin

    Letter to a friend about girls, reader Peter Egan

  • Image for Irving Berlin

    Irving Berlin Anything You Can Do

    Performer: Original Broadway Cast of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ Performer: Chorus and Orchestra, directed by Jay Blackton

    MCA Classics MCAD-10047, Tr 6

  • Margaret Thatcher

    The Path to Power, reader Alison Steadman

  • Image for Michael Nyman

    Michael Nyman Chasing Sleep, from ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’

    Performer: Michael Nyman Band

    Virgin DVEBN 55, Tr 1

  • Margaret Thatcher

    The Path to Power, reader Alison Steadman

  • Image for Giuseppe Verdi

    Giuseppe Verdi Triumphal March (‘Gloria all’Egitto’) from ‘Aida’

    Performer: Nicolai Ghiaurov (Ramfis) Performer: Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala Performer: Claudio Abbado (conductor)

    Deutsche Grammophon 415 286-2, Tr 6

  • Stephen Kelman

    Pigeon English, reader Peter Egan

  • Image for Richard Wagner

    Richard Wagner Richard Wagner - Walther's Prize Song ('Morgenlich leuchtend'), from 'Die Meisters

    Performer: Jonas Kaufman (tenor) Performer: Prague Philharmonic Orchestra Performer: Marco Armiliato (conductor)

  • Lewis Carroll

    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (excerpt), readers Alison Steadman and Peter Egan

  • Image for Dmitri Shostakovich

    Dmitri Shostakovich Galop from ‘Odna’

    Performer: Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin Performer: Mikhail Jurowski (conductor)

    Capriccio 10 562, Tr 2

  • 00:40

    Franklin Ardelle Won’t You Come Over and Play Croquet

    Performer: Peter Savidge (baritone) Performer: Jennifer Partridge (piano)

    Just Accord JUSCD001, Tr 6

  • Image for Arvo Pärt

    Arvo Pärt Fratres for string and percussion

    Performer: Hungarian State Opera Orchestra Performer: Tamás Benedek (conductor)

    Naxos 8 553750, Tr 1

  • William Shakespeare

    Henry V (St Crispin’s Day speech), reader Peter Egan

  • Image for Johann Kuhnau

    Johann Kuhnau Biblical Sonata No. 1 ‘The Combat between David and Goliath’

    Performer: John Butt (keyboard)

    Harmonia Mundi HMU 907133, Trs 4, 1 and 8

  • Bible

    David and Goliath, readers Peter Egan and Alison Steadman

  • Image for Gabriel Fauré

    Gabriel Fauré In Paradisum

    Performer: Gilles Cachemaille, Mathias Usbeck, Daniel Fuchs Performer: Choeur de Chambre Romand Performer: Choeur Pro Arte Performer: André Charlet Performer: Orchestre de la Suisse Romande Performer: Armin Jordan (conductor)

    Erato 3984-23274-2, Tr 12

  • Image for Charles Ives

    Charles Ives Piano Sonata No.2 “Concord”, 3rd movement

    Performer: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

    Warner 2564 60297-2, Tr 20

  • John Milton

    Paradise Lost (excerpt), reader Alison Steadman

  • Stephen Kelman

    Pigeon English, readers Peter Egan and Alison Steadman

  • Image for Tom Williams

    Tom Williams Main Theme from ‘Superman’ (excerpt)

    Performer: London Symphony Orchestra Performer: John Williams (conductor)

    Warner 3257-2, Tr 1

  • Stephen Kelman

    Pigeon English, reader Peter Egan

  • Image for Freddie Mercury

    Freddie Mercury We are the Champions

    Performer: Queen

    Parlophone 6 86642 2, Tr 2

  • Producer's Note

    As would-be Olympic athletes limber up for the 2012 Games, they prepare themselves not only physically for the trials they face, but also mentally for the psychological strain of striving for such excellence. Thinking about what it is that drives these athletes to compete – the ambition and motivation it requires – led me to a broader exploration of the competitive or fighting spirit in its many guises.

    The passions of this spirit are evoked through the versatile voices of revered actors Alison Steadman and Peter Egan, complemented by rousing and thought-provoking music by composers ranging from Raymond Scott to Richard Wagner.

    So, what is the human, and as it turns out, animal instinct to win and be the best?

    For the ponderous tortoise in Aesop’s famous fable, it takes the arrogance of the taunting hare to rouse him to the challenge of a race in which he proves that speed isn’t everything. Similarly, underdog schoolboy Harrison Opoku sets out to make the point that he too can be the best in Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, though he is motivated by the desire to make his parents proud. Harri’s endeavours in the 400-metre race span the whole programme and are set alongside Cole Porter’s self-effacing jazz classic You’re the Top sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Walther’s romantic prize-song from Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremburg and to end with Queen’s We are the Champions.

    Lines from Kipling’s set of inspirational rules for adult-life in the poem If grace the entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court and act as a sobering reminder of the virtues of both dignity and poise for success in life. Kipling’s profound thoughts are underscored with part of Schubert’s exquisite slow movement from his Quintet for Strings. Philip Larkin could perhaps have benefitted from Kipling’s ideals to help him come to terms with the apparent unfairness of his interaction with the opposite sex, as revealed in his Letter to a friend about girls.

    Politics forces a race of a different kind for the Iron Lady as she triumphs in the pivotal 1975 election for leadership of the Tory party. Her autobiographical writings reveal a self-assured composure that kept her in a position of power for so many years, realised through the rhythmic gravitas of Michael Nyman’s music to the film, The Draughtsman’s Contract, and Verdi’s triumphal march from Aida. Yet, even Margaret Thatcher’s potent rule could not match that of the dictatorial Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – cleverly revealed in an absurd game of croquet played against Shostakovich’s whimsical gallop from Odna.

    Arvo Part’s minimalist and ominous Fratres leads to the battlefield, as Henry V recognises the need for team spirit and brotherhood in fighting for the greater cause of honour and national pride above individual recognition and reward. Meanwhile, it is God himself who motivates the young David to take on the mighty Goliath in The Old Testament, with extracts from Johann Kuhnau’s remarkably bright and vivid Biblical Sonata telling the tale of The Combat between David and Goliath.

    Yet, it is the complexities of Lucifer’s fight with God and subsequent fall from grace in Milton’s Paradise Lost that raise the question of where the line should be drawn in the pursuit of power and success. The discord of the third movement to Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata, Concord, shares the uncertainty of Lucifer’s plight.

    Emily Nelson (producer)


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