Archives for November 2012

Napoleon on 3

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 10:29 UK time, Thursday, 29 November 2012

From the Battle of Borodino panorama by Franz Roubaud

From the Battle of Borodino panorama by Franz Roubaud

Tim Dee is producing three Sunday Features and a week of Essays - all on the subject of Napoleon and 1812 - as part of Radio 3's Napoleon season which begins next week. Here, he gives the background to some exciting programming


Seventy-miles west of Moscow at Borodino the museum of the battlefield was still being spruced up when we visited, even though the 200th anniversary of 7th September 1812, the day of the almighty battle there, had already passed.  But the new toilet block had been installed with top-of-the-range German units.  My presenter, Zinovy Zinik, who left Russia for good 37 years ago, declared that he had never seen anything like it in his old homeland and was then transported by the porcelain to rhapsodic reflections on Soviet plumbing and still further back to anxious speculations on what it must have been like in that very spot two hundred years ago.   

Speech radio - talks and features - doesn’t do epic very easily.  How best then to capture in words something of the extraordinary year of 1812 when, bewitched by Napoleon, half the continent of Europe marched East, thinking that it might conquer Russia?  Orchestral music (Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture) and big baggy books (Tolstoy’s War and Peace) have grappled hugely with the huge event and delivered the sound - cannons and all - and the panoramic prose sweep, from the battlefield to the big houses and in and out of the combatants' heads.  But there is only so much noise you can squeeze on to a tape alongside a voice at any one time.  How can radio do the 28 million bottles of wine taken by the Grande Armée from France to keep it happy all the way to Moscow; or, harder still, how can it say anything commensurate with the fact that somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the single day’s fighting at the Battle of Borodino? 

So - the German toilet helped Zinovy.  And the closest I got to a sense of the madness was the feeling of shared insanity, futility, and despair that is the condition of driving (or rather not driving) around Moscow’s catastrophic road system.  Staring for a week at the stationary and smelly rear-end of 100,000 trucks and cars in front of me, all of us going nowhere fast, put me in mind of the view that both Napoleon and his foe, the Russian general, Kutuzov, must have had as they spent the day at Borodino eating picnics and sitting on camp-chairs some miles away from the fighting while watching their own people kill one another in ghastly excess.

Napoleon and his army sort of won the battle albeit at a huge cost, but by the time they got to Moscow the city was in flames and many of its citizens had fled: the conqueror of Europe hadn’t reckoned on the Russians’ nomadic genes that allowed them to happily burn their camp on the plain, as it might be, and move away.  With no victory prize to secure and winter coming on hard, the journey back was far worse for Napoleon and his ragged army.  All picnics were over.  Soldiers ate their horses, then one another, and then even themselves as bits of their frostbitten bodies dropped off and could be gathered up and nibbled. 

You have to hope that those fingers, thumbs, and toes, and the other little things - the things that do creep, word by word, into your tape recorder - can in the end tell at least something of how it was.  And that such local detail can stand up to the vastness of the canvas and the larger than life reputations and characters of the key players.  Tolstoy was among those players but this was also a lesson he learned and then passed on.  The novelist Stendhal, on the French side, was actually there and turned the impossibility of seeing the whole picture into a central tenet of his novelist’s creed.  He followed Napoleon from Paris to Moscow but by the time he was on his way home he reported that he was going down on his knees not to worship his emperor but at the sight of a potato that chance threw across his path.  Worshipping or at least noticing a potato in the vastness of a year of European-wide upheaval and mayhem seems to me a good model for how a radio feature might work too.  Notice the little things and let them show you how the big picture is made.

New horizons - the BBC Symphony's Middle East tour

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 12:45 UK time, Monday, 26 November 2012


BBC Symphony Orchestra members on camels


BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall finds a growing appetite for Western music in the Gulf Arab states ...

When I started touring with professional orchestras 20-plus years ago, the  majority of tour circuits tended to consist of European cities, North  America, South America, Japan and, if you were lucky, Australia. Now with the modernisation of China (building new concert halls every  year), that country has recently been added to the list. But I think we are now on the cusp of adding another circuit - the Gulf States.

A sort of art revolution seems to have been going on here in the last ten years. In 2005 the Abu Dhabi government opened the Emirates Palace concert hall in a 7-star hotel, then four years ago the Qatar Philharmonic gave its first concert in Doha (under the baton of Lorin Maazel, no less). Last week Bahrain opened its new 1001-seater National Amphitheatre; Dubai is also building an opera house and last year the spectacular Royal Opera House, Muscat opened its doors in the Omani capital. This is where the BBC Symphony Orchestra caravan rolled up last week, thanks to an invitation from the Royal Opera House.

There are times when touring is tough; jet-lag, excessive travelling, concertising and general weariness can take its toll not to mention the emotional part of leaving loved-ones back home. But occasionally one can fall on one's feet. Arriving in 30 degrees C when you left London cold and damp was always going to feel good and the prospect of the rest of the day free to acclimatise, catch up on sleep and explore, felt even better. 

Some were brave and went in search of camels to ride, some slapped on the sun cream and went swimming, others simply crashed out (night flights aren't always conducive to sleeping). I sought out frankincense and myrrh in the old souk (well, it is almost Christmas...).

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LJF lowdown

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Melanie Fryer Melanie Fryer | 00:39 UK time, Monday, 19 November 2012

Shabaka Hutchings

Shabaka Hutchings at the London Jazz Festival Photo: Emile Holba/BBC

The London Jazz Festival in association with Radio 3 has truly kicked off in style!


With an energetic opening Jazz Voice concert live from the Barbican the audience both at home and in the hall were treated to an eclectic mix of singers from Juliet Roberts, Imelda May and Gwyneth Herbert to our very own Claire Martin and surprise appearance from Boy George, plus many more conducted by Guy Barker. The atmosphere was bubbling with excitement and by the end everyone was one their feet and singing along to an Aretha Franklin medley.

Following hot on the heels of the opening concert came the official Radio 3 launch from Ronnie Scott's with Jez Nelson Introducing some of the cream of the festival including Terence Blanchard, GoGo Penguin Ambrose Akinmusire surrounded by a lively crowd of jazz fans live on Jazz on 3.

Over the last few days Radio 3 has been capturing many of the concerts throughout the festival including French double bassist Henri Texier, legendary singers Kurt Elling and Sheila Jordon, Portuguese Fado singer Carminho and the Matthew Tripp Trio with their contemporary jazz sounds from New York City. On Tuesday we heard a special performance from the BBC Concert Orchestra including the world premiere of Radio 3’s New Generation Jazz Artist Shabaka Hutchings’s (pictured) Babylon with the clarinettist joining them live on stage. This was a unique insight in the creative mind of a rising jazz star depicting the original metropolitan city. These concerts, alongside many more, are all to be broadcasts across our jazz programming over the next few months. Take look at the broadcast schedule so you don’t miss them. All broadcasts will be available for 7 days after the programme on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer or on the Radio 3 homepage

Let us know how you are enjoying the Festival and the programmes by Tweeting @BBCR3 and use the hash tag #LJF12

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Lover's Rock Drama

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 16:33 UK time, Thursday, 8 November 2012

Brixton man in the 1980s. Photo: Getty Images

Writer Rex Obano blogs about his forthcoming Radio 3 play, Lover's Rock, set in troubled south London in 1981. You can hear the play, starring Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, at 830pm on Sunday.

In the early hours of the 18th January 1981, fire spread rapidly through a house in New Cross Road, London where Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson were holding a joint birthday party.  Thirteen young people died including Yvonne.  Later in 1983, the suicide of Anthony Berbeck, who had been at the party and was affected by the memory of that night, brought the total number of dead to fourteen.

The deaths of those young people became a seminal moment in our cultural history. The tragedy, a still unsolved blaze at a house party, and its aftermath of protest and campaigning, set the tone for much that came after. The fact that no one in authority seemed to care forced the black community to unify, to find its voice in a way it hadn't before.  It politicised people from all over the country. Thousands marched in protest through Central London. There had been other uprisings, but this was a line in the sand.

At the time of the fire I was in the second year at William Penn Comprehensive School, situated between Brixton and Peckham along the 37 bus route - the events had a profound effect on me.  There was a definite shift in attitudes, perceptions and my own sense of purpose.  Looking back, I wondered how I coped with what was happening around me. I was a soul boy listening to Luther Vandross and early hip-hop, but it was my sister who broadened my musical horizons by playing Lover’s Rock.  Lover’s Rock was a hybrid of Jamaican reggae and American soul music that was popular in the soundsystems, the radio and on the record players in many a household.  It was quintessentially black British and the songs were mainly about the pain of being in love. The success of Lover’s Rock singers Donna Rhoden, Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson and Caron Wheeler (of the group Brown Sugar before she found worldwide success with Soul II Soul) suggested that pop stardom was possible for every young girl. While every young man wished they could be as articulate in matters of the heart as Peter Hunnigale and Trevor Walters. But really Lover’s Rock gave young black Britons a way to cope with the pain of what was happening on the streets.

That pain became all too real in 1981 and some people have never been allowed to forget the events of that year, particularly those surrounding the fire on the 18th of January.  While researching this play I interviewed survivors such as Wayne Haines, and relatives of those who died, such as George and Velvetina Francis who lost their son Gerry that night and still don’t know how or why the fire started.  With their blessing I organised a commemorative charity event of music, poetry and discussion in 2011 to mark 30 years since the fire, which was hosted by Kwame Kwei-Armah and featured the music of Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson at the Albany Theatre in New Cross. The event was attended by over 500 people, testimony to the strong feelings that live on in the community.

Like the music of the time, Lovers Rock is a play about an era in which black British identity came of age; the politicisation of the rebel generation.  It follows two young men after the New Cross Fire – one drawn into the politics and one drawn into the music, but both ending up on the frontline of the Brixton riots.  In the aftermath of the August Riots last year many reason were posited as to the cause.  Lovers Rock suggests that the reasons may be more complex than David Cameron’s view that it was 'criminality, pure and simple'.

Many young people today were borne out of the Lover’s Rock experience, but as a musical genre Lover’s Rock has remained underground.  It still hogs my stereo - this time on mp3 rather than vinyl - and I hope this play will introduce it to this generation as well as the events in 1981 that I, and others, will never forget.

Today's viewing from Free Thinking at The Sage Gateshead

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 12:18 UK time, Sunday, 4 November 2012


The Sage


Rosalind Porter is a Radio 3 Listener Blogger

Whatever the weather, wherever you are - do come along to The Sage Gateshead today for the final frantic round of Free Thinking events.  But even if you prefer to stay at home in the warm - there's plenty of Free Thinking to be cogitated on via the Live Video Stream. Today features a debate on Islam and Christianity; Billy Elliot screenwriter and playwright Lee Hall; Mark Pagel on the future of Evolution and Humanity; and don't forget the little green men... Aliens -  The Ultimate Them and Us! Plenty of food for thought to warm up the little grey cells.  Watching the live stream is the only way to experience the whole unedited version of each programme ... visualised radio at its very best.
If you are a Words and Music regular listener than tonight's broadcast will be unmissable, and if you aren't, well shame on you - but do tune in at 6.30pm on BBC Radio 3 for a melange of surprising bedfellows.  A brass band and a chamber music ensemble on the same platform, two of Britain's finest actors, a charismatic soprano singing repertoire from Purcell to Cole Porter with a diversion to Poulenc along the way?   It could only be one of a Words and Music's inimitable journey.  We all had such fun at the recording last night!


What makes good radio viewing?

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 15:33 UK time, Saturday, 3 November 2012

Music Matters panel

Music Matters panel: (l to r) Paul Morley, Zoe Martlew, Tom Service, Kathryn Tickell, Graham Vick

Rosalind Porter is a Radio 3 Listener Blogger.

It has been an interesting morning so far, snuggled up near a warm radiator, my laptop on my knees with the Free Thinking guide beside me. I’m starting to quickly form an impression in my own mind of what works and what doesn’t with live streaming.  Overall it seems to be important to remember that this is described as ‘visualised radio’ rather than an on-the-cheap version of television.  To give some background to the technical set-up: for each event there is one manned camera and two robot cameras, backed up behind the scenes with a team of three people to vision mix, operate captions and direct/produce the live stream.  So obviously the results that viewers are seeing on their laptops are influenced by the resources available.  For example, it isn’t possible to have members of the audience asking questions on camera.

Certainly, the highlight of this morning was the conversation between Philip Dodd and Colm Toibin.  It was naturally easy for the cameras to focus on what was important at each moment and also be ready to capture the various ‘special’ incidents during the programme.  This was followed by two programmes in the presenter-and-panel discussion format, posing similar issues for live streaming one might say, but surprisingly it turned out not to be the case.  In ‘Is Social Mobility Overrated?’ one had a lively panel with a wide range of opinions, but the frequently heated and animated discussion was exceptionally well controlled by presenter Anne McElvoy; she ensured that each panellist had their time to make points, clamped down on the over-verbose and I would imagine made the lives of those involved in filming and direction much easier as the camera could concentrate on whoever was making a point at the time, with group shots to gauge general reaction.  It was a fascinating discussion covering a wide range of subjects from education to inherited wealth and one came away mentally buzzing at the suggestions – some highly controversial – which were made.

However the opposite seemed to be the case in ‘Music Matters’  where presenter Tom Service in my opinion didn’t seem to exercise such control, allowed panellists to talk over each other or interrupt – which definitely made the job of visualising the debate much harder given the resources and perhaps resulted in a less satisfactory experience for the live stream viewer.  Perhaps rather like the efforts to make classical music accessible, the general effect was disorientating. I seem to remember we had a similar debate last year at Free Thinking and I’m rather disappointed that nothing new actually arose from the discussion.  Particularly that one never gets to hear from those to whom classical music is supposed to be reaching out.  Why no teenager on the panel who has never been to a symphony concert, to find out from the horse’s mouth what puts them off, or on the opposing side a member of a youth orchestra to discover how they were captivated by the world of classical music?  Rather than being truly enterprising, apart from some excellent ideas from opera producer Graham Vick, it turned out the “same old, same old”.

Do please comment on your impressions of the streaming, and this morning’s debates.

Watching Colm Toibin - Free Thinking's Books at Breakfast

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 15:02 UK time, Saturday, 3 November 2012

Philip Dodd and Colm Toibin

Philip Dodd (left) and Colm Toibin. Photo: BBC

This live streaming webcast was an absolutely brilliant programme.  It immediately reminded me of the old style culture programmes one would get on TV years ago with the inimitable Huw Weldon’s ‘Monitor’:  One interviewer – in this case Night Waves’ Philip Dodd and one single subject – the Irish writer Colm Toibin. No frills, no fills, simply two people in discussion.  

There’s no doubt that this interview will make a fine radio programme when it is broadcast on BBC Radio on 6th December at 10pm, but the additional bonus of watching on the live stream was observing the mannerisms of Colm Toibin:  After completing the answer to a question or when he obviously felt that an issue had been analysed enough, he’d look quickly down at the floor, an emphatic gesture that signalled that segment was over, so let’s move on.  His passion for words and opinions was mirrored in the intensity of his facial expressions, something which the excellent cameraman quickly focussed on.  In a way it was like watching a musician or actor on stage, yet there could be no doubting his sincerity. 

Often when authors read their own work out loud, it has the unfortunate impression of an adult version of ‘Listen with Mother’ yet with Colm Toibin the impression was more of a dramatic soliloquy or the skilled recitation of a poem.  Toibin’s prose has a constant ebb and flow with such a great empathy for the sounds of words - he personally mentioned his love of words like ‘misfits’ and ‘malcontents’ – a skill best described in my view as an innate musicality. Combined with the passion of his speaking one could sense the live audience and indeed Philip Dodd being almost enchanted by the lyricism and pure power of the prose passages.  I loved the description of Colm Toibin’s local Irish countryside near Wexford and even more the almost beatific look the author had on his face whilst describing and discussing it. 

I found myself envying the students he teaches in New York; there could be no doubt that Mr Toibin is an inspiring teacher; he’s also an inspiring communicator and this was a most evocative hour in his company.  Unmissable.

Rosalind Porter is a Radio 3 Listener Blogger

  • Visit the Free Thinking website and watch the video streams
  • Full details of Radio 3's Night Waves programmes
  • Blogging on ... to the Free Thinking video stream

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    Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 12:31 UK time, Saturday, 3 November 2012

    Mary Robinson

    Former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Photo © BBC

    Radio 3 Listener Blogger Rosalind Porter reports from Free Thinking 2012 at The Sage Gatehead


    Once again the foyers and halls are bustling with thinkers and there’s a major new innovation to bring more people into the live experience: many of the sessions are streamed live on the Radio 3 website.  If you can’t be in Gateshead to share your thoughts in person, then you can watch online, and you can let Radio 3 know your impressions – positive or negative – by commenting on this Blog.  Does the live streaming add to your enjoyment of the Festival? Does a visual image distract from events which are produced as radio programmes?  Does watching the live streams make you more likely to listen to the broadcasts on radio?   I’m going to be providing some blogs on both the internet and live experience this weekend and all feedback is very welcome.

    Last night kicked off with a live broadcast of In Tune, providing a smorgasbord of contributors who will be sharing their views over the weekend, combined with the usual diverse mix of music and musicians ranging from BBC Radio 3 Young Generation Artists Leonard Elschenbroich (cello) and Alexei Grynyuk (piano) to local folk music maestro Alistair Anderson and his band. Having a live audience adds a certain frisson to any radio broadcast and presenter Sean Rafferty certainly seemed to relish our presence.  The excellent Voices of Hope Choir under the direction of Simon Fidler, provided a heartfelt a cappella contribution including a very apt rendition of ‘When the Boat comes in’ and an intense performance of Bruckner’s moving Ave Maria.   But my personal highlight had to be the pairing of Leonard and Alexei and their interpretation of Debussy’s cello sonata.  Several members of the audience around me commented on the impressive fact that Leonard performed all of his pieces from memory, something which wouldn’t normally be picked up if we were simply listening at home as usual.

    Hopefully many In Tune listeners will have been inspired by the wise words of Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, to listen to her Free Thinking Lecture later in the evening, and there was a real treat in hearing the author Colm Toibin read an extract from his latest book The Testament of Mary, such evocative and musical prose gave an enticing preview to his interview this Saturday morning, which I’ll be commenting on later.

    Drama of the Free Thinking Drama ...

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    Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 15:31 UK time, Friday, 2 November 2012

    Pic of Olympic torches


    Broadcasting live radio drama is a seat-of-the-pants exercise. Producer Kate Rowland describes what goes in to this Sunday's Free Thinking Drama from Gateshead's Baltic Exchange ... 

    Each year the Freethinking drama does two things to me, it gives me a huge creative adrenalin rush, and in equal measure makes me tense, (one with childcare scenarios that rival Heath Robinson constructions, and two with the classic production nightmare where you stand on stage, and absolutely nothing happens.


    However this year’s drama penned by the brilliant poet and writer Simon Armitage is all going to plan. Like the holiday countdown - passport, tickets, money - with live drama you go script, actors, venue, script, actors, audience. So far so good.  

    The Torchbearers deals with Simon’s fascination with this year’s Olympic torch runners, the ordinary men and women on the sidelines of the media circus. Who were they? and what drove them? What’s great about the Freethinking drama is the immediacy of the collaboration with the writer, as you are asking them to write about something that is in the ether, that has got under their skin, and that will provoke the audience both in the venue and listening at home to think about how they feel and  what it triggers in them.

    In creating the characters of Paula, Ray, Colin, Spencer and Chloe, Simon has brought a range of characters to life who surprise and shock us with their behaviour. You think you know someone only to discover that not everything is what it appears to be. But to make a drama work you need actors that can truly inhabit someone else’s world. And how lucky are we to have the most fantastic cast to do just that. It is so rare that you are able to cast your ideal but in this case with Kevin Whately, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Mark Benton, Christopher Connel and Philippa Wilson we have the perfect group of strangers, who will bring this new world into being. The Baltic is a wonderful venue to work in as you are surrounded by the most inspiring artworks and the team there are so welcoming. Paul Cargill, the studio manager, has done every Freethinking Drama with me and so knows my foibles! Because when it comes to it we only have a day and a half to rehearse with the actors before we go live on R3 on Sunday November 4th at 9.00pm, making sure that both the emotional journey and all the technical effects works together .  


    Everyone involved with the Free Thinking Festival and the production team have all been so supportive, so now it’s up to me to make sure that we create the most compelling listen.

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