Songs of praise for the gifted amateurs

25th February 2000 at 00:00
MIKE LEIGH is a brave man but then the British have always produced audacious film directors. We also produce great writers but not composers.

Great composers have to be German. There is something about that language and musical genius. Look at Wagner, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Even Britain's greatest composer George Frideric Handel spoke German as his first language. So did Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, Schumann and all four Strausses. It must be something about the unpleasant sound of German - alternately strident and guttural - that drives anyone with talent to try and drown it out with an orchestra.

I don't know why, but England scores badly in the symphony stakes. Consider the half-time results: Beethoven 9, Elgar 2. Mahler 9, Sullivan 1. If this were Jeux Sans Frontieres we'd be eliminated in the first round.

I was reminded about this earlier in the week when I went to see the new Mike Leigh film Topsy Turvy. My goodness it brought back memories, mainly of our school production of The Mikado in which I played Pooh Bah and the current professor of music at Keele University Ko Ko.I still have the tape (which I use from time to time to blackmail members of the cast who've gone on to be "cool" or eminent in later life).

The funny thing is our Mikado was surprisingly good but then school productions of Gamp;S often are surprisingly good because Gilbert amp; Sullivan were two highly talented people writing for a basically amateur company.

By contrast Richard Wagner was writing for singers better than could be found at the time. Wagner pushed forward the boundaries of music while Sullivan provided a legacy of quality amateurism which continues in British schools today. For proof just look how rarely The Ring Cycle gets performed in German high schools.

Sullivan's other legacy is the embarrassment people feel in later life admitting that they once skipped round the stage singing "Three Little Maids From School Are We". This is why I am so impressed by Mike Leigh's bravery, not just in making this film but in admitting that as a Manchester schoolboy he sang Gamp;S. How long till other "hard men" out themselves? I bet Jack Dee made a lovely Nanki Poo.

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