Published by Daily Mail
Prom 2: John Wilson Orchestra does My Fair Lady (Royal Albert Hall)
I was invited by EMI to the world famous Abbey Road Studios this week for a sneak preview of ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein: At The Movies’ – the latest album from the effervescent John Wilson Orchestra and the Maida Vale Singers, featuring the glorious Sierra Boggess (Love Never Dies, Phantom of the Opera), Julian Ovenden (Death Takes a Holiday, Finding Neverland) and David Pittsinger (South Pacific). Sipping a glass of Chardonnay in the historic Studio 1, just 15 feet from the Maestro and all of five feet from the swinging double basses, it was a wonderful amuse-oreille to last night’s Prom.
There’s no doubt that John Wilson has established himself as a very worthy annual Proms fixture (indeed, he gets two slots this year). His historically-informed orchestra is to the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway classics what the Academy of Ancient Music is to Mozart or Gothic Voices is to 12th-century plainchant. They all manifest utter dedication to the hidden riches of musical archaeology and the painstaking re-creation of the authentic sound of an original score. And in this exquisite Prom the vast dome of the Royal Albert Hall glowed pink and purple while reverberating to the soaring melodies of Lerner & Loewe’s classic My Fair Lady, for which John Wilson faithfully revived the lavish Oscar-winning orchestrations originally supervised by André Previn in the 1964 film.
It was billed as a ‘semi-staged’ performance, but there was nothing ‘semi’ or halfway about it. They gave us the Broadway script fused with the Hollywood score; a musical mixture of sounds to complement Shaw’s great tribute to the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible. It was a glorious romp through the entire musical, albeit with an ensemble occasionally crammed onto scarcely eight feet of forestage.
I’ll admit to feeling a little apprehensive when I arrived, musing on the lack of Inigo Jones architecture in the cavernous Victorian void, not to mention the irresistible acting temptation to lapse into caricature or indulge in a bit of musical pantomime in a one-off performance. But I met Sir John Major in the gents just before the Overture, and after the ensuing self-conscious small talk, he patted me on the back (or was he drying his hands?) and gave the parting exhortation: ‘Enjoy’.
So I did.
And, by the sound of it, so did the assembled 5000-strong audience (along with the tens of thousands who must have listened to the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3, though why it wasn’t televised is beyond me). It was a flamboyant orchestral feast with a stellar cast, including Annalene Beechey as a delightful Eliza Doolittle, who transformed effortlessly from brash, cockney guttersnipe to delicate, ethereal duchess. And Anthony Andrews (irritatingly unchanged since Brideshead), whose Professor Higgins was pitched somewhere between the incomparable sprechgesang of the late, great Rex Harrison and the ‘I’m free’ falsetto of John Inman.
James Fleet’s Colonel Pickering pondered and puttered around the stage like a lost spaniel, with occasional hints of Hugo Horton. And Alun Armstrong brought a wealth of West End experience to his middle-class moralising Alfred P. Doolittle. Siân Philips was gloriously regal as Mrs Higgins (why on earth is she not yet appointed DBE?), memorably delivering the line ‘A flower girl?’ rather like Lady Bracknell pours scorn upon handbags. And Julian Ovenden’s Freddy Eynsford-Hill could woo the world with his soaring tenor on the street where she lives.
You really don’t need very much scenery when the orchestra manages to eke out of Frederick Loewe’s evocative score just about every location in London, from the thunderous racing hooves of Royal Ascot to the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden. It’s a John Wilson specialism: to orchestrate meticulously the postmodern unities of period, place and personality. But it’s an absolute crime to hide him behind a swinging ensemble – it’s about as inappropriate as confining him to an orchestra pit, which would be an unworthy demotion for a musical showman who has more theatricality in his baton than Lang Lang has in all ten fingers.
And how refreshing it was to hear the Royal Albert Hall echo to the outrageous 1960s misogyny of ‘A Hymn to Him’, and for the BBC to broadcast such sexist hate-speech as may be found in a play of Edwardian attitudes. ‘Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that,’ Higgins observes, as he writes off half the human race as ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’. The delirious audience laughed, cheered and applauded (and so did Dame Norma, I observed out of the corner of my left eye). I assume the feminists tend not to be out in force at the Proms (unlike the ‘Freedom for Palestine’ crowd last year). But I can’t imagine Peter Tatchell putting up for long with a lyric that declares the heads of gays and lesbians to be ‘full of cotton, hay and rags’. And doubtless the Muslim Council of Britain would fire off one or two angry letters to the BBC’s new Director General if they dared broadcast a lyric which said: ‘Let a Muslim in your life, and your serenity is through.’
But only a little.
There’s a self-censoriousness which is gradually creeping into all British expressions of arts and culture which longs to give us a black, fat mama Eliza, and make a frilly, gay couple out of Higgins and Pickering. This needs to be resisted at all costs. But, dammit, I’ve probably just given someone at the BBC a wonderful idea they’ll inflict on us at some point in the future. God knows what such an ‘inclusive’ PC-take would make of the elitist, racist Ascot gavotte or the classist, homophobic Embassy waltz. The instincts of the Lord Chamberlain are returning to our national artistic life like a malignant mole on the epidermis of creativity, and we must be grateful that the Proms at least remain relatively untouched (barring the regular omission of Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs from the Last Night). The John Wilson Orchestra is not only the world’s greatest all-singing, all-dancing performance orchestra; it is fast becoming the opiate of Promanaders, and deservedly so.