Handing out or receiving awards, or just hanging out, at the 2012 Classic Brit Awards at the The Royal Albert Hall, was ITV’s idea of a dream team – Aled Jones, Andrea Bocelli, Victoria Pendleton, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Russell Watson, Gareth Malone, Gary Barlow, Joe McEllderry, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and John Suchet. I thought I’d died and lost the remote control. And then, the Presley of proceedings, the ultimate name to explain the essential bow tied, twinkly eyed, middle England, Express delivery, Thornton’s cosiness of what was taking place - which could only happen in this country, with its complex blend of smug arrogance and self-deprecating insecurity, of Empire heritage and brittle Island defensiveness, of the plainly sensible and the slightly dotty, of polish and melancholy, of prurience and gardening - Alan Titchmarsh creeping onto the stage, making a lewd crack about the evening’s host, Myleene Klass, and being applauded as though he alone was responsible for everything ever written by Ludwig Beethoven and Agatha Christie.
Titchmarsh confirmed that this was a ceremony that had more to do with what in the 20th century was safely known as light entertainment patrolled by sweet smiling, desperately pleasant seeming, middle-of-the-road titans such as Val Doonican, Harry Secombe, Des O’Connor, Hughie Green; some more naturally soothing than others. Titchmarsh was one of many weapons used to sell to a mass-audience a polite, unthreatening idea of classical music during an evening that had as much to do with classical music as the carrots witless Titchmarsh talked about in his leering reference to the shape and general presence of Myleene, who was draped in silky, or sickly, orange and reading one of those scripts clearly written by no-one who favours words such as ‘incomparable’, ‘legendary’ and ‘stunning’.
There was an icing sugary whisper of a classical music element to the ceremony, in that the music used to form the soundtrack to this shrill ‘classic’ exhibition of celebrity gossip, daytime television perkiness, Hollywood films, TV commercials and puffed up West End musicals carried with it powdery hints and occasionally more concrete examples of the grace, beauty and drama of orchestral music. For those who have come to music through pop or rock, the way ‘classical music’ was dressed up in candelabra kitsch and shop-worn corn would not have persuaded them that there was anything here for them. This was a marshmallow hybrid of the gentlest easy listening and soft, airbrushed classical that back in the 20th century, when there were still solidly maintained and progressively idealistic critical standards, would have been viewed as at best ersatz and at worse moderately sinister. It was, for something intending to update and modernise a world viewed as over formal, antique and elitist, extremely old fashioned, with an allergic resistance to anything original, genuinely sensual and surprising.
For ITV, this is the Arts. For the sane rest of us, it is the pimped end of the pier. The ceremony was the bewildered, if sparkly love child, of the Eurovision song contest and the Last Night of the Proms, with somehow a dash of the 1970s Miss World, Brucie’s Strictly Come Dancing, and William and Kate’s wedding. The awards won by John Williams for his ferociously attractive Spielberg and Harry Potter scores, leading to a rousing medley of his melodic highlights, regurgitating romantic classical music history with groomed, hammy panache, added luxurious levels of loaded entertainment energy. To some extent, as a festival of the far-fetched and frivolous, it was not at all unentertaining. At times, especially when the male and hearty, lush haired dude of Waltz, André Rieu, went for the nerves with a style of waltz that implied it had been invented by Walt Disney, Angela Rippon and a kitten once owned by Salvador Dalí, the whole circus was like a psychedelic variety show that might have existed on the Titanic in the 1960s had it not actually sank 50 years before. Priceless indeed, as Brit sponsors Mastercard like to make clear.
The ultimate commercial contemporary brilliance of the event, a ruthless brilliance inherited from the tabloid world and Simon Cowell, intended to deflect the sort of critical perspective that might question its motives, and indeed its tenuous relationship to classical music, or to any music at all, was to position various human bodies representing the imperial, valued and cherished around the budget pomp, clichéd choreography, glossy theatrics and botoxed jolliness. As Russell Watson, with his very own brave come-back-from-personal-disaster story, heartily boomed the boom of pure Brit boom, a slow motion slurry of images played out behind him, sympathetically blending Queenly primness, emotional flag waving and Olympic heroism. Tears were intended to be jerked, and the stacked up Albert Hall audience encouraged to swell with pride, and along the way, as a bit of a bonus for those looking to capitalise on the persuasive power of pretty melodies, middlebrow classical music was saved, or at least given a patriotic purpose very useful in uncertain times.
To appear suspiciously resistant to this scheming reduction of music to a sticky, manipulative meringue would be to question the virtues and valiant efforts of the Team GB athletes and their constant Queen. Who would want to do that, to suggest that commercially mocked up middle-of-the-road melodrama and an occasional pleasing burst of bright, efficient playing was being given a fine coating of synthetic sophistication and undiluted emotional power courtesy of Royal jewels and sporting champions? Only the really churlish would suggest that a force field of protection, using an unlikely combination of Bradley Wiggins’ beloved pumping thighs and the Queen’s candy-coloured, begloved royal fingers, had been constructed to repel the feeling that what was going on was deeply unseemly.
The throwing of well-regarded even sovereign human bodies around the mediocre, the maudlin and the moistly nostalgic, a distillation of music into an under-baked pudding of sentiment, was perfected in the event’s stunning, incomparable finale. For me, and this is an entirely personal opinion that I understand is traitorous enough to see me hanged, it seemed like a burial ceremony for music itself, if only the formal putting into the ground of 50 years of popular music that began with an urgent Beatles bang and ends with limp, lifeless Gary Barlow O.B.E. Presenting their Official Jubilee anthem ‘Sing’, with all the dignity of three not particularly close friends assembling a set of Ikea shelves, cherub Malone, bland Barlow and allochthenous – honestly – Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber were surrounded by the Military Wives. The Wives formed a decorous, sacrosanct barrier around what, if positive discriminating critical values were still thriving and permitted, would be swiftly dismissed as on the deadly side of dreary.
Using the Wives, and elsewhere using Olympic medal winners and so called national treasures, and various young, attractive virtuoso players glad of the attention they receive playing an instrumental non-pop music that is not the usual recipient of publicity, is a way of establishing some sort of exemption from a critical world where mediocrity and the damned obvious is properly dismissed, in a very human way, for the wider benefit of culture and society. You cannot argue with it – the general Barlowering of musical standards – for fear of offending the courageous, the imperial, the beloved and those who are Gold, or upsetting those sold to us as above suspicion.
Those of you who possibly spotted me during the television broadcast, an accidental VIP sat amongst the great and good of the post-reality TV classical set, might have detected on my face a look of either shock or awe, which was either because I had overdosed on Titchmarsh, or because if this was a hint of the commercial future of the classical musical industry in this country, I realised that the end result was that the music and its spectacular history would be used only as a back drop to showbiz shenanigans, the baking of cup-cakes, the running of Dulux dogs, the special effect hurling of film fantasy, the knighting of Barlow, the winning of medals, the mummifying of Katherine Jenkins and the deification of Lloyd-Webber. Or, perhaps, I sensed that the Albert Hall had hit an iceberg in the shape of the fluffy gothic set used for two songs from Phantom of the Opera and was slowly sinking, with the only survivors, in a cruel twist of fate, likely to be Barlow and Lloyd Webber, who would then turn the whole tragedy into a musical. And then, as if the evening hadn’t already been enough of a trip it could be bottled and sold as a hallucinogenic, André Rieu thanked Anthony Hopkins for having written him a waltz. And Anthony Hopkins himself, wearing his best Hannibal Lecter goes to the opera clothing, stood up and waved.
Read Paul’s review on the Gramophone Awards 2012.
You can see the awards on ITV, Sunday 7th October at 10.20. Head to www.classicbrits.co.uk to see the full details of the event.
Paul Morley is a music journalist and a cultural commentator.