A review of Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats

  • Posted on 19 December 2004 at 4:56pm
  • Filed under:

Howard Goodall’s Channel 4 series on 20th-century music was a triumph of intelligent televison. It worked because it was driven by a powerful polemic by David Herman, Prospect Magazine

After a terrible year Channel 4 ended 2004 on three high notes: the start of David Starkey’s ambitious history of the British monarchy: Green Wing the most original British comedy series of the year: and the outstanding factual series of 2004 Twentieth Century Greats, presented by Howard Goodall.

Goodall’s series was rightly acclaimed by critics when it was shown just before Christmas. But the critics failed to notice precisely why it stood out from the bland culture of current British arts television. First, Twentieth Century Greats was driven by a powerful polemic. The great story of 20th-century music, argued Goodall, was the rise and rise of popular music – not the trite stuff of pre-1920’s Tin Pan Alley or, for that matter, of most pop music of the last 20 years, but a new and sophisticated popular music which drew on other forms such as folk, classical and electronic and which, in turn, fed new developments in classical music. At the moment in the mid-20th century when classical music was disappearing down a cul-de-sac and wilfully cutting itself off from mainstream audiences, popular music was filling the vacuum left by the avant garde. Instead of Schoenberg or Stockhausen, Goodall brought an unlikely pantheon of popular songwriters and film composers centre stage.

This is a fascinating argument and forms part of a larger polemic against modernism. What is particularly interesting though is how unusual it is to find such a bold thesis about the arts in television today. The best arts series have always had a simple, polemical idea (think of John Berger and Mike Dibb’s Ways of Seeing or Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New) This is what also distinguishes early Arena and the first series of The Late Show from others (OmnibusSaturday Review, or today, Imagine and The Culture Show. Goodall’s programmes took a big idea and ran with it.

The series was risky in other ways. It is hard to imagine Channel 4 executives whooping for joy at the thought of a programme on film composer Bernard Herrmann, or even Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein. If the subjects were risky, the tone was even more daring. Most arts programmes fall back on a mix of biography (“Arthur, tell us about Marilyn one more time”), celebrity-fixation and a strangely bland kind of criticism. Goodall ditched all this. There was a little biographical background but for the most part he used technical musical analysis a critical language of harmony, tonality, chord modulations and Dorian modes.

Take the third programme, on Bernard Herrmann, one of the great film composers, who wrote the soundtracks for Citizen KaneVertigo and Taxi Driver. Goodall explained how Herrmann broke with the dominant tradition of film score writing – European, lush and romantic – first, in his early films, by seeking a more American sound in the influence of Charles Ives and then, especially in his relationship with Hitchcock, by making more radical changes, using unexpected techniques and instruments, reinventing the sound of the string section by cutting the violin vibrato and using an attacking string sound, reducing melodies down to a few edgy chords in a manner derived from Bartok and which would, in turn, influence minimalism. None of this was particularly easy or accessible. It required thought.

Throughout the series Goodall talked about bridging the divide between the popular and avant garde. But in the process he did something far more original. He tried to bridge the growing divide between two cultures inBritainbetween a culture which uses rigorous critical analysis and is increasingly confined to universities and small magazines, and a culture of promotion and hype, the world of the Sunday books pages and theatre and film reviews.

Most critics described Goodall’s series as entertaining and informative. In fact, he was sometimes hard to follow, and used a vocabulary unfamiliar to non-specialists. He got away with it because of his conviction that this was the way to address his subject and because of the quality of the filmmaking.

Here Goodall was helped by his two producers, David Jeffcock and Francis Hanly. None of the reviewers mentioned either producer. Television critics are still in a stone age where presenters appear to make their own programmes. Jeffcock (who also worked on Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs and Great Dates) and Hanly are two of the best arts producers of their generation, and they brought a distinctive visual humour and style to all the programmes, using archive in rich and inventive ways, making knowing cinematic references and constantly ringing the changes so that the programmes never felt visually stuck. They, in turn, were working with two of the best television cameramen inBritain, Colin Case and Steve Plant.

This blend of polemic, technical analysis and visual style gave Goodall’s series its flair. It was intelligent and at the same time a pleasure to watch. Put together with Goodall’s previous series for Channel 4 and his recent South Bank Show, it constitutes an important body of work, one of the landmarks of British arts television.