Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs - What the critics said...

  • Posted on 1 October 2000 at 5:00pm
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There were lots of column inches written about the TV series Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs, as well as the accompanying book and CD.  Below are some of these reviews, starting with AA Gill from the Sunday Times.

…about the TV series
“Music is one of those things television does fantastically well. Up to a point. Popular music is something television does well, classical music not so well and opera abysmally. Years ago there was a programme devoted to the song My Way, about the people who’ve covered it, how it was written, what it meant to individuals, all nicely researched and well made. Stuck in the middle was a musicologist who explained, quite dryly, what made it work – the technical things it did – and I remember thinking at the time how riveting he was. Most of us never bother to take the back off music to see why it can transport us, move us to tears and joy. How is it that lovers are so susceptible to music? Why do armies have bands and not ballet dancers or regimental short-story-writers? And how is it that even though I have the memory of a broken sieve and can’t recite a single line of poetry, I can remember all the words of every show tune ever written? That’s having to remember twice as much – rhyme and tune. Now explain that in a ditty.

Well, Channel 4 has. It has produced a series that takes apart music, Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs. Before I start, don’t be put off by the title. I know I was. Whoever thought it up should be given a harmonica and led to a very windy pedestrian underpass. Just let’s you and I call it Howard Goodall Tells Us Things That Make Our Blood Syncopate and Our Heads Sing. This is the very best thing on television. It is utterly brilliant. Goodall has smartly chosen the crossroads in the history of western music and conducts us through them.

The first episode was about the invention of musical notation. Now I, and I assume most of you, don’t read dots. I’ve always thought they came in the same box as maths formulas and, like the nutritional information on Cup a Soup, are not something I need worry about. Goodall unravelled, explained, illuminated and let us hear what a culturally seismic event an Italian monk’s invention of do-ray-me was. In fact, I have spent the past week hugging myself and telling everyone the things he told me, as if I had thought of them. There are moments when television passes on information that you can actually feel doing you good, fluffing up your understanding of life and everything, and this is one of them.

I hadn’t seen Goodall on television before. Of course, I’ve seen his name on numerous credits, he’s a consummate composer. Happily, and I expect surprisingly, he’s also an erudite and enthusiastic presenter. It’s such a relief to have a television dome-head who isn’t working overtime at being a character. Virtually every complicated technical or cultured subject on television has to be megaphoned through an all-purpose Vorderman. Goodall is the best and rarest sort of expert raconteur – enthusing, clear and confident and apparently unselfconscious. He also has that unteachable and unquantifiable gift: he’s lens-friendly, you just like him and want to spend time listening to him. Watch this programme. It’s on tonight; it might even be on as we speak. Don’t bother finishing this article; the rest of it is boring.” AA Gill, The Sunday Times


“TV programmers have resisted scheduling too many music series in the belief that they never really transfer well to the small screen… Somewhere along the line, however, there seems to have been a change of heart in TV Central… Channel 4 has come up trumps again with Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs, the best run of music-related programming since Dancing in the Streets.

Although it is intended to document the ‘big bangs’ of Western classical music – notation, opera, recording, piano, equal temperament – it really goes much further than that, providing direct links with much of the music around today (and not just classical music at that). So we go from 11th century monks in Italy to John Cage’s avant-gardism in modern New York.

Don’t be put off by the programme titles – which sound bewilderingly technical – because Goodall’s simple explanations, fruity enunciation and ready wit ensure that even arid subjects like the invention of musical notation (the method by which music is transcribed in to paper) is still riveting. So good, in fact, that you will be heading to the nearest megastore to stock up on some of the goodies on display here.

In a medium now dominated by young, good-looking presenters with absolutely nothing to say, Goodall is manna from heaven. Quirky, engaging, witty and compelling, let’s hope Channel 4 lets him loose on more of his obsessions as soon as possible. Even the music, taken out of its usually pompous surroundings, sounds enchanting. Or, to quote Richard Wagner: “It really is better than it sounds.” Now all we need is a series that does for black music what this decidedly does for classical.” Bill Brewster, The Big Issue 


“When Howard Goodall, presenter and writer of Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs, is on screen, resistance is useless… Goodall looks like a portly cherub and argues like an angel. He manages to illuminate the 1,000 history of written music with a glamour and excitement that turn dead history into a living adventure.” Jane Shilling, The Mail on Sunday
“Who would have imagined a programme about music notation making such an arresting impression. What, in the wrong hands, could have been a dry-as-dust discourse on an arcane subject became instead an exploration of music making which kept you looking and listening throughout.” Anthony Payne, The Independent


“Goodall is now as relaxed and at home in front of the camera as David Attenborough and is happy to make his points not just through speech but by singing or playing the organ or harpsichord… There is a narrow line between clever illustration and irritating gimmicks, but Goodall and the programme makers David Jeffcock and Paul Sommers manage to stay permanently on the right side of it, [making] a programme which, while it explained a deeply significant turning point in the history of music, was also highly entertaining.” Christopher Dunkley, FT Weekend 


“For a livelier, fresher approach to the arts than the BBC’s, try Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs, tonight dealing with the advent of opera in a way that is informal, entertaining and neither patronising nor cheap.” Martin Hoyle, The Financial Times


Reviews of ‘Big Bangs’ on Australian TV:

‘The Age’ (Melbourne,Australia) 8.12.1999

Anyone who can mention Handel and Hendrix in the same breath without batting an eyelid is not hidebound by outmoded notions of “classical” music. In fact, the impish Goodall manages to make even Gregorian chant sound somehow groovy. Listen, ye ragers against the machine, and learn.

The Sydney Morning Herald 10.04.2000

A worthy repeat for a program probably missed by many first time around. Howard Goodall’s curly mop, cheeky schoolboy grin and smart-mate-down-the-pub manner make music theory more musical than theoretical. …. It works for non aficionados because Goodall takes the topic, but not himself, seriously and allows a sense of discovery to emerge. Coming after the intense drama of Nature Boy, Big Bangs may be a perfect change of pace.  (Bernard Zuel)

The Australian 30.12.1999

Howard Goodall is a cherubic looking chap whose powers of persuasion must verge on the demonic. Who on earth signed off on the budget for this series? Classical music isn’t exactly Walking with Dinosaurs, yet, Goodall keeps bobbing up all over the known world and beyond (yes, that was him standing on what looked like a live volcano in a previous episode) to make his points about things such as opera, equal temperament (don’t ask) and the startling political effects of certain compositions. It’s a bit like the approach to Life on Earth, where in every shot Sir David Attenborough was in a new part of the globe amiably pointing out bird poo in a way that made it seem the most fascinating substance imaginable. So in this five-part series we see Howard enjoying a glide in a Venetian gondola, Howard sitting in an opera box, Howard whizzing about on a little scooter, Howard in a football beanie, on a London bus, in a Neapolitan restaurant, in a paddle boat in Greece, on the Eurostar to France. The camera pans along a row of seats in a traditional Chinese opera house inShanghaiand, voila!, there is Howard, beaming away, the only round-eye in sight. Most bizarre is the Moulin Rouge number complete with can-can dancers. After the mademoiselles have flounced their legs and skirts at us they fling themselves to the floor in the splits and behind them is – Howard, of course, chatting on about the “kickers in knickers”. There is apparently nothing closed to Goodall. He uses a Gypsy wedding inRomaniato demonstrate that our ears have become tuned to the Western sound so comprehensively that certain folk traditions sound distinctly out of kilter. As the bridal party trails along a road, people playing and dancing, Goodall joins in enthusiastically. The man is everywhere and in everything, rolling his Rs with relish when he gets to a particularly lip-smacking moment. He plays the piano, he sings. This could have been profoundly irritating, yet Goodall is so interested and interesting that he makes a rather delightful companion. You can’t accuse him of being high-flown about his subject, yet Goodall doesn’t over-simplify either. He wears his knowledge lightly, but it’s there. Recorded music is undeniably one of the biggest “big bangs” of the series – something that changed the artform and that altered its audience irrevocably. It started withEdison’s phonograph, which first transmitted the spoken word but was quickly prized for its ability to capture music. The smart ones lined up to preserve – and sell – their music. Here Goodall has a splendid dig at certain sectors of the music world. “the classical world, patronising then, as now” was initially scornful of the new device, seeing it as a way of spreading vulgar tunes, he says. Well yes, but there were other possibilities. They were sized by Enrico Caruso, who was “the first recording megastar” His recording of Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci was the first disc to sell a million copies. Seeing Caruso raking in the bucks, it didn’t take long for our very own Nellie Melba whose grasp of financial matters was awesome, to graciously give her public what it wanted. And so to the ramifications we see today, for good and bad. Sophisticated equipment allows your bedroom to be turned into a recording studio and the sampling of previous recordings is now an artform in itself. “The love child of recorded music”, says the all-embracing Goodall. But on the other side of the ledger there is the “false perfection” of definitive recordings, less risk-taking in live performances and a triumph of the music of the past over that of the present. It’s fascinating stuff, racily presented. If you came into the series late, how about asking the ABC to schedule it again. Soon.

The Age (Melbourne) 2.12.99

Don’t let the title fool you: this is not a series about a wacky new scientist claiming the universe was formed by several Big Bangs, but an engaging Englishman and his love of music. Howard Goodall believes the history of music over the past 1000 years or so has been marked by several huge leaps forward and, in these documentaries, he explains why…. In the hands of many, this could become an esoteric series, but Goodall always has an eye for the lay audience, ensuring that his Big Bangs is intelligent, enjoyable television.

The Age (Melbourne) 9.12.99

The English composer continues his musical journey with Opera 101, a primer for Philistines. We’re the ones who cheat and buy “20 Top Arias” on CD rather than sit through three circulation-stopping hours of recitative, where the third spear-holder from the left sings: Hark, who goes there? But thanks to his Everyman approach and feel for TV as an art form, Howard Goodall makes even the recitative sound important….. It is a genuinely entertaining program. (Barbara Hooks)


…about the book


Pythagoras, having noted that the pitch of notes depended on the speed of their vibrations and that planets also moved at different rates of motion, concluded that the movements of the celestial spheres must produce the most perfect music. While only Hawkwind would ever claim to have come close to discovering this interstellar soundscape, Howard Goodall’s fine history of the development of western music is a pertinent reminder of how central it is to our universe. At a special needs school in Manchester he encountered severally mentally and physically disabled children who, despite barely being able to hold their percussion instruments, could still keep time with a simple rhythm. The sonic alphabet, it appears, is something we can all understand yet it wasn’t until the 11th Century that anyone formulated a way to write it down. Unfortunately, standardising a system of gaps between the notes which enabled people to play together would take a little longer and with such diversions as the Lyraflugel and the Enphonican-piano-harp it’s a miracle we ever developed the piano let alone opera, recorded sound and the Spice Girls. Enchanting and intelligently written, Goodall’s tour of the crucial moments of musical culture is a delight.(Travis Elborough, Waterstone’s Online)


“In his acknowledgements at the end of this book, Howard Goodall gives a huge amount of credit to his colleagues at Channel 4 television, his editor and various other friends and musical associates for their assistance in steering him through the task of researching and writing his first book. But if this really was the product of many people’s effort, it doesn’t show. Unlike the glossy ‘scissors-and-paste jobs’ that often accompany TV series, Big Bangs stands on its own merit as an entertaining and informative millenial take on the history of western music and the music business.

Goodall’s criteria for his five ‘big bangs’ were that they had to have taken place in one place at one time, rather than evolving over several decades, and that they should be restricted to developments which influenced the composition and performance of classical music as opposed to popular or world music. The resulting list of topics – notation, opera, equal temperament, the pianoforte and recorded sound – gives him scope for wide-ranging discussion. Issues to do with context, influences and the process of composition are explored further in three subsidiary chapters.

Goodall has a gift for finding an illuminating metaphor or comparison and is at his best when he is explaining a difficult or unfamiliar concept. I would imagine that there are many professional musicians who could learn a lot from the chapters on notation and equal temperament, yet they are written in such a way as to be fairly easily understood by the intelligent lay person.

One of the main strengths of the book is its clarity. A strong narrative thread runs through each chapter and most of them are drawn together convincingly at the end. Goodall’s own personality is vividly present throughout. Despite his popularising approach and informal image he takes a serious view on issues such as the dumbing-down of church music, the decline in musical literacy and the implications of modern technology in terms of preserving and disseminating the music itself as opposed to specific performances or interpretations. All in all I would describe Big Bangs as a jolly good read.” Clare Stevens, Classical Music Magazine


Reviews of the paperback release of Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs:

The Irish News – Belfast 30.12.2000

The strength of this fascinating book is that the author makes complicated musical advances clear and quite a compelling read. Surprisingly it is racy and vivid in a narrative form and full of colourful characters and graphic illustrations of the technical processes. He also gives a wonderful sense of the culture of trial and error and competition for discovery and innovation on a global scale. Big Bangs opens the window on the crucial moments of our shared musical culture and illustrates the groundbreaking discoveries that made everything from Bach to Beatles possible. So if you want to know who invented Doe Re Mi or what exactly is meant by “in tune” then this book would be a good investment for you.

Yorkshire Post 25.1.2001

…The author has a remarkable gift for gathering information, an unerring eye for the telling detail and compelling manner in telling the tale.

The Guardian 20.1.2001

…I had missed the TV series, fronted by the relatively ubiquitous Goodall, on which this book is based, and from which it takes its title. The strength and value of the book lie in the way it manages to approach music as a technical problem as well as a matter of mystery.

The Observer 21.01.2001

… The book’s origins – in the Channel 4 series of the same name – are evident in its chatty tone and slightly jumpy structure, but neither detracts from the author’s intelligent, infectious enthusiasm.


…about the CD
“Music from and inspired by the Channel 4 TV series, arguably the most important and effective of its kind ever produced.” Classic FM Magazine