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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Was this TV's finest hour?

By Norman Lebrecht / September 24, 2008

What is a documentary maker to do when the organisation that inspired his life’s work tells him it is worthless?

The rude awakening for Christopher Nupen came in 2002 when Jane Root, Controller of BBC2, was quoted as saying that ‘audience figures prove that the British public is not interested in films about music.’

Nupen, as a young man at the BBC, invented films about music. In the late 1960s, when 16-mm cameras got lighter and silent, he took them into the heart of performance and captured a new breed of musicians having fun as they played. Daniel Barenboim jumped on Vladimir Ashkenazy’s back after a Mozart double-concerto shouting ‘that was good!’ John Williams took his classical guitar to Ronny Scott’s. Jacqueline du Pre glowed with enigmatic contentment.

These were not multi-camera live relays but intimately constructed and painstakingly edited stories of how music is made. The Daily Telegraph critic grumbled that ‘an unwelcome star quality’ was invading the concert stage, but the film - Schubert’s Trout Quintet with du Pre, Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and the conductor Zubin Mehta on double-bass - became the most widely broadcast classical recital of all time.

Inhibited by tight budgets and po-faced administrators, Nupen left the BBC in the mid-1970s to work as an independent. When the BBC in its 1990s dumb-down era shut its door in his face, he felt morally wounded and physically bereft. He calls the institution that formed him ‘the British Broadcorping Castration’. He is a living marker of how television lost its values.

This Friday, and for the next seven weeks, small amends will be made. A run of eight Nupen films will be shown on BBC4, starting with his portrait of du Pre and ending with a study of Barenboim’s protégé, the Palestinian pianist, Karim Said. The series launch was attended by the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, and there are signs that the organisation is having a rethink about arts documentaries. Nupen, for his part, maintains his faith in the old BBC. ‘It taught me all I know,’ he beams, through a herbal tea and a snow-white beard.

Born in South Africa, his father was a one-eyed Norwegian off-spinner called Buster Nupen who took eleven England wickets to win a 1930 Test match. Christopher was put to work in a merchant bank and, shipped to London in 1955 aged 20, saw an advert for the opening of the rebuilt Vienna Opera. It looked like a momentous occasion. Wearing his father’s white tie and tails and clutching a standee’s cheap ticket, he found himself sitting in a grand box with Lotte Lehmann, the great pre-War Lieder singer whose return from American exile gave spiritual legitimacy to the reopening.

Next day Lehmann took the young man to lunch and asked what he did for a living. ‘You – in a bank!’ she exclaimed. ‘That is un-possible.’ ‘I can still smell her perfume,’ sighs Nupen.

Returning to London, he applied for the first BBC job going. ‘I was a sound effects boy. I slammed doors and clinked teacups for radio features.’

Broadcasting House was a hive of creative minds subsisting on meagre wages. Meeting the poet Louis MacNiece in a corridor, Nupen flattered him with a few memorised lines of verse and was put to work on the broadcast of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. ‘There were great men competing with each other in pursuit of excellence,’ he recalls. ‘Hans Keller in the music department said to me “you have a gift for structure, let’s make a programme about Schoenberg”. Another documentary, about the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, caught the ear of the powerful Huw Wheldon, who took Nupen to television, ‘where there was less respect for the craft.’

The flat in New Cavendish Street that he shared with John Williams buzzed with talent. ‘Daniel (Barenboim) and Vova (Ashkenazy) wanted to give a concert together at the Festival Hall, two pianists. They couldn’t find the money. I went to Wheldon. He said “this is a story” and I got £600 and an order for a nine-minute film.’

Nupen worked three weeks, night and day, editing the performance into an hour-long epic that collected awards across Europe. When he filmed Du Pre playing the Elgar cello concerto, ‘it was shot live, very dangerous, no backup tapes. Fellini taught me that if you know what you are doing, the film will tell you what to do.’

He was getting a reputation for being ‘difficult’ and, when he walked out of the BBC with his cameraman and sound engineer, he was told that ‘no-one makes a living as an independent producer.’ But a 16-week Saturday night series on Channel 4 in 1990 drew an audience that grew exponentially week by week, as if his documentaries were Desperate Housewives. Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford philosopher, once said that Nupen’s films are ‘at just about the highest level which television is capable of reaching.’

‘My reply to Jane Root,’ exclaims Nupen, ‘was that if the ratings show the British public is not interested in music, that must mean the BBC is not making the right programmes. They are underestimating the audience.’ He has had only one conversation in 35 years with Alan Yentob, the BBC’s grandly titled Creative Director, and he abhors the fixation on talent shows in which amateurs are judged for waving their arms in front of an orchestra. ‘The Maestro thing is an abomination,' he snorts.

At first sight, Nupen’s way of telling a story may seem slow-paced and excessively detailed beside the quick-cut digi-edits of contemporary TV. But the very absence of gimmickry gives his work an authenticity and integrity that commands our attention. Whether you are watching Evgeny Kissin’s fingers skitter across the keys, or listening to Nathan Milstein explain the sound he coaxes from his violin, you are being taken deeper inside the musical process than television has ever gone before. Many of his films are out on DVD.

Nupen is the David Attenborough of the musical jungle. He feasts with the big beasts and is unafraid of snakes. The BBC has done well to reclaim him late in the day as one of its pioneers. At the end of the BBC4 run, you may just feel that eight films are not enough.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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