Howard Goodall's Channel 4 series on 20th-century music was a triumph of intelligent television. It worked because it was driven by a powerful polemicby David Herman / February 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
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-1920s 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 Schönberg 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 (Omnibus, Saturday 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…