He Can Carry A Good Tune
Doctor Who: Proms 10 & 11 - Royal Albert Hall, 24th and 25th July
And here we are again, two years later and another Doctor Who Prom. Much has changed since that last extravaganza and the series itself has undergone something of a transformation under the auspices of Head Writer & Executive Steven Moffat. We have a new Doctor too, in the beguiling form of Matt Smith. But some things haven't changed and one of them is the music composed for the series by Murray Gold. Proms 10 and 11 at the Royal Albert Hall provide us with an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with some of Gold's most successful pieces composed for the Russell T Davies era of the show and to get to know a whole new set of themes for the first series overseen by Moffat.
What I like about these Proms is that we get a chance to hear concert versions of the music composed for the series unshackled from the extremely busy sound mix that smothers many of the episodes we see on television. You can listen to the latest themes without all manner of sound effects, including explosions and weapons fire, and dialogue obscuring some of the best music being composed for a British television series today. The music is also presented within the world of Doctor Who as live too, with all manner of monsters prowling round the Hall and plenty of interactivity including clips of the series and special appearances. Hopefully, the children attending these Proms will be inspired by Gold's music for the show but also will come away also having had a taster of some of the more accessible classical pieces within the programme.
This year's Proms get off to a gorgeous start with 'The Mad Man With A Box', an ethereal piece, almost mystical in quality, that, with its beautiful solo vocal from Yamit Mamo, manages to capture some of the magic of the man that we all know of as the Doctor. Onto the stage comes one of the hosts for our show, Karen Gillan, resplendent in a gold and black gown, who then introduces us to the pizazz of 'An Untimely Arrival' which covers the pre-titles to The Eleventh Doctor as the TARDIS crash lands in Amy's garden. Full of energy and vigour, Gold uses it as a bridging motif between the RTD era and the new adventures of a new Doctor. Familiar but also preparing the way into the new series without frightening the horses too much. It complements the John Adams piece, Short Ride In A Fast Machine quite wonderfully, itself full of syncopation and looping, repetitive rhythms and, for these Proms, it is certainly one of Adams more accessible and audience friendly pieces.
One of my highlights of these Proms is Gold's new theme for the Doctor, 'I Am The Doctor'. It's an epic signature tune for one of the most mercurial of the Doctor's incarnations and sets out to remind us that although the Doctor has changed, he is still very much the hero. The melody sticks in the mind and is instantly addictive and it's been used throughout the series but most significantly in The Pandorica Opens as he gives his speech to the amassed ships of his deadliest enemies above Stonehenge. A superb composition, a Gold standard if you like, and musically one of Series Five's greatest achievements. As this played, the Hall was invaded by all manner of alien foes - Saturnynians, Silurians, Cybermen and Judoon - and children everywhere, even those of us who are 48 years old and still refuse to grow up, were left grinning with delight.
Two classical pieces follow with the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales under the brilliant conductorship of Grant Llewellyn. If the Adams piece was a bit of a warm up, then Llewellyn gets the Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Choir to really give it some welly here. William Walton's Overture 'Portsmouth Point', a crafty nod to Murray Gold's home town, is a jaunty, perky work, full of gorgeous melody and rhythm. The mood undergoes a startling change with the second piece. An all time favourite, Holst's 'Mars', from The Planets gets a stunning rendition here and much kudos must go to the Choir and the percussion section of the Orchestra for really getting their teeth into this. Another highlight of the two Proms, it's stunningly performed and Llewellyn conducts like a man possessed. The boiling, doom laden aggression and pounding military crescendos sent tingles down my spine. Now, if they could have shown a few clips of Quatermass whilst this was playing then I'd have been an extremely happy telefantasy fan boy.
Back to Who with 'Battle In The Skies' from Victory Of The Daleks. Amusingly, Gold's homage to the scores of Ron Goodwin (633 Squadron and Where Eagles Dare) and Eric Coates (The Dam Busters) is heard as an ARP warden yells across the Hall, 'Put that light out!' as one of Bracewell's 'Ironside' Daleks rises from the floor of the Hall and asks everyone if they want a cup of tea...and a biscuit (thanks to Nick Briggs). The poor old Ironside is then bluntly interrupted by the white Dalek Supreme, arriving on stage in a blaze of light and dry ice. It sends the Ironside Dalek packing and then orders conductor Ben Foster to play the music of the Daleks or else! Foster teases the Dalek and on the matinee performance threatens it with his baton only to be told not to interfere with its sucker. The Supreme (aided and abetted by Barnaby Edwards) patrols the stage as Foster whips the Orchestra Of Wales into a stirring accompaniment to the episode's dogfight sequences. After a swift ice cream in the interval, it is back to the second half of the programme.
Grant Llewellyn returns and once again he wrings as much drama as he can from the Choir and the Orchestra with 'O Fortuna' from Carl Orff's Carmina burana. A medieval eruption of choral power, this iconic piece is stirring and epic, summoning up the very essence of raw nature, of life and death. And Old Spice. Yes, I'm old enough to remember those ads. Karen begins to introduce one of her favourite themes, Amy, but suddenly receives a very special message. In the spirit of Music Of The Spheres back in 2008, where David Tennant's Doctor attempted to stop a Graske from disrupting the Prom, Matt Smith pops up on the video screens around the Hall, greeting the audience from some very odd angles, even upside down at one point, in fine panto tradition. It's a lovely, witty piece, "Sir, careful with that wig. And you sir. And you. And actually most of the violin section. Oh, and ladies mind those skirts. And selected gentlemen."
He's got to fix an overloading fold-back quasar do-dah, thingumy that will turn into a "wibbly wobbly explody wody thing". And he tries to defuse it with an electric tooth brush! But here he goes one better than Tennant. He disappears off the screen and emerges, for real, in the centre of the Hall, looking for someone to help him defuse this bomb. Smith's comic timing and physicality is much to the fore and when he actually does pop up in the Royal Albert Hall for real, interacting with children from the audience, he's in his element and ad-libbing away like a good 'un. Children clearly adore him (he captivated Ellis and Ben in these performances) and he completely confirms that of all the things about Series Five, he is quite simply the series greatest asset right now. Judging by the way he handled all the gobbledegook of the script he's also fast becoming the Stanley Unwin of all of the Doctors! "ITV's been blown off the air!" he naughtily concludes after deactivating the bomb.
We return to the music from the series with 'Amy' and this time Arthur Darvill comes on stage to introduce the music. This is again one of Gold's major triumphs and definitely a high point in the Proms. Yamit Mamo returns for solo vocal duties and with nods to Danny Elfman, Gold offers a heartbreakingly lovely tune for the new companion in the series, deftly capturing the frailties and weaknesses of the woman as well as her sense of wonder and bravery. Quite stunning. It's back to more monsters with a suite of themes, 'Liz, Lizards, Vampires And Vincent', covering the music to accompany the battle between Liz 10 and the Smilers on Starship UK; the return of the Silurians (with Ben Foster surrounded by three of them as he tries to conduct); the marauding vampire Sisters Of The Water and the tragic life of Vincent Van Gogh. Of these, the standouts are certainly the motifs and themes for Vampires Of Venice and Vincent And The Doctor.
The vampires get a memorably unearthly melody to accompany their sojourns into Venice and into the Hall itself as a group of the Sisters way lay a member of the audience during the matinee performance, dancing around him, much to his bemusement. The magnificent music that featured during Vincent's journey into the future and his visit to the gallery to hear how his work had affected millions of lives is presented here. Full of joy and sadness, it remains a very special, emotionally powerful theme. The medley concludes with the nerve jangling incidentals, using a lilting piano riff, pounding chords and choir, that accompany the Weeping Angels and one of them pops in for a quick visit, scaring the bejesus out of most of the kids in the audience.
Karen and Arthur return to introduce Wagner's 'The Ride Of The Valkyries' and Grant Llewellyn gives the Orchestra Of Wales yet another energetic work out with the swirling strings and strident brass of this stirring classic. It again truly shows what a class act this Orchestra is. Karen then introduces, to several whoops from the audience, 'This Is Gallifrey', as featured in Series Three, and 'Vale decem' from The End Of Time. 'This Is Gallifrey' is here used to wonderful effect as, in the evening performance at least, the video screens show all the regenerations of each Doctor. All the Doctors get their fair share of applause and this slightly distracts from what is one of Gold's finest pieces for the series. Naturally, the greatest response is reserved for Tennant and Smith. On the matinee, either through a technical fault or by decision, the roll call of Doctors wasn't shown and 'This Is Gallifrey' was allowed to soar, full of loss and pride for an ancient society. 'Vale decem' is an amazing choral work with counter-tenor Mark Chambers beautiful voice at the centre of a moving, elegiac piece that sees the regeneration of the Tenth into the Eleventh. Both pieces are guaranteed not to leave a dry eye in the house. Superb.
Matt then arrives on stage to describe Gold's response to Moffat's two part series finale, a specially arranged work, 'The Pandorica Suite'. To be honest, it's not my favourite of Gold's recent work as it tends to resort to emotionally colouring the scenes it covers, particularly the comedy time travel bits, rather than develop big, memorable themes. There's little to remember or to hum here as it rather is incidental music and only until he gets to the conclusion of the suite with a thrilling reinterpretation, signposted with some great brass sections, of 'I Am The Doctor' does it come alive with crashing percussion and insistent woodwind.
Smith, Gillan and Darvill come back to introduce 'The Song Of Freedom', from Series Four. Personally, not one of my favourites but Mark Chambers voice is again extraordinary and Foster gets a tremendous performance from the London Phiharmonic Choir and the Orchestra for this anthemic theme. Murray Gold guests on keyboards during this and the arrangement of the 'Doctor Who Theme' and I'm still not particularly fond of his latest arrangement of the series theme, especially those very non-Ron Grainer opening orchestral tags and brass sections. That said, fortunately enough of Grainer's original composition and Delia Derbyshire's realisation remains and it's lovely to hear the old theme in such a setting driven by especially powerful bass and percussion. Both Proms rightly received a standing ovation and it is still pretty amazing to think that the little series we all love has been transformed into an unstoppable multi-media attraction. To paraphrase the Ninth Doctor, 'Fantastic!'