God of thunder

He may be a dead composer from the last century, but few artists inspire such heated debate as Richard Wagner. Alan Morrison examines the controversy that still surrounds his life in the run up to Channel 4’s Wagnermania season.

if composers were to be remembered solely for the uses their music was put to in the late 20th century, then future generations might think Puccini’s love of football brought about ‘Nessun Dorma’ while Tchaikovsky found inspiration in a Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut for his ballet scores.

Think Wagner and immediately swarms of army helicopters come to mind accompanied by the thundering ‘Ride Of The Vaikyn'es' ‘da-da-da-da- DA-da. da-da-da-DA-da, da-da-da-DA-da, da-da-da- dum'. Francis Coppola and Apocalypse Now have a lot to answer for, but there are those who would argue that Wagner himself might not have been averse to the smell of napalm in the moming.

There's a tangible power in this particular piece of music, an overblown Teutonic blast that bludgeons any opposition into cowering submission. Perhaps this is one reason why Hitler took so readily to the composer, and why the Nazi movement considered Wagner's Bayreuth Festival Hall as its anistic hean. By then, of course. the composer had been dead for over 50 years, but there's evidence that Wagner held reactionary political views. These were so tied up with his music than many. including the composer‘s

Wagner's women: love played a key role in the composer's life

own great-grandson Gottfried, would be happy ifa Wagnerian power-chord was never heard again. Wagner was not a man to distance himself from the events of his time. He was exiled from his homeland after his involvement in the Dresden uprising of 1849. Wagner then fell out of favour of the Bavarian people when he abused his position with his enthusiastic patron Ludwig ll by dabbling in local politics. In later life. both he and his wife Cosima (the daughter of Franz Liszt) became openly anti-


‘First he goes back into German history. then he goes back into German myth,‘ says opera director David Alden, of the inspiration for Wagner‘s major

? works. ‘He's going deeper and deeper into the

German gets! and spirit. What he uncovers there and

, what he talks about are very prophetic. Some people

say it was more than. prophecy; some people say it was the first step towards the mess that was going to


Alden‘s 1994 production of 'Iann/iauser in Munich

: is the highlight of a week of programmes on Channel

4 that shed a fresh light on Wagner‘s less palatable character traits. in the composer‘s defence. however.

a it has to be said that he was perhaps merely an

extreme example ofthe Romantic Movement. which had an idealised sense of nationalism. An exile at the

‘It seems to be a big turn on, to the Germans, to be “the big male” and I think Wagner certainly felt he was the biggest male around.’

height of his musical powers, Wagner eagerly cast himself as the Romantic wanderer struggling against fate and. others would argue. as the superhuman lover and genius who demanded attention.

‘lt seems to be a big turn on. to the Germans. to be “the big male",‘ reckons filmmaker Ken Russell, ‘and I think Wagner certainly felt he was the biggest male around. Apparently he had a gigantic sexual organ that was the envy of every town he went to and every husband he cuckolded. So i think he composed with his cock instead of his pen.‘

Although this is a typically overblown bit of Russell myth-making. it is true that women and love. requited or otherwise, played a key role in Wagner's life. Some of his work brims over with sexual energy, and often the tenderest feelings emerge in his intricate and exquisitely beautiful melodic passages. This season should show that there’s more to Wagner than corpulent Brunnhildes screeching over orchestral snmn and clrang.

Wagnermania starts on Sunday 9 April on Channel 4 will: the A—Z of Wagner. See listingsfnr more details.

Two-fisted assault

The original aim of television was to lnfnnn, entertain and educate. Nice idea but not one that guarantees ratings. What the public wants, or at least what those of them who are male and aged 16-30 want, are sex, drugs, beer and laddish jokes about the size of their tackle. In that order. Richard Honing and Stewart lee have sacriticed the best years of their livers to provide this service, albeit in a deeply ironic, self-knowing way.

The gruesome twosome have slacked through to their mid-20s as over- educated and under-employed

lee and Herring: tighter than a gnat’s chuff

comedians, first on Radio 1’s Lionel Himrod’s Inexplicable World, which grew up, slightly, to become Fist Of Fun. In the best tradition of radio comedy, a show of the same name is

now transferring to television, offering the chance to develop sight gags and a bigger audience. Fist fans will be glad to hear the puerile humour remains the same.

In a nutshell, Lee and Herring’s schtick is based on a ridiculous sense of the absurd and their childlike pedantry. A sample gag should point you in the right direction: ‘I did once get off with a fly and that was good because a gnat’s chuft is literally as tight as a gnat’s chuff,’ remarks Herring. You get the drift.

All of this might sound as though Lee and Herring have too much time weighing heavily on their hands. They do. ‘For the last five years we’ve been semi-employed, not making much money, living in south London, eating takeaways and watching daytime television,’ explains Lee. “The idea for Fist Of Fun was that we weren't really

getting anywhere in life, had nothing to do, and so we’d try and inject some kind of meaning into our lives by thinking up hobbies, interests and affectations.’

As a pitch to a producer this sounds less than promising but amazingly it worked. Putting Lee and Herring in a television studio is akin to marooning a pack of teenage delinquents on Reeves and Mortimer’s Fantasy Island and telling them to amuse themselves. But from chaos comes order. 'We have all the mail and the filing cabinets with each draw marked for a different type of loke,’ says Herring. ‘There’s Swear Words, Drug-Based Humour, Rude Jokes, Topical .l_okes, Women Hating Material, Toilet Humour and Ideas Copied Off The Gondies.’ So simple, really. (Jonathan Trew) Fist Of an starts on Tuesday 11 at 9pm on 8802.

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