George Martin documentary review

Thanks to the wonders of the BBC Iplayer I finally watched the Arena documentary Produced By George Martin last night. It was even better than I’d hoped for. If you are in the UK you can still just about catch it here and I’d advise you to ignore the Bank Holiday sunshine for an hour and a half to do so immediately. It went over many familiar tales that make up the George Martin story but also uncovered some things that were new to me:

1. The device of using son Giles to interview his father really worked, with Giles gently needling his father to reveal some of the steely drive that is not always apparent when you meet George (who is one of the most polite, generous and entertaining men on the planet).

Giles teased his father, in the way that only sons who get on very well with their Dad’s can do, into opening up slightly. He revealed glimpses into George’s competitive nature, his workaholism and his very obvious pique at the relatively tiny rewards that EMI offered him as a reward for the phenomenal success that he’d delivered with The Beatles and the other Parlophone acts. The hurt at John Lennon’s comments and behaviour during Let It Be was also palpable.

2. I thought I knew a lot about George’s pre-Beatles career but was delighted to find he’s recorded even more seminal recordings across a range of genres that I’d thought including The Archers theme tune. He really was a key player in inventing the modern recording industry.

3. The scenes where George talked to Paul McCartney were wonderful. The pair of them were incredibly affectionate, respectful and deferential to each other. Clearly old warriors with a lot of shared battle scars enjoying each others company as they reminisced. George remained encouraging to the younger man, gently praising Paul each time he remembered what was happening in the photos they were looking at. I wonder if there is anybody left on the planet who Paul can enjoy this sort of relationship with.  He certainly seemed to value it.

Just as this documentary focussed on George Martin’s contribution to musical history and the wonder-story that was The Beatles I’d like to see more about how Abbey Road Studios and its engineers – Ken Townsend, Ken Scott, Alan Parsons and the rest – helped George and The Beatles make their sounds. Is there anybody out there making a documentary on this? Its Abbey Road’s 80th Birthday in November – would be good timing for such a documenatry.

BBC Archive Hour – Walls Of Sound

I happened to put the radio on for five minutes yesterday afternoon and came across this extraordinary documentary on Radio 4. I would heavily recommend it to anybody interested in the history of recorded sound. Its still available on the BBC Iplayer here until part way through Saturday 2nd April.

This is how the BBC described the programme:

When Nelson Mandela was tried 1964 he famously said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve, but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Without the British Library’s sound conservation work we would never have heard this. The trial was recorded using a Dictabelt system. The recordings soon became unplayable. The Dictabelts were brought to the British Library where digital transfers were made, allowing us to hear what Mandela said, and how.

In 1924, in Paris, James Joyce was recorded reading from ‘Ulysses’ and the British Library’s disc is as highly prized as its Blake, Hardy and Lawrence manuscripts. Alas, we’ll never hear how they read their work.

These are just two of recordings of immense importance that without the work of the Sound Conservation Centre would be lost. And what a loss that would be. The British Library has invested millions in the Centre and appointed its first ever Curator of Radio. Audio is being accorded the conservation effort usually devoted manuscripts and old masters. All this, the radio historian Sean Street argues in this programme, reflects a fundamental change in attitude to sound itself.

In a massive undertaking our sound archives are being saved, restored, digitised, catalogued and opened to all. Street observes all this and talks to curators, technicians and users. Throughout we hear amazing recordings from the libraries walls of sound that, until this change in thinking about sound, few knew about, and fewer could listen to. We listen as these recordings find their rightful place in the documentary heritage of the nation.