Philharmonia – fact is richer than this fiction

Channel 4’s new series set in a Paris orchestra hits multiple wrong notes

Artillery Row

A long time ago, I pitched an idea at lunch to a BBC suit – it was so long ago they still wore suits at the BBC and paid for lunch – and was smartly turned down.

“Won’t wash,” he said, sniffing the wine glass.

I had offered to write a new character into the daily TV soap EastEnders, a musician in one of the London orchestras slumming it in Docklands in search of cheap rent and rough sex. It ticked several BBC boxes, bringing culture into everyday lives and raising the profile of one of those hard-pressed national institutions which, like the BBC, are supposed to belong to us all. As for the sex, it’s what orchestras do all the time.

“What’s not to like?” I demanded, declining wine.

“Orchestras are elitist,” sniffed the suit, “they belong to the educated classes.”

Nothing more to discuss with the BBC chap, but maybe the wine waiter was listening-in because, a couple of decades later, something of what I was suggesting has now turned up in a French TV series titled Philharmonia, supposedly depicting life in a Paris orchestra. Although relegated to the nether parts of Channel 4 – and no channel does more nether parts than 4 – it seems to have got Covid-era TV reviewers excited to the point of infatuation.

“I love Philharmonia” cried the neo-Marxist Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian. “Quality escapism” trilled Carol Midgely in The Times. “Why have so few dramas dipped into the jealousies, the bitching, the power plays and adultery that’s surely sawing away amid the violins and the bassoons?” wailed some hack in Metro. I warmed to these notices. Vindication, it had been said, is a dish best eaten cold.

The reality was sadly less rewarding. The plot of Philharmonia is, to anyone familiar with the peculiarities of orchestral life, simply preposterous. Conductor drops dead in mid-concert – happens maybe once in two decades – so the orchestra flies in glamour puss from New York as successor. She gets stopped at De Gaulle for carrying a gun, as conductors do, and then proceeds to inform the orchestra of her brilliant renewal strategy.

First, she fires the concertmaster and replace him with a young Asian woman whose face on the placards will attract a more desirable demographic. Then, she plans to present the world premiere of a symphonic work by, wait for it, her own very good-looking husband who is, meanwhile, shagging a blonde horn player in order to relieve his composer’s block. There’s a lot of shagging early on in Philharmonia, average once in 12 minutes, but I’m not here to write about the nether regions.

In one respect, the series is certifiably authentic. Paris orchestras are ill-disciplined and their music directors overpaid and short-lasting, though not often by reason of homicide as implied by this series. Unlike London orchestras which are run on the whole by failed musicians, Parisian ensembles are managed by failed politicians one of whom in this series proudly declares that he knows “rien” about classical music. Power in the Parisian pack lies with the musicians’ union rep, who is depicted here as sexy, smart, sensitive and emotionally mature. I’ve yet to meet one like that.

For the rest, no violin in Philharmonia is ever tuned before it is picked up and played, the oboe is described as the most beautiful instrument in the orchestra and a harpist strips to her Victoria’s Secrets to dry off wet strings on her blouse after the ceiling sprinklers went amok. The sprinkler disaster actually happened a year ago at Duisburg, home to the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, but no musician on that occasion thought of going starkers.

a harpist strips to her Victoria’s Secrets to dry off wet strings

Just as the cracks are showing and the plot creaks to a standstill with the arrival of a sexually obsessed benefactor with a private jet, the series turns into a self-described “psychological thriller” of one murder after another. I spot the perpetrator with two episodes to go and the rest dwindles out like the last half-hour of Pierre Boulez’s Répons 3, one work of many in which a composer lost his spark.

Disappointed? I was devastated. The lives of orchestral musicians are packed with enough raw drama and humdrum repetition to make a credible story. Like the concertmaster who had jus primae noctis with every female violinist, or the oboist who took a cut of new sponsorship to keep both wife and mistress in style, or the play-away manager who came home from tour to find his clothes strewn all the way down the street. Everyday stuff that makes EastEnders look tame.

Philharmonia has cost the last of my faith in British critics and French directors. When all else stalled, they threw in a subplot about a deadly genetic condition, the kind of yarn that would never get past a Coronation Street script conference. My BBC offer is still on: I’ll write a viola player in The Archers.

Norman Lebrecht is the author of The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power

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