Programmes on the triumph of the popular song are frequent; they plug gaps in leaky schedules with an exaggerated reverence for the well composed and successfully promoted airs that millions have come to know and love. The tunes are afforded lofty historical portent with hallowing terms like 'the greatest,' 'of all time' and 'the rest is history'. Within this pop TV bubble, it is as if royalty-generating hits amount to man's most important achievement: the wheel, the elevator, the wireless and the humble bidet all diminish in stature against units shifted by a Jagger, a Wonder or a Sedaka.
Shortly before 13.00 on 30 December, I was compelled to ring a friend to enthuse over the feat I felt he'd accomplished with his superb contribution to this bloated canon of popular song documentaries. Gracious as ever, he thanked me for calling and described how the production had been a bit of a rush, but a delight to complete. Two days before we had met for lunch - I hadn't seen him for a long time because he'd been up to his eyes in professional diligence, directing an increasing raft of commissioned films. He asked if I'd received his text about his new documentary for the BBC. I admitted to missing many messages during a hallucinogenic bout of flu that had confounded my communications as Christmas approached.
He'd texted me about 'The Richest Songs in the World,' his film about the highest earning ditties of the royalty era: a ninety-minute examination of the lucrative list of anthems that had each earned upwards of eleven million pounds sterling since their release. Within the tightest budget, and with detectable composure, he elicited entertaining erudition from his affable presenter Mark Radcliffe; interviews with friends, relatives and professional associates of the list's sires; and access to revelatory footage and musical archives. The film sidestepped the easy, light viewing sensibility that can bedevil this sort of material, to deliver ninety weighty minutes of insightful statistics, compelling acuity, bitter honesty and some comic relief - although Mark Radcliffe's karaoke tenor isn't nearly as risible as he seems to think it is. The film secured over a million viewers on BBC4, a significant audience for the channel and an entirely respectable audience for Guy's efforts.
He treated the subject with the interest, fascination and investigative analysis it deserved, pausing to advise, inform and even encourage. Instead of lauding exclusivity and generating envy, it offered useful insight into the waywardness of magnificent fortune - despite the commitment, talent and professionalism of musicians. Evidently, interview footage garnered for this type of film is heavily discarded in an editing suite, so kudos to Guy and his team for rescuing not just facts, figures and bankability, but also gratitude, hurt and philanthropy from the gleaned stories: Mel Torme's son went to college on 'The Christmas Song' royalties, Ben E King started the Stand By Me Foundation with Stand By Me proceeds, and the serendipitous Hill sisters cannily rescued their Happy Birthday nursery rhyme- originally styled for their kindergarteners - from Irving Berlin's keen attentions.
The ten strong list emerged as a near exclusive American Club, gate-crashed by a pair of Britishers- Sting and Paul McCartney. Without Bing Crosby, December 25th, the Righteous Brothers and female punters it would alter considerably. It would be a list of ballads without Pretty Woman. Though its members are strangely unsurprising, it has surprising absentees. Its origins are either mundane, cheering or even tragic: The Christmas Song by Mel Torme - Los Angeles heatwave; Every Breath You Take by Sting - divorce; Yesterday by Paul McCartney - for a long time a Beatles in-joke called Scrambled Eggs; White Christmas by Irving Berlin - infant mortality; You've Lost That Loving Feeling by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil - for a long time an embarrassment to self-professed 'Broadway snob' Weil, who remains somewhat mortified at Phil Spector's insertion of "Gone, gone, gone, whoah, whoah, whoah."
Despite the film's creditable research some omissions seemed odd. I was surprised that the Haven Gillespie section (Santa Claus is Coming to Town) declined to mention how his reluctance to write a Christmas song was accentuated by his being on the way home from his brother Irwin's funeral. With the inclusion of the movie Pretty Woman in the discussion of the Roy Orbison's song, it seemed peculiar that Ghost wasn't mentioned with regard to Unchained Melody. But many striking facts that were new to me featured, like the fascinating gestation of Happy Birthday and the odious scandal of Brown Eyed Gal. Then again, the story of any one of these songs could easily usurp ninety TV minutes. I'd suggest that Guy J Evans would be an excellent proposition for any one of those projects.
Credible and informative.
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