Last night I caught the third and final episode of Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment on BBC2. I wouldn’t have watched, or even known about, the series but for a friend, Kwabena Adjepong, being one of the participants. I’m very glad I checked it out, though. The whole series is on the iPlayer and I’d encourage you to take a look: with a few caveats, it’s rather wonderful.
Caveats first. The concept is clumsy. Goldie decides to assemble a group of young people to play a concert for Prince Harry at Buck House. We are told that music changed his life and saved him from a troubled youth, and that he wants to be able to pass this gift on. Which is very admirable, but the show draws a lazy and over-familiar equation: miserable past + musical talent = uplifting transformation.
The implication is that in order to create it’s first necessary to be miserable, and that worthwhile music must be literally “honest” about the bits of one’s identity that can be packed into a two minute VT. The most egregious example of this was Scottish metalhead Finn being told that a morose song he played on the acoustic guitar was somehow “more important” than the electric shredding he clearly adores.
I fully buy into the idea that making music can uplift and transform, but there was something crass and unfocused about the way Goldie and co. assembled their group of young people who were all, or had been, troubled in various ways – some had been abused, some struggled with mental illness, one had had open heart surgery as a child, one had a hearing problem. I didn’t really see what these issues had in common other than making the organisers feel good about themselves (one of the hallmarks of such shows being that they require all participants to gush constantly about what an amazing opportunity they’ve been given by the TV gods). If the show had laid out its stall more clearly, if for instance it had decided to focus exclusively on mental illness or abuse, the emphasis on personal misery would have felt less tokenistic.
In the event, though, it didn’t really matter, because the participants were universally articulate, undramatic and likeable when talking about their problems. It was a very far cry from the manipulative heartstring-tugging favoured by other reality TV shows. (It helped that most of the participants had been scouted, rather than going hungrily in search of fame.)
The show really came into its own in Episode 2 when the 12 musicians assembled for a residential workshop. It’s been said that the X Factor and its ilk can’t really be ruining music because, at bottom, they have nothing to do with music. But I think they do have an impact on people’s perception of the music-making process. Here, at last, was a show that showed people creating together, that put its focus on collaboration and listening rather than ego. A show with an emphasis on original material instead of microwaved covers, that actually showed songs being written and didn’t assume that its audience would run a mile at the mention of an A7 chord. This was richly to be celebrated, and particular kudos goes to Soweto Kinch and Guy Chambers (less so Goldie, less so Cerys Matthews) for their sensitivity, intelligence and musicality in mentoring the musicians.
Most importantly, the participants were genuinely formidably talented. I’m not much of a blubber, but every time Natalie Duncan (a real soul singer of the kind that every reality TV contestant of the last decade has tried to be) opened her mouth she had me going. And she didn’t need Simon Cowell or a big Susan Boyle-style crane shot to achieve it.