When Sergei Sergeyevich Prokovief wrote his ‘symphonic fairy tale for children’ Peter And The Wolf (or, in old roubles, Пе́тя и волк) in 1936, he probably didn’t anticipate that it would later be subjected to endless decidedly non-rocking ‘rock’ makeovers designed to get youngsters interested in Classical Music by some convoluted distortion of logic. Hopefully he would have looked more favourably on the fact that his 1934 suite Lieutenant Kije had a more subtle – and more artistically and aesthetically satisfying – influence on young persons’ popular beat music.
Lieutenant Kije was written to accompany an early Russian ‘talkie’ concerning the accidental invention of a non-existent soldier – who goes on to enjoy a distinguished career and wild private life – when an arrogant and belligerent Tsar refuses to accept that he is ‘wrong’ about a misspelt name on a duty roster; presumably nothing similar is likely to happen in America in the near future. With foreign language films not really enjoying much of an international market in those days, and those emanating from the Soviet Bloc even less so, it was the soundtrack that found its way around the world, with its modern approach, evocative arrangements and stylised approximation of the music of the recent past catching more attention than anyone involved is likely to have anticipated. A good deal more ‘fun’ than a large amount of Classical Music, it inspired generations of youngsters sufficiently for them to, erm, ‘reference’ it in their beat crazy works.
Even just looking around the cultier side of late sixties American post-psychedelic pop – because I’m rarely inclined to look that much further afield – there is no shortage of examples. How about Old Man by Love, where Bryan and Arthur pilfer a bit from the Troika and stop going on about such trifling matters as institutional suspicion of minorities and news media distorting facts to concentrate on the story of some geezer who gave out mysterious books or something? Or Blood, Sweat And Tears’ inferior reading of Traffic’s Forty Thousand Headmen, which interpolated elements of the Romance to show that they meant it, man, unlike Steve Winwood and company getting jazzily excited about stumbling across a smuggler’s hoard as if they’d never even heard the word ‘pretention’? And then there’s Kije’s Ouija by The Free Design, which outright rewrites Troika and Wedding as the verse and chorus of a frankly inexplicable close harmony pop song about the titular fictitious military man giving lessons in fleecing suckers with pretend paranormal hokum. No, really. If you want a more prominent example, though, try Greg Lake’s I Believe In Father Christmas. You know that instrumental bit where you sort of recognise it but don’t know where you know it from? Troika. Well, it was either I highlight that or Cashing In On Christmas by Bad News.
That said, Lieutenant Kije did form the basis of something else intended to provide youngsters with an interesting insight into the workings of the orchestra, which certainly connected with this particular youngster more than Peter And The Wolf ever did. First seen in Autumn 1970, the BBC’s schools programme Music Time cleverly used humour, running stories based on classical suites and folk tales, repeated examples of World Music with an endearingly silly twist (come on, how many of you are humming that ridiculous “my donkey walk my donkey talk my donkey eat with a knife and fork” one right now?) and occasional flirtations with that there ‘rock’ music to explain all that business with Treble Clefs and ‘andante’. By the late seventies, the show was being presented by visiting Australian folk-rocker Peter Combe and soprano Kathryn Harries, who interspersed their modishly Talking Heads-esque takes on Strawberry Fair and Zum Gali Gali with serialised musings on various ballets animated by Bob Bura and John Hardwick, stop-motion puppeteers who had also worked extensively with Trumptonshire creator Gordon Murray and Captain Pugwash/Mary, Mungo And Midge creator John Ryan; on this occasion, however, contrary to popular assumption the puppets were made by regular BBC Schools contributor Alan Platt. In spring 1979 – and frequently repeated well into the eighties – they turned their collective attention to Lieutenant Kije.
Moments of actual fun in amongst all of the attempts to make learning fun were few and far between, but the sheer undiluted farce at the centre of Lieutenant Kije is difficult to obscure with even the most earnest of educational intent, and Bura, Hardwick and Platt clearly relished the opportunity to play up to this. The animated story inserts were intentionally hilarious from start to finish, and there are probably more than a few readers who remember a teacher-unnerving uproarious laugh from the cross-legged hordes in front of those big televisions on funny shuttered stands when an enraged Tsar booted the comically oily Chancellor down the stairs upon scoffing that he had been ‘tricked’ about Kije’s existence. Nowadays of course he’d probably just Tweet about how ‘Failing @Chancellor cannot fall down staircase correctly. Sad!’. Like many of the other serialised Music Time inserts, Lieutenant Kije was occasionally shown in standalone format, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many remember it so well while recalling so little about Music Time itself.
So, what about Music Time itself, then? Kathryn and Peter begin and end each edition with one of the usual silly singalongs about a goat that thought it was a steam train or whatever it was, and intersperse it with the never especially taxing ‘Quiz Time’ segment, but also provide narration throughout the Lieutenant Kije segments. What’s more, the musical accompaniment is provided live in the somewhat cramped-looking studio by the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, and the presenters spend much of the time wandering around them pointing out solo instruments and chatting to the formally-dressed youngsters. There are a lot of unfunny anecdotes about tubas not being allowed on buses, but they also make a point of singling out the orchestra members from a minority or working class background, asking them how they found their way into Classical Music and how they intend to pursue a career in it. Without any sort of flag-waving or self-congratulation, Music Time sent out a message to any similar youngsters watching that the door wasn’t necessarily closed to them. Well, unless it was a bus door and they were carrying a tuba.
Whether the Lieutenant Kije term actually inspired any of the schoolchildren watching to pursue a similar career path is open to question, but there’s little question that Music Time was an entertaining diversion in the Schools TV schedules, and although its approach may belong to another age, the quick and regular cutting between the inserts and the studio do much to prevent it from seeming slow or tedious. It’s also interesting to see that absolutely no attempt whatsoever has been made to disguise the fact that this is a television studio, and a small and under-equipped one at that. This may have been through necessity rather than design, but this is the sort of charm that’s got lost along the route to slick digital presentation.
Of course, Music Time did actually tackle Peter And The Wolf back in the very first series in 1970, in black and white with hardcore folkie original presenters Mari Griffith and Ian Humphris, and with animated inserts from Bura and Hardwick. But that’s another story…
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You can find a lot more about Schools TV – including a feature on the Nativity module of Watch – in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can hear the Prokovief-inspired Kije’s Ouija by The Free Design as part of Tape Over This And I Will Thump You – a look at some of the songs that I discovered courtesy of compilation tapes that other people did for me – here.
© Tim Worthington.
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