When We Were Rich: Horse Opera and the Decline of British Public Broadcasting

As revealed in this blog’s post of 11th October 2012, our CSO recently endured a brief spell under the weather. But before the entire watching Internet leaps to the conclusion that during his downtime Asad Yawar does nothing apart from playing Japan-coded soccer simulations, we would like to point out that he used this period to indulge at least one other fascination of his: Horse Opera. This is not some new-fangled musical form involving our equine friends, but instead a classic contemporary piece telecast on Channel 4 (UK, ‘C4’) around twenty years ago. With its quirky premise – a suburban Nottingham tax functionary (Phillip Guy-Bromley) is transported via a loss of consciousness  to the American Old West, becoming mayor of a small town on the site of today’s Las Vegas – and often surreal imagery, Horse Opera is an unforgettable watch.

But as our CSO was partaking once again of this fabulously inventive piece, his mind began to wander – ironically prompted by the exceptional quality of what he was imbibing – onto the subject of how piercingly Horse Opera illustrates that times really have moved on for British, and perhaps (post-)developed world public broadcasting:

1. Budgets. To put Horse Opera in context, it was part of a series of contemporary operas specially created for Channel 4. It was scored by world-famous percussionist and composer Stewart Copeland; starred amongst others Rik Mayall, Silas Carson, Michael Attwell, Edward Tudor-Pole and Gina Bellman; was shot on location in both London, England and Tuscon, Arizona; and featured luscious, richly-detailed American sets. And all this from a broadcaster known within its home market for being impecunious and having to constantly innovate to plug the financial gap between it and its competitors, the ingenious 1992 acquisition of the UK broadcasting rights to Italian football being one such example.

2. Priorities. At a time when even the country’s flagship broadcaster has slashed its arts coverage to a sliver of its former glory and is continuing to wield the axe, it seems quite incredible that what was then the least popular of four British terrestrial channels could be in a position to give such a resoundingly luxuriant commitment to a medium such as opera. Yet despite the sophisticated computer graphics and transition shots studding Horse Opera, this was clearly an altogether different televisual era.

3. Production Values. Given that Channel 4 was later to become synonymous first with sleaze and then with reality television – tone-debaser-in-chief Big Brother made its UK debut on C4 back on 18th July 2000 – it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the casualties of these types of fare has been the quality of production values: audiences have become accustomed to grainy, misshapen footage, muffled sound and minimalist sets assembled with all the imagination of a production assistant flicking through a United Furniture Warehouse catalogue.



Filed under Culture, Media

2 responses to “When We Were Rich: Horse Opera and the Decline of British Public Broadcasting

  1. As with many modern art pieces I suspect Horse Opera is better to write about than actually watch. Nostalgia for the depictions of the Wild West from our chldhood, escapism, time travel, surreal concepts, that particularly British way of deftly and intelligently microanalysing the out of the ordinary, but not necessarily profound; it’s a televisual crop that gives a rich textual harvest.

  2. S E Scott

    hollyipltd you do not know what you are talking about. You haven’t even seen Horse Opera. I am devoted to Stewart Copeland and have been for ages, so of course I arranged with friends to record Horse Opera on VHS so many years ago, and cherished it. Like a NAIVE FOOL I lent it to another Copeland fan, and despite repeated requests, have never got it back. It is fab: not only has it got memorable music, but also the performances of Rik Mayall as the wimp “gunslinger” and Ed Tudor Pole’s comic and sinister turn as the barber turned preacher who attempts the betrayal of the locals to a land-grabbing cattle-baron – his dancing has to be seen. I miss it so much.

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