Phil's search for the arts

Film-maker Phil Grabsky loves good music and great art.

Andrew Clarke

Film-maker Phil Grabsky loves good music and great art. The award-winning film-maker spoke to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke prior to the Suffolk screening of his latest film In Search of Beethoven.

He's been hunting for the real Mozart, he's guided Channel 5 viewers through Britain's great art galleries and now arts film-maker Phil Grabsky is In Search of Beethoven.

The independent film-maker is showing the two hour documentary at Aldeburgh Cinema for days next week. This latest film is a follow-up to the critically acclaimed In Search of Mozart which sought to uncover Mozart the man and how this eccentric genius, as depicted in the film Amadeus, came to write such timeless music.


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Phil is now applying the same techniques to Beethoven, getting to the bottom of the classic composer's appeal and relating his works to his dramatic life story. He said: “In Search of Beethoven addresses the romantic myth that Beethoven was a heroic, tormented figure battling to overcome his tragic fate, struck down by deafness, who searched for his 'immortal beloved' but remained unmarried. It delves beyond the image of the tortured, cantankerous, unhinged personality, to reveal someone quite different and far more interesting.”

Phil has come a long way during the past ten years. He is a truly independent film-maker -an enthusiast for the arts, an evangelist in areas that interest him. Commissions from both Channel Five and now Sky Arts have allowed him to make ground-breaking, low budget art documentaries which are directly designed to appeal to audiences who think that they either don't know anything about the arts or mistakenly believable that art and music is not for them.

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His passion for his work was rewarded last month with the prestigious Naomi Sargant Award - named after Channel 4's pioneering director of programming - for educational broadcasting. The announcement of the award was rather overshadowed in the press by the surprise cancellation of The South Bank Show by ITV.

The loss of Melvyn Bragg's cultural flagship means that films produced by film-makers like Phil are even more important. Phil, hopes that his cost-effectiveness will allow television companies to continue to invest in his meticulously constructed, passionately presented programmes. He makes the point, that being essentially a one-man band, he can make good-looking, well researched films for a fraction of the cost of programmes on either BBC or ITV.

“My crew is usually me clamouring onto a train or aircraft with my camera and weighed down with cases and bags.”

Being an independent he can make his money back from cinema screenings like the one at Aldeburgh, from television broadcasts and from DVD sales - indeed sales for In Search of Mozart are creating new records for his company Seventh Art Productions.

For Phil his films are all about engaging the audience - making seemingly difficult or elitist subjects not only accessible but joyous and fun. “For me it's finding a balance between the knowledgeable audience that knows and loves the composer and his music and those who know nothing but are interested to know more.”

For Phil, the thrill in the research, is going back to the original manuscripts and letters to discover the thought processes that there were going on when some of the world's greatest pieces of music were written.

He said that although his films were made for television audiences, the fact that they are recorded on a high quality digital format means that the cinema is the best place for them to be appreciated.

“I do think that the cinema is the best place to see these films. It is shown uninterrupted; the quality of projection is getting better all the time - its shot in high definition so it looks fantastic. I showed In Search of Mozart at Aldeburgh - it played to a full house, the presentation was superb and it was a great evening. I am looking forward to repeating the experience next week.”

He said that public support was essential to keeping television companies in the market for arts films. “Anyone who wants to make arts documentaries has had a fight on their hands for the last ten years. I don't think the demise of the South Bank Show is that significant. It was always going to end sometime soon because Melvyn Bragg is almost 70 and would be retiring at some point. What was far more of a factor in the changing world of broadcasting was the BBC's loss of interest in the arts, ten years ago. They tried to go into battle with ITV over ratings and it's been left to smaller, independent companies like mine to fill the gaps.”

He said that all his work starts with an interest of his that he would like to explore further. He takes the view that if he is interested, then other people are likely to be as well. The next trick is convincing a programme commissioner that his passion will result in ratings for the television station footing the bill.

So far his low budget programmes seem to be doing the business - first for Channel 4, then Five and now Sky Arts. His ground-breaking art history series with Tim Marlow is now approaching its 100th edition. Phil is living proof that you don't have to dumb-down your programme to attract a wide non-specialised audience.

“When we first started doing the Tim Marlow shows - exploring exhibitions by Picasso and Matisse and such like - everyone was amazed that Five were doing any arts programming at all. But, it was interesting that their success immediately spurred both the BBC and Channel 4 to look again at their own arts provision because I think they were rather chastened by the popular and critical attention we received.”

He said that the problem with both channels was that they preferred to go for what he thinks of the big splash - wide-ranging, expensive productions centred around high profile arts events, rather than doing more frequent, smaller scale arts coverage of our day-to-day cultural life.

In Search of Beethoven is at Aldeburgh Cinema on Friday and Saturday June 12-13. Tickets can be booked on 01728 452996.

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