sun 22/09/2019

The Kate Bush Story: Running Up that Hill, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The Kate Bush Story: Running Up that Hill, BBC Four

The Kate Bush Story: Running Up that Hill, BBC Four

A great compendium of Bush's back catalogue, though the talking heads are hit and miss

Kate Bush - when you have friends like Steve Coogan...

Kate Bush’s return to live performance next week, after 35 years’ absence, has been one of the defining features of this musical year. Her announcement, in March, of the Hammersmith gigs left even David Bowie’s gifted coup in the shade, creating a simmering summer of speculation. It’s surprising, then, that it’s taken the media so long to create the inevitable previews and retrospectives. This BBC Four feature did a bit of both, though it ended with a sense that Bush’s reputation survived the hour despite, rather than because of, the programme’s organisation.  

Though Bush was dismissed in the early part of her career as light and bland, lacking that macho edginess of her punk contemporaries, she was in fact strikingly ambitious and innovative, from her 1978 debut single “Wuthering Heights” onwards. She had the first number one performed and written by a woman, she experimented with sampling at a time when it was (still is?) dominated by men, and as several contributors noted with awe, even her earliest work displayed an unusual musical complexity.  

Musicianship of Bush’s quality can, of course, survive much worse

For a musician so unselfconsciously novel, the format of this programme was numbingly predictable. Talking heads, of varying qualities, recalled this incident and that song, as they’ve been doing (and it so often is the same heads talking) about any number of artists for years. The programme got away with its thoughtless format because the music was so good, and it’s been a long time since Bush featured on this kind of show.

Novelist Neil Gaiman was excellent on some of Bush’s intricately feminine imagery. Choreographer Lindsay Kemp spoke with undimmed reverence of her innate talent for movement, exemplified by the song “Moving”. Three men who knew her very well from the early days, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour (who got her signed with EMI), and her sound engineer and ex-partner Del Palmer gave affectionate tributes to her determination and precocity.

Sir Elton John made a poor start, with a virtuoso performance of cliché bingo. His blinding insight that her songs are “not normal” will have left viewers scrabbling for a pair of dark glasses, though all was nearly forgiven when he revealed with authentic emotion that “Don’t Give Up”, her duet with Peter Gabriel, had helped him through some dark hours.   

There was the obligatory comedian’s appearance, in this case from Jo Brand, who didn’t, much as I admire her comedy, appear to have anything of interest to say. Stephen Fry reminisced about his voiceover on the 2011 album 50 Words for Snow, though (undoubtedly without meaning to) turned the focus unhelpfully on himself. And for a singer who created such a diversity of original sounds, the ubiquitous Fry fruitiness seemed to mark something of a loss of nerve. Let’s hope it’s recovered by next week.

Kate BushSteve Coogan wasn’t quite sure of his role. Was he still the satirist who’d made such exuberant whoopee imitating Bush in his nineties TV shows, or the friendly collaborator and sympathetic ear? His admiration for her music was irrepressible, though a degree of exasperation emerged when he discussed her reluctance to appear live, and it was perhaps unfortunate that the programme ended with a surname-related pun that certainly belonged to Alan Partridge.

Musicianship of Bush’s quality can, of course, survive much worse than some gentle smut and narcissistic banality. Somehow, through the rather babel-like confection of comments (a proper documentary with a crafted narrative would of course have been preferable), an authentic portrait emerged of a highly original singer, both homely and esoteric, shy and strangely bold, politically aware and sensitively, authentically feminine. Welcome back.

An authentic portrait emerged of a highly original singer, both homely and esoteric, politically aware and sensitively, authentically feminine

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Nice to see PG, DG and Del, but this was a lazy effort by the director. Francis Whately, who made the superb 'David Bowie: Five Years' wasn't even asked to be involved - what a wasted opportunity. Imagine 'Kate Bush: Moments of Pleasure' focusing on 1976-8 (her discovery), 1978-9 (her debut), 1985 (her masterpiece), 2005 (her return), and 2014

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