Evita: The Making of a Superstar – BBC 2

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I’ve got the worst singing voice in the entire known universe, but practically the first thing I did in Buenos Aires was sing (quietly) “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” outside the Casa Rosada. It had to be done!   It’s such an iconic song, from such an iconic musical – which, according to Suzy Klein on BBC 2, is Donald Trump’s favourite musical and was so admired by Maggie Thatcher that it led her to say she said she hoped someone’d write a musical about her.  Let’s not go there!   South American history isn’t widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries, but we’ve all heard of Eva Peron.  And we all know that song.

Our group went to a gloriously touristy Argentinian evening, involving large steaks and people (not us) dancing the tango. It also involved someone singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, which really surprised me.  OK, it was a tourist thing, but I wouldn’t have expected Argentinians to be into Evita.  Quite apart from the fact that it’s a British musical and Anglo-Argentinian relations aren’t exactly warm, it doesn’t portray Eva Peron very favourably.  The expression “scheming tart” was how one of the people interviewed on this programme summed it up.

And she really is still hero-worshipped by a lot of people in Argentina. Our local guide, clearly a very intelligent woman with intensive knowledge of Argentinian history, couldn’t praise her highly enough.  Many political leaders are greatly revered, but that’s usually because they led a country to greatness, or to independence, or saw it safely through a time of great peril.  Eva Peron didn’t do anything of those things.  She wasn’t even a political leader: she was just married to one.  She was, as we’re reminded at the very start of Evita, known as “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.  There aren’t too many other people seen in those terms.  Gandhi’s the only one who immediately springs to mind – and he certainly didn’t wear expensive clothes and go on glamorous Rainbow Tours.  To this day, many Argentinian households have pictures of Eva Peron on their walls.  Often next to depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The only other person who seems to be so adored in Argentina is Diego Maradona, and the least said about him, the better. And I see that the final of the Copa Libertadores, between Boca Juniors and River Plate, has had to be postponed because of hooliganism.  That’s actually quite relevant to Evita, because Boca Juniors have always been seen as the team of the poor/descamisados and River Plate as the team of the rich.

I’m not sure what story this programme was actually trying to tell. Was it the story of Eva Peron, the story of Evita the musical or the story of 1970s/1980s culture?  It seemed to be a bit of all three.  Maybe the same theme runs through all three – the cult of hype and image and celebrity.  But that’s one thing with a film or a musical or a pop group, and quite another with someone who has huge political and financial clout.

Tim Rice informed us that he first became interested in Eva Peron when he got some Argentinian stamps for his boyhood stamp collection, and wondered why they bore the picture of a woman who wasn’t a queen! And that, years later, he heard something about her on the radio, and decided to write a musical about her.  It’s certainly a great story – rags to riches, a tragically early death, hero worship, etc – but it’s still a strange choice.  The Perons wouldn’t have been well-known in Britain at the time.  And, even before the Falklands War, making a musical about Argentinian politics was hugely controversial.  Some people accused him of glorifying fascism.  And Eva Peron is a very controversial and divisive figure.  The musical couldn’t make that any clearer.

This was all very interesting, but the programme then veered off the subject of Eva Peron and on to the subject of how the musical was tied in with both the idea of powerful female leaders and the media obsession with celebrity. I’m not sure that either Eva Peron or Margaret Thatcher, whilst they had ambition and ruthlessness in common, would take very kindly to being compared to each other.  There are probably more comparisons to be drawn between Eva Peron and Diana, Princess of Wales, in terms of the “people’s princess” rubbish, but the programme didn’t so much draw comparisons between the two as say that the media were obsessed with the musical and its stars and that that obsession then moved on to Diana.  Er, it’s a great musical, but how on earth can you claim that Elaine Paige & co got the same level of media attention as Diana did?!

All the talk about the hype was actually quite sad. OK, obviously you’ve got to have publicity, to get bums on seats and make money, but it all seemed so cynical.  Much as it annoys me when anything isn’t historically accurate, I love the interplay between Eva Peron and Che Guevara in Evita. It’s so well done.  That bit where they dance together, and he goes on about how she’s conning everyone and she goes on about she can’t really do anything else within the Argentinian system, is just incredible.  It says so much about Argentina, and South American politics in general.  So I was rather upset to hear that the reason for including Che wasn’t to make some great political point but a) to appeal to the public by bringing in a household name and b) to provide a glamorous and romantic male lead role in which an attention-grabbing good-looking bloke could be cast.  OK, Antonio Banderas would be reason enough to watch the film version, even without the music and the history, but … well, it all sounds so cynical!  Boo!!

As I said, it wasn’t quite clear exactly what story or whose story the programme was trying to tell, and it this point it went back to Argentina and discussed the “Evita Movement”, set up in 2004 as a sort of social protest movement, and also commented that Eva Peron now has admirers from all social classes. I like that.  Whatever you think of Eva Peron, you’ve got to love the line “But our privileged class is dead.  Look who they are calling for now”.  I think that’s only in the film, not the stage version, isn’t it?  Great line.  And the line about “No we wouldn’t mind seeing her in Harrods, but behind the jewellery counter not in front” is a reminder that, long before the invasion of the Falklands, the privileged class was very Anglophile and there was huge British influence in Argentina.  There still is.  Harrods might have closed down, but there are still red postboxes in Argentina, and the uber-iconic Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires serves extremely nice scones.  Take that, Peron!

Lovely, lovely city, by the way. Beautiful buildings.  Great food.  Everyone talks about football all the time.

They then flipped from Eva Peron to Madonna. It does say a lot that Madonna was so absolutely desperate to play the lead role in the 1996 film version of Evita.  Like Bridget Jones J , I pretty much know all the words to The Immaculate Collection.  A lot of people who grew up in the ’80s will do!   You want celebrity, hype, image, and someone who really made the most of what they had?  Madonna.  I can’t imagine ever being friends with her, if I knew her personally, but what a woman!   Really, it was quite a risk for her to become involved in something that was very controversial at the time, because filming took place in Argentina at a time when, in addition to anger over the way Eva Peron was portrayed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, both Britain and America were very unpopular there.  The programme showed us some of the “Fuero Madonna” and “Fuero Ingles” graffiti that appeared in Buenos Aires at the time.  It wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but the Argentinian government actually produced its own film about Eva Peron, as a direct response to all the controversy.

I can’t believe that the film’s 22 years old! I’ve seen it more often than I’ve seen the stage version (which is now 40 years old!), because cheap and easy to watch a DVD in your own front room, so I know it better than I know the stage version.  I’d never thought that much about the reasons for the differences between the two, but, as this programme pointed out, the portrayal of Eva Peron in the film is much softer and much more appealing than in the stage version.  “You Must Love Me” was a new song for the film, and the portrayal of terminally-ill Eva practically being propped up on the balcony of the Casa Rosada really tugs at the heartstrings.  Was it a sop to Argentinian sensitivies?  Well, the programme didn’t really go into that.  It just said that it was inaccurate, because the real Eva Peron was making feisty, rousing speeches right until just before the end.

It didn’t really answer any questions. It didn’t go into the real history of Eva Peron’s life and Juan Peron’s rule of Argentina, which is now all so confused, between the myths of Eva and the myths of the Evita musical, that it’s very hard to know what to think.  Even putting the myths aside and trying to rely on actual sources, historians can’t agree on exactly what was going on.  What was going on with the money from the Eva Peron Foundation?  Was Peron a fascist?  No-one seems to be sure.  But not too many people in the West talk like this, or even in Argentina, talks this much about General Galtieri, or about any of the umpteen other very questionable people who ruled Argentina or other South American countries during the 20th century.

Musicals and history are an incredible combination, when you think about it. Look at some of the subjects covered by the most popular musicals of all time.  The June Rebellion of 1832.  The Anschluss.  Pogroms.  The rise of the Nazis in 1930s Berlin.  Criminal gangs in Victorian London.  Gangland conflict in New York.  The Vietnam War.  The Second World War in the South Pacific, also covering racism.  The miners’ strike.  Pretty weighty subjects.  I assume that the word “superstar” in the title of this programme was meant to refer to Eva Peron, not Evita the musical, but the image of Eva Peron outside Argentina, certainly in the Angophone world, has largely been determined by Evita.  That says a lot about the power of musicals.  It’s quite frightening, actually!   Imagine if someone did make a musical about Margaret Thatcher, or Donald Trump, or any of the other controversial figures of our times.  Maybe not …

Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border – BBC 2

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Donald Trump’s bizarre obsession with building walls has given Reginald D Hunter an excuse for a road trip along the US-Mexican border and me an excuse to write about a) the Mexican War and b) how lovely San Antonio is.  This programme, far more political than musical, also reminded me about being made to learn The Streets of Laredo in primary school singing lessons.  How weird is that?  Why get a load of little kids in a North of England primary school to learn a song about dying cowboys?!   Anyway, back to the point, which was that, whatever may go on with Mr Trump and his bonkers ideas, music knows no borders, certainly not between northern Mexico and the south western United States.

I’m afraid that most of the musical references in this went over my head.  I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Fernando and Ride Like The Wind?  Just kidding – not really!  I was OK when he was talking about Ricky Martin (who’s actually from Puerto Rico) and Lou Bega (who’s actually German).  And obviously I recognised the song they played at the end, sung by one of the most famous Mexican-Americans of all time – La Bamba, by Ritchie Valens (even if I do associate it with the diner in Grease).  I think I do vaguely remember hearing about Selena, the Mexican-American singer tragically murdered in the 1990s.  But there were a lot of terms I’d never heard before.  Maybe I’m just really ignorant 😦 !  Well, I never claimed to be an expert on world music, did I?!

I now know that narcocorrido songs are ballads about drug dealers.  Nobody tell Donald Trump that, please: he’d be making all sorts of horrendous stereotypes out of it, whereas the style of music actually originates from folk music, and evolved via the norteno-corrido style of ballad that was more about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 – Pancho Villa et al.  I also know that cumbia is not a misspelling of a region of Northern England but is a form of Columbian music.  And that mariachi is a form of Western Mexican music.  According to Wikipedia, being able to play mariachi gave you a good chance of getting a job at a hacienda.  No, not the Hacienda, but an estate in colonial Mexico.

And conjunto, which sounds like something to do with either Juan Peron or the Napoleonic Wars, is a form of music played by small groups – and this is particularly interesting, because it originates in a unique form of Tex-Mex cultural crossover, involving German button accordions.  A lot of Germans settled in Fredericksburg, Texas (not to be confused with Fredericksburg in Virginia, site of the famous battle in 1862), and it still has a strongly German feel to it.  I went there in October (2014), and they were having an Oktoberfest.  The Oktoberfest idea is Bavarian, and the Fredericksburg settlers were mainly from Prussia, but you get the idea.  Loads of German bakeries, as well.  Germans also settled in Mexico (it’s OK, I’m not going to write an essay on the Austrian involvement there in the 1860s), and a lot of those settlers then moved into South Texas at the time of the Mexican Revolution.  There’s always been a lot of that to-ing and fro-ing across the border, and that was the point that Reginald D Hunter was making.

I’m not very keen on Reginald D Hunter, TBH.  I find him quite aggressive and polemical, and it sometimes seems as if he’s deliberately setting out to rile people.  For example, in the middle of this programme, he randomly started ranting about Tennessee being full of “redneck racists”. But he did make some very good points about the culture of the border area, and how the border is fluid as far as that culture goes.

He visited El Paso (Texas), where he talked to local musicians about some of the older-style border songs which present Mexicans as baddies and or involve a lot of sentimentality about doomed romances between Anglo-American men and Mexican women, and also visited Ciudad Juarez (Mexico), where there was a lot of talk about drug cartels.  In both places, people talked about frequently crossing the border to visit relatives who, legally or illegally, live on the other side.  I haven’t been to either of those places, but he said that he felt that San Antonio, although it’s not actually on the border, was the cultural capital of the border area; and that was certainly the impression that I got.

I loved San Antonio.  I’d love to go again.  What an absolutely gorgeous place.   As I said, I was in Texas in an October – and so all the preparations for the Day of the Dead were taking place.  I’d never come across that before, and I was fascinated by it.  And it’s a Mexican thing.  As Hunter said, when you’re in San Antonio, you’re not always entirely sure whether you’re in the United States or whether you’re in Mexico!  Nearly all the signs are in both English and Spanish.  I even spoke to people in Spanish a few times, whilst I was there.

San Antonio was one of the two main reasons that I wanted to go to Texas.  I wanted to see the Alamo.  We got to the hotel late afternoon, and I stopped for about five minutes to have a glass of water and dump my bags, then opened the map and bounded off to the Alamo.  It was next door to a Haagen Dazs café, which was a bit odd, but never mind.  We did go there on a proper guided tour later on, but I had to see it as soon as I’d arrived.  I’m a historian, OK!  And 19th century America is one of my specialist topics.  I was excited!

Just as a slight aside, the other main reason I wanted to go to Texas wasn’t the space centre in Houston (it was interesting enough, but I’m not a sciency person) – it was Southfork.  To quote Abba, “there’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see”.  I actually preferred Dynasty, but I loved Dallas as well.  Now, when the 2012 Dallas reboot (which sadly didn’t last long) was made, the main female character, who had affairs with both John Ross Ewing and Christopher Ewing (who also both had affairs with another woman, who turned out to be the secret daughter of Cliff Barnes) was someone who’d been born in Mexico and had emigrated from there to Texas as a child.  Even in a TV series, you can’t show Texas without showing the Mexican connection.

So.  Texas.  The “Six Flags” state – Spain, France (briefly), Mexico, the Texas Republic, the Union and the Confederacy.  When you visit the Alamo, you have to dress and behave as if you were visiting a place of worship.  It’s regarded as a sacred place.  To cut a long story short, a lot of  “Anglos” from America had settled in Mexican Texas, and, with discontent rising over the rule of President Santa Anna, Texas rebelled.  The siege of the Alamo, in 1836, although it wasn’t the decisive battle of the revolution, is the best-known.  Bowie knives, Davy Crockett hats, songs, films, etc.  An independent republic of Texas was set up – and, in 1845, serious moves began to annex it to the United States.  Most people in Texas do seem to have wanted this – the opposition came more from America, where people were concerned about what adding another big slave state to the Union was going to do to the fragile balance between slave states and free states – and, in 1846, it went ahead.

Mexico, which had never recognised Texan independence, wasn’t very pleased, and the Mexican-American War, generally known as the Mexican War, broke out.  I’ve been reading up on the Mexican War since I was 11, because it features heavily in North and South, the first book of the wonderful trilogy by John Jakes.  One of the main characters, played in the TV adaptation by the late, great, Patrick Swayze, loses an arm in the war, and has to give up his plans for a career in the Army.  OK, this has got nothing to do with music, but neither did most of what Hunter was saying: he was far more concerned with slagging off Donald Trump, and having a go at Barack Obama and Bill Clinton whilst he was at it, than in actually talking about songs of the border, or songs of anywhere else for that matter!

Despite the sad loss of Orry Main’s arm (I love those books), America won the war, and helped herself to not only Texas but also what’s now Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, part of New Mexico, a bit of Wyoming, and the vast state of California (where gold was soon discovered – war ended in 1848, Gold Rush in 1849, admitted to the Union, as a free state, in 1850.  My Darling Clementine, not being a border song, did not get mentioned.). The rest of New Mexico and Arizona was bought in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.  At least that bit was paid for.

So that whole area was Mexican long before it was American.  And, no, I’m not forgetting the Native Americans, but Native American culture didn’t really come into this programme.  There was a lot of movement across the border … well, even before Mexico was independent of Spain.  You weren’t supposed to settle in Texas in those days unless you were Catholic – like you weren’t supposed to settle in Savannah, Georgia, in the days when neighbouring Florida was under Spanish rule, unless you were Protestant or Jewish and definitely not Catholic – but people got round that!   And there’s been a lot of movement across the border ever since.  It’s an ongoing story – it’s about history going back many years – as with, say, the Cajun culture of Louisiana – and it’s about today, and it’s about everything in between.

Mexican immigration into the United States was actively encouraged during and immediately after the war years.  It isn’t now, but it’s still going on – and, as we all know, there’s no effective regulation of it.  This has both positive aspects and negative aspects.  There are a lot of issues with undocumented immigration, including the fact that unregistered immigrants are at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, and may struggle to get access to essential services.  There are undoubtedly some problems with cross-border drug smuggling.  There’s the issue of the importance of Mexican workers in the labour market in the border states.

And, as the programme kept pointing out, it’s not just a case of Mexicans going to Txas or other parts of the US and staying there.  It’s people going backwards and forwards across the border on a regular basis.  The programme was meant to be about the border being fluid in terms of music, and it did make that point, but it was also about the border being fluid in terms of the movement of people.   And it is.  Plenty of the people interviewed made that clear.  Some of that’s legal visiting.  Some of that’s illegal working.  It’s a complex situation.

There are two issues here.  One is Mexican-American culture.  Hyphenated American cultures are great.  That shouldn’t be a problem.  It’s only a problem in that there are some negative images about it.  Donald Trump’s unpleasant remarks about Mexicans tie in with those, and don’t help anyone – and it’s highly inappropriate for someone in high office to be coming out with things like that.  The other issue is immigration in general and the regulation of it.  That’s another story, and a controversial one.  But, come what may, there is this cross-border culture, much of it tied up in music.  And that makes the wall idea sound even stupider than it does anyway.

There’s so much history in music, and there’s a fair bit of music in history.  I don’t think Reginald D Hunter really wanted to talk about music.  He just wanted to have a go at American immigration policy, and this was a way of doing it.  But there was some interesting information about music in this, and interesting information about the cross-border culture in general.  And, hey, it’s given me an excuse to write a bit about the Mexican War.

I still don’t know why we had to sing The Streets of Laredo at primary school, though …