Oscar’s Orchestra Volumes 1 & 2
Dudley Moore (Oscar), Colin McFarlane (Thadius Vent/Tank), Elly Fairman (Rebecca), Michael Kilgarriff (Mr Crotchet), Murray Melvin (Lucius), David de Keyser (narrator)
Director: Tony Collingwood
Language: English
Region: Region 0
Format: Colour, Dolby 2.0 Stereo, NTSC 4:3 FF
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 677896/7 [4 DVDs: ca 591:00]

This is a production from 1995 which was broadcast on the CBBC channel. It was made by Collingwood O’Hare Entertainment Ltd. UK viewers may know of them from other series such as ‘Dennis & Gnasher’ based on Beano comic character Dennis the Menace, ‘Zed and the ZeeZone’, ‘The Secret Show’ and others. Having already moved abroad by that time I missed this first time around, but by all accounts it seems to have been universally appreciated for its non-patronising angle and qualities of writing and production.

Oscar’s Orchestra is quite a sophisticated animated series which contains one huge but benign contradiction. The action is set in a far ‘silent’ future under the cruel dictatorship of a spoilt and cowardly character called Thadius Vent who has banned all music. The entire action takes place to a background of innumerable recordings of well chosen classical scores, so the whole thing happens in an environment of almost wall-to-wall very fine music, which is a large part of the point. A sense of gloom and menace is established early on for instance with Mars from Holst’s The Planets, as are other minor-key masterpieces such as Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain later on. The Planets gets pretty much its own episode in ‘Star Tours’. Shostakovich is leant on heavily for chase scenes, and there are plenty of little recurring references which maintain a sense of familiarity and identity with the characters. The inner liner of these DVDs lists the music used though not the musicians or orchestras. Seen in its entirety the programme forms something of a condensed collection of the greatest all-time classics ever. Names such as Stravinsky, Poulenc and Widor pop up as well as the more expected Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Dukas and Brahms. All of the works should be familiar to classical music fans, and part of the fun is trying to identify each piece without cheating by looking at the listings. There are plenty of illustrative pieces made grateful use of by the story writers such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, but you need plenty of this kind of thing when there’s a flying piano involved.

Aside from the noisy silence and flights of fantasy, if one wants to be really pedantic there are further contradictions. For instance, our heroes go back in time to meet Mozart. Miscalculating their arrival in the past, they miss the mature composer by a few years and find the child Mozart playing at a harpsichord, and as a result can be given some useful facts about the invention of the piano – yet to occur. Fascinated to see this newfangled instrument which he first mistakes for a table, little Mozart has a go, giving us few bars of the Sonata in D major K448 which is for two pianos, let alone having been written in 1781 when Mozart was 21. Such petty point scoring is ridiculous, and the most important thing is that this is a children’s entertainment which is also a very rich vein of high quality music. It can be absorbed almost subconsciously, but can, I hope, also awaken an interest in a wider world of music than the latest pop hits or peer group trends.

Equally important is that these fragmented masterpieces are linked to stories which are genuinely engaging. I was fortunate to be able to road test these DVDs on my daughter aged 9. After the usual initial resistance to untried material, she gave in to curiosity about the unusual narratives coming from daddy’s laptop and soon became quite involved, forcing a suspension of writing activities. I’ve since heard quite a few parental anecdotes of ‘oh yes, X used to love that series’, so it would seem that the magic is still there 16 years on.

My copies of Oscar’s Orchestra arrived in two separate DVD cases with two discs in each. This is not every episode ever made, but does give you a lion’s share of the first two series, and with 26 episodes at 22 minutes each these are substantial enough collections. Much is made of Dudley Moore playing the part of the central character and he is indeed ideally cast, but the band of ‘illegal instruments’ and his human friends and enemies are all given plenty of idiosyncratic character foibles and are superbly acted. There’s also quite a long list of guest actors including Rik Mayall, Edward Fox, Ruby Wax and Robert Lindsay. Sound quality is good, and the action is also given nice cinematic stereo touches, with machines zipping from one side to the other and the like. I am altogether impressed by these DVDs and firmly recommend them both as good fun, and for the broadening of your child’s musical landscape.

Dominy Clements

Fun, and subliminally educational.