He Shone

By Church, Michael | The Independent (London, England), May 8, 1997 | Go to article overview
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He Shone


Church, Michael, The Independent (London, England)


I went full of foreboding to David Helfgott's London concert, but I came out - like almost everyone else - on a high. Then I opened a newspaper and learned that I had "implicitly supported a disgusting exercise in exploitation", and that I should feel "thoroughly ashamed" for having done so. The critic in question had watched "with acute embarrassment and sorrow" until the interval, at which point he had run off home to pen his diatribe.

Why did the vast majority of Monday's audience emerge neither ashamed, nor embarrassed, nor sorry? They can't all have been morally inferior beings. Why do the real issues which the Helfgott tour raises - and exploitation is indeed one of them - not sour the whole experience, as our critical friend would wish? Since spending two days with Helfgott last autumn, I've been mulling this question over, and it's a mystery.

What struck me then - and has struck others since - was Helfgott's extraordinary amalgam of vulnerability and charm. We were in Melbourne, where Shine was the film of the moment (it hadn't yet opened world-wide, and the current world tour was just a gleam in his agent's eye). On my first introduction I got the standard treatment, with the interviewee jumping into my lap, kissing me on the cheek, and mumbling into my ear. There were moments of pathos and flashes of wit in his sotto voce tirades; it took me a while to realise how cleverly - and tenderly - his wife was managing his life, doing everything from tying his shoelaces to monitoring his caffeine intake. It became clear that he was happy in this marriage, where he was at once lover, breadwinner and child. But a concert he gave in Melbourne raised doubts. Oscars were not yet being mentioned, but the promotional bandwagon was rolling fast - for the film, the record, the biography - and Gillian Helfgott was basking in the limelight. Helfgott's performance was bedevilled with his hallmark puffings and blowings, but a strange poetry shone through, and when his mind wasn't wandering he really could play. He took his final bow ankle-deep in streamers - the event was tightly stage-managed - and he exited high as a kite with happiness. This all seemed fine for a town where he was a local hero. But how would he fare in bigger, harder cities abroad? The answer in America was just the same, in terms of audience reaction. But he got the most ferocious drubbing from the critics. "David Helfgott should not have been in the Symphony Hall last night, and neither should the rest of us" trumpeted the Boston Globe reviewer, speaking for most of his colleagues. The more vitriol they poured on the hapless pianist, the louder his talents were cried up by his promoters. Shine duly won its Oscar, and David was induced to make an excruciating television appearance to celebrate. British journalists were sent out to America to bring back advance word of the sacred monster - "I too was hugged by Helfgott!" - whereupon other British journalists were made to dig around for dirt. Of which there was plenty, notably in the form of the Helfgott sister who attacked the film's veracity (and Gillian Helfgott's motives) and the ex-wife who had been airbrushed out of Gillian's official history. More seriously, a psychiatrist was wheeled on to prove - with videotapes - that David was regressing emotionally, whereupon yet more journalists began to speculate that David's tour might deliver a coup de grace to his wonky sanity. What a wonderful newspaper story! Like Shine, it had something for everyone. When he finally hit London, and was paraded for a few uneasy minutes before a posse of hacks, first reports made it sound as if he really was caving in under the pressure. Come the big night, it became apparent that he was bobbing like a cork on this factitious sea of murk.

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