Last October, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was proud that Jeremy Wells would front a documentary about its upcoming world tour. And Wells, fresh from his rather clever Birdland series, responded that "it was time to align myself with something a little more cultured than birds or half-baked local celebrities. The NZSO was an obvious choice".

I shuddered at this cruel put-down of the delightful, idiosyncratic characters who made Birdland a success.

If this casual insult occasioned shudders, then the completed documentary, The Grand Tour, which screened on Prime TV last Sunday, was rage-inducing.

Shuffling around the concert halls of China and Europe, Wells, the eternal slacker, patched together a script of snide swipes and innuendo. China was the home of Sars and, looking to porn for inspiration, Wells described Garry Smith, the NZSO operations manager, as a fluffer.

Advertisement

Wells' feeble attempts at in-depth interview had harpist Carolyn Mills valiantly fielding his banter about playing in the nude; trombonist David Bremner was reduced to a giggling school boy when Wells likened his trombone playing to a sex act, or confronted him with scatological humour more familiar in shows like Back of the Y.

We hardly had time to marvel at some of the glorious venues before Wells chirped in with the observation that classical music is woven into German culture like automotive engineering and barebacking.

The American soloist Hilary Hahn was asked whether she had tried solvent abuse as a teenager, masseuse Bronwen Ackerman was drawn out on the subjects of "happy endings" and conductor's erections. Shamefully, Wells teased a German doctor to the point of harassment with a discussion of a surreal testicle injury.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa quite rightly showed little patience with Wells' interview tactics. When she did respond, she was cut off mid-sentence.

Clearly The Grand Tour was more about Jeremy Wells cracking out a good spit in Shanghai or, for two long minutes, attempting to introduce Lucerne against traffic noise.

There were glimmers of thoughtful commentary here and there but there should have been much more on the rare occasion of classical music making it to prime time.

Those who care about New Zealand music have reason to worry about its obvious marginalisation in this film; Ross Harris and his specially commissioned orchestral pieces were neither heard nor discussed.

And what does the orchestra itself think of this travesty, this deeply philistine mockery of indubitably great culture? Most organisations would insist on quality control and final approvals; if this documentary got a tick from the NZSO, then our classical music culture is indeed in a sorry state.