Paul Casserly takes us behind the scenes of a project close to his heart.

A "controversial" film that I helped make goes to air this Wednesday on Heartland (Sky17). The Grand Tour paired our national orchestra, the NZSO, with Jeremy Wells, on a whistle-stop trek to some of the grandest concert halls of Europe via one night in China.

Jeremy Wells and the NZSO? What could possibly go wrong?

Clearly this wasn't going to be your typical arts doco. But the management seemed up for the gonzo style we proposed, and so did many of the players. Most even seemed happy to indulge Jeremy's gift for taking interviews to unexpected places.

Yes, the oboe player did need to go for "number twos" during a performance, thank you for asking. And yes, the masseur had been asked, on many occasions, for a "happy ending", though as she rightly pointed out, "I couldn't do that, or there would be a line going right down the corridor".


The tour is a blur now, one that features grand halls, glorious performances along with long haul flights and endless bus trips. But with most days ending at a concert hall, listening to best performers we have, you could hardly call it work.

We met some amazing people, many of whom feature. The lovely Gudrun Taylor, for example, who provides book ends for the film. She's a self described NZSO groupie who was travelling to see the orchestra perform at the famously gilded Musikverein in Vienna. She embodied the dedication of the orchestra's many fans. Along with her late husband, Claude, they saw the NZSO countless times in Wellington, beginning in 1977. They always sat in same place at the Town Hall. Row A, seats 1 and 2.

The orchestra itself was full of characters who were more than generous with their time and happy to indulge our child-like goading. There was the passionate CEO Peter Walls, who had the seemingly impossible task of bringing the NZSO to a younger audience while keeping the old fans happy. There was the firm but fair orchestra manager, Gary Smith, who was once the front man of 80s pop group The Body Electric. And of course there was the man who liked to be called the 'maestro'; Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen. He's an impressive perfectionist, who clearly relished taking his colonial nobodies to cultural heart of the old world.

The first performance, however, was on the last day of the Expo, in the emerging mega-world of Shanghai, China. Most of the audience seemed to have wandered into the concrete concert hall, in the way that people wander into the Logan Campbell Centre during the Easter Show. People talked and even made phone calls throughout the show. A man next to me ate some chicken. But the NZSO played on undaunted, and by the end of the night, the room was enthralled into submission.

Europe on the other hand was mostly filled with glittering concert halls that smelled like those candles that smell like the Palace of Versailles. They were filled with silent and attentive audiences. There was no eating chicken. Standing ovations, we were told, were not to be expected, but as you'll see by the end of the film the NZSO seemed well able to buck the trend. Jeremy also interviewed Dame Kiri who turned up for a show in Vienna. They didn't get on like a house of fire.

When The Grand Tour first screened we garnered some positive reviews - some weren't as tickled by the talk of "poos and wees" as we were, but they seemed to enjoy the fact we captured some of the greatness of the orchestra, the display of incredible dedication, the lovely music, and the obvious success of the tour.

It's fair to say that others were not so happy. "Ghastly," said one. "Travesty," another. Letters flowed to The Listener. People were "appalled" on National Radio. "Heads should roll", someone suggested, regarding "the idiots who allowed this to happen". It seemed our symphony of the profound and the profane had not hit the right notes with everyone, and had actually turned off many of the orchestra's most loyal fans. And while you always hope to ruffle a few feathers, you don't set out to frighten off an entire flock.

Which all goes to show that the NZSO is a precious thing to many people. And, that many, who are the most passionate about it, aren't keen on outsiders taking the piss. Fair enough. I could say that it was all done in the best possible taste but that would be pushing it. It was however done with the best of intentions, to bring the orchestra to a younger, TV audience, who may not otherwise get to see them.

So do watch, be appalled even. But whatever your views on poos and wees in the work place, I hope you enjoy the point of the whole shebang, the wonderful noise made by that national treasure of ours, the NZSO. And then go and see them live. And don't think you have to see them in the grandest halls of Europe. Our own, Auckland Town Hall, is said to have some of the best acoustics in the world.

* The Grand Tour: Jeremy Wells with the NZSO. 7.30pm Wednesday March 26, Heartland (Sky, 17)