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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Three Cheers for the Proms. Now will the BBC Learn?

By Norman Lebrecht / September 12, 2008

Some weeks ago, in a fit of public spiritedness, I put in to become a member of the BBC Trust – what used to be known as a Governor of the BBC. The Trust exists to monitor the BBC on behalf of its license payers and, in a subtler role, to build bridges between the broadcast corporation and the nation it serves. That is where I came in.

As someone who has worked with the BBC all his adult life, knows its top brass and understands the issues they are tackling, it seemed worthwhile to try and help rekindle public trust and affection in an institution that has been losing it in bundles.

Whether the cause is faked films, alleged political bias or a headlong chase for ratings with the dumbest in commercial TV, the BBC no longer holds our love as dowdy ‘Auntie’ but is known as ‘the Beeb’, an acronym more suited to a Silicon Valley gizmo than one of Britain’s defining inventions.

Only on a few occasions does the BBC still command the nation’s attention. It has lost the Boat Race, the Test matches and even the highlights to England football. It is no longer the natural home for the Queen’s Christmas broadcast and, when a breaking story sends us scurrying to the nearest screen, we are just as likely to be watching it happen on Sky or CNN as we are on the BBC’s stodgy News 24.

The only night the BBC can still claim as its own, a night when families cuddle on their sofas to sing Rule Britannia and all those sea songs, swaying like a storm-tossed flotilla, is tomorrow night – Last Night of the Proms, in case you had forgotten.

The Last Night is one of those grand unmissables that tells the world we are British, that we wear silly hats and make rude noises without being remotely drunk or disorderly, that we pretend to rule the waves when all we have left is a strip of English Channel. The Last of the Proms displays that uniquely British trait of being simultaneously proud of our country, while sending ourselves up something rotten.

This year, the Last Night has an unprecedented event – a new piece of music by composer Anna Meredith which will receive its first performance from five choirs and five orchestras in different corners of the kingdom, each of them beamed into the broadcast without missing a beat.

In any other organisation, the sound engineers would have been on the phone to their union before the proposal had come off the drawing board, and on strike before the call was over. At the BBC, the tweakers and twiddlers dratted and sputtered a bit but tomorrow night they will put on a feat of transmission that would have gladdened the pioneering hearts of Marconi, Edison and the unsmiling John Reith.

The Last Night is, of course, all that many people see of the world’s greatest classical music festival, a two-month long orchestral extravaganza that is organised and paid for by the BBC as a gift to the world. Every note of 76 concerts goes out on Radio 3 and is streamed on the internet,. This year, more concerts than ever before were relayed on TV.

It has been an electrifying season. A change of director, Roger Wright for the departing Nicholas Kenyon, brought a sense of renewal and experiment. The quirky Nigel Kennedy and Murray Perahia returned after an absence of two decades. The esoteric sounds of Stockhausen and Xenakis drew huge attendances. The world’s premier orchestras – Berlin, Chicago, New York and more – trooped through in homage and, night after night for eight long weeks, the BBC’s own bands played indefatigably and to a standard of consistency unmatched anywhere on earth.

Wright will today announce record box-office figures, along with a promise that next year – celebrating anniversaries of Handel, Haydn, Purcell and other family favourites – will be even bigger. I’m told that the vast Royal Albert Hall was 88 percent full across the season and that 42 out of the 48 main evening events were totally sold out. These are astonishing statistics, testifying that the Proms is what the BBC does best: taking an art form and giving it intense, intelligent, global and accessible exposure.

It is also a reminder of where the BBC has gone wrong. For if the Proms were once part of a strand of arts programming, they stand out now as an island of quality in an ocean of silliness where the viewing public are invited to ‘elect’ the country’s ‘best’ choir and a bunch of amateurs are supposed to learn conducting in a week.

The decline of editorial and intellectual rigour is one reason the public has lost respect for old Auntie. Another is its shameless copying of rival shows, its lack of top sport and the millions it squanders on the so-called talents of Jonathan Woss and Ginger Evans to squint at an autocue. Many at the top of the BBC know all too well how far it has fallen and few have an idea how to recapture the wellspring of public support.

That is the area in which I offered to help the BBC, and my candidacy was sponsored by two substantial public fugures – Jenny Abramsky, outgoing head of radio and music on the BBC, and Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

The Government, however, decided otherwise. Appointments to the BBC Trust are in the gift of the Culture Department where ministers, I was officially informed, declined my application.

No surprise there. Politicians want to keep the BBC tame. They don’t want it to regain popular appeal and will stack its Trust with lackeys. A decade from now, in a fast-changing spectrum, the BBC may well have been nepotised and emasculated out of existence.

So sit back and cherish the Last Night of the Proms, an event that fulfils Reith’s Charter in ‘reflecting the nation unto itself’ and reminds us of what is truly the best of British – our irrepressible genius for staging the great occasion.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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