The statue of Thomas Jefferson removed from City Hall in New York

Great Lives — great, The Essay — awful

Radio 3 maintains its course towards self-destruction

On Radio

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Some words we do not wish to hear in the coming year: nuanced, pitch-perfect, multi-layered, achingly beautiful, richly-textured, life-affirming. And if anybody is held to be at the top of their game, or the height of their powers, then bundle the offender into the stocks, and buy a tub of rotting tomatoes.

Which is not to say there is no place for genuine nuance, as in trying to understand the flaws of those most high. It is to the credit of Matthew Parris that the Great Lives programme he moderates on Radio 4 started the year in clover. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, submitted Thomas Jefferson for admiration, and argued his case well.

For two centuries Jefferson’s status as a great American, and all-round citizen of the world, was secure. A philosopher, linguist, musician, botanist, oenophile and diplomat, he drafted the Declaration of Independence and became the third president of the United States.

Composer Florence Price was chosen by Linton Stephens

As John F Kennedy told a table of distinguished guests at a presidential feast, the room they were in bore witness to the finest assembly of talent “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone”.

Yet three years ago members of the New York public design commission argued successfully that a statue of Jefferson, which had graced City Hall for 187 years, should be taken down. The Enlightenment Man had owned slaves on his Virginia plantation, and that was sufficient to damn him in the eyes of those whose dearest wish is always to be on the right side of history.

As intellectual tides ebb and flow, it is possible the great man will be restored to his former position when the statue’s period on loan to the New York Historical Society expires. But don’t bet the house on it. These activists guard their territory 25 hours a day, eight days a week. They are not inclined to be merciful.

Wales, who enjoyed a “fairly conservative” childhood in Alabama, was not blind to his hero’s imperfections. Amongst the sticks used to beat Jefferson is the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which favoured small farmers at the expense of native Americans. There were even more disturbing events unfolding at that time in Europe, in the name of “the people”, too.

An abiding problem with Great Lives is the expert witness, on hand to support the guest, who is sometimes tempted to hog the ball. That didn’t matter when Diane Abbott nominated Harold Pinter, because it was clear she knew nothing about his plays and needed all the help she could get. Wales, however, spoke well, and he required less support from Professor Kathleen Burk than Parris imagined.

There was a moment of unintentional humour when Parris said he had visited Monticello, Jefferson’s stately home. “Most of us have, I suspect,” replied Burk. Like Everest, another highly-sought destination, it appears that only the dozy have not queued for hours to tick it off the list.

Eager as she was, Professor Burk nevertheless played her part in a well-judged programme, as three intelligent people discussed the life of a great man without hyperbole or condescension. We need more shows like this.

Great Lives is in its twenty-third year, and Parris has been in the chair for eighteen of them. One of the first guests, astonishing to relate, was Bernard Manning, whose “life” was Mother Teresa. There are times when one longs for a touch of the Mannings, but this was not one of them. Well played, everyone.

Antonio Vivaldi was selected by Georgia Mann

Radio 3, meanwhile, maintains its course towards self-destruction. The weekday The Essay slot, which goes out at cocoa time, was given over to five of the station’s presenters, who were invited to talk about composers close to their heart.

The first “secret admirer” was Georgia Mann, a Radio 3 stalwart, whose talk on Vivaldi was peppered with gratuitous references to the pop music of her childhood. The second was Linton Stephens, a bassoonist, whose admiration for Florence Price, the station’s pet composer, had more to do with her racial identity than anything so trivial as talent.

The third guest, who shall remain nameless, had no business being on the wireless. Her strident voice was almost violent in tone, and her subject, a lady more interested in sound effects than notation, liked to burn and drown pianos. Yes, that sort of composer. Still, the sounds she made were “immersive”, oven-ready for “curation”, and that’s the main thing.

In this realm, where race and sex reign supreme, music becomes a form of social engineering. And the language! Stephens, who appears on Radio 3 more frequently than is good for his reputation, used “creative” as a noun, and “caveat” as a verb. Don’t producers listen to this bilge? Or maybe they encourage it, as a way of connecting with that imaginary younger audience.

Stephens and the lady with the violent voice are of little regard. But Miss Mann is a puzzlement. She is clearly an intelligent lady, and she used to produce Words and Music, the pot-pourri of music and poetry that is always worth a listen. So why does she think 80s pop opens a door to 18th century Venice?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover