The BBC Symphony Orchestra
On Music

The vast plight of the Proms

The end of BBC Four is a death sentence for BBC Orchestras and the Proms alike

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This summer’s BBC Proms will be the last festival of British orchestras as we know them. This is not due to Brexit, Covid, Ukraine, inflation, the gas squeeze or any other headline. It is the consequence of half a century of mismanagement and mental indolence on the part of safe-seat executive suits who turned a Nelsonian blind eye to the gathering storm. Well, it’s all over now.

The death sentence was delivered by the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, in a statement terminating BBC Four, which televises most of the Proms, and urging the BBC’s six orchestras in London, Manchester, Scotland and Wales to look for “alternative sources of income where possible.” The insincerity of that suggestion is on a par with Vladimir Putin’s “special measures” in Ukraine.

There is no “where possible” — as Davie, a former boss of BBC music and radio, is well aware. Private cash for concerts has become scarce and BBC orchestras have no brand to sell apart from the big one — the GazProm Last Night of the Proms. Davie knows what lies ahead for his orchestras: oblivion. All he can do is soften the pill and spread the blame. The party’s over.

Davie knows what lies ahead for his orchestras: oblivion. All he can do is soften the pill and spread the blame

No-one can say they did not see this coming. Sixty years ago the Machiavellian lawyer, Arnold Goodman, proposed that three London orchestras should merge into a super-philharmonic to rival Berlin and Vienna. Goodman, who was head of the Arts Council and legal adviser to two prime ministers, got his way on most things. But here he could not overcome royal patrons of orchestras who would no sooner merge their bands than stamp on the Queen’s corgis. The super-orchestra never got on stage and stagnation set in.

In 1980 the BBC attempted to wind down some of its underused regional orchestras. The ensuing national strike by musicians shut down the Proms and cost the unassuming head of music his career. No BBC music man has ever confronted the dragon since. BBC orchestras are a protected species with no specific purpose.

So peripheral have they become to the corporation’s general output that the drama department commissions film tracks from ensembles in Munich and Prague while BBC orchestras sit idle at home.

There ought to be someone who can join up the dots, but the issue is complicated by split funding. The BBC pays the wages of its own orchestras while the Arts Council gives Government support to the rest. The result is a map of inequality. London has nine big orchestras — three BBC, four Arts Council and two opera houses. Manchester has the BBC Philharmonic, plus the Arts Council-backed Hallé and Camerata, with a Liverpool Philharmonic down the road. Meanwhile cities the size of Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Southampton and Bristol have no orchestra at all. Absurd? I couldn’t possibly comment.

Like petty princelings under the Raj, the BBC and Arts Council have refused to discuss cross-city cooperation. Hopes rose when an Arts Council bureaucrat, Alan Davey, became head of the BBC’s classical music, but not for long. Like the doctrinally flexible Vicar of Bray, Davey served first one camp, then the other, without changing his dog-collar. The BBC orchestras have first call on broadcast concerts. I was once accosted in the Broadcasting House lobby by a regional orchestra manager, crying, “Who do I have to fuck round here to get one of my concerts on Radio 3?”

Abroad, radio orchestras adapted to a changed environment where families no longer gather in the sitting-room after dinner for the Friday night concert. Germany, post-unification, cut its orchestras from 180 to 130. There was very little fuss except in Stuttgart where the radio and town orchestras were roughly equal and neither agreed to budge.

There ought to be someone who can join up the dots, but the issue is complicated by split funding

In Scandinavia, radio orchestras openly compete with others to an extent where, in Stockholm and Copenhagen, the radio ensemble is considered superior to the royal philharmonic. The Swedish conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, mused recently that radio orchestras offer a purer form of music-making, unpolluted by operatic distractions. The Danish radio orchestra, which he once led, was furnished by the brewers Carlsberg and Tuborg with Stradivarius instruments. No small beer.

British broadcasting, however, allowed orchestras to ossify, shielded by unalloyed BBC propaganda that it is (and they are) “the best in the world”. The reckoning has now arrived.

Boris Johnson’s government refused to increase the BBC licence fee, arguing that this universal tax cannot be justified as young viewers surge to Netflix, Spotify and Pornhub for their entertainment needs. Tim Davie, in time-honoured fashion, ringed himself with high-paid executives who have been tasked with drawing back young audiences by throwing out old culture.

Among the more withering humiliations, classical music has been brought beneath the writ of the Commissioner of Pop, Lorna Clarke, a person of unimpeachable ephemerality.

Let me offer one of Ms Clarke’s obiter dicta: “It’s not that music fans can’t give you their attention for a long time, it’s the fact that there’s a massive amount of competition around who wants their headspace.” That is what passes for BBC music policy in the summer of 2022. Orchestras now stand no chance.

The crisis could not have come at a worse moment. Concertgoers have failed to return after Covid broke their habit. Impresarios have grown wary. One London orchestra went six weeks this spring without a single working day. European tours have tightened post-Brexit.

The BBC orchestras are the first to feel the axe, but they will not be the last. Britain could end up again as das Land ohne Musik in less than a decade. Enjoy the Proms, while they last.

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