On Radio

Wanted: patron of high culture

Someone save Radio 3

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

The Critic’s claws, ever sharp, have drawn blood! Clear out the clowns at Radio 3, this column urged last month, and within hours Alan Davey, the station’s controller, had fallen on his sword. Now the search has begun for a successor who may begin the long, arduous process of restoration.

It must be led by a person who will speak without equivocation on behalf of the high culture that should be the station’s currency

Davey is not a clown, but his heart was never in it. Unlike his predecessors, men of hard-won experience such as John Drummond, Nicholas Kenyon and Roger Wright, his professional life was not rooted in a first-hand knowledge of orchestral music. There was no sense of vocation. He was a civil servant, a manager, a swimmer in a different pool. After seven years in a job he never really wanted to do, he may feel relieved to leave the building.

“May” — that verb again. Radio 3 needs certainty. It must be led by a person who will speak without equivocation on behalf of the high culture that should be the station’s currency. That is its sole purpose. There is no other.

According to a corporation insider, a long-time BBC loyalist, they will be looking first of all for a woman, or some-
body from an ethnic minority, which is fine if the hunt leads them to one who will uphold the old customs while keeping an eye on the present.

The new controller should be versed in the ways of radio, as well as music, which suggests that certain Radio 3 stalwarts will hear a knock on the door. Tom Service, the champion waffler, may even be persuaded to trim his beard and put on a tie for the most important interview of his life. He is said to be bursting with ideas, one of which, regular listeners fervently hope, is to dispense with presenters who blow as much hot air as him.

But if he really believes, as he suggested last year, that genius is a construct of whiteness and maleness, designed to exclude others, then the controller’s post is clearly not his. Get off your knees, man. Stand up for the best that has been thought, said and performed. This is no time for timid cultural relativists.

The new controller should be versed in the ways of radio, as well as music

One soul who will not hear the bugle’s call is Elizabeth Alker, who is being groomed as the new Kate Molleson — and if you think one Molleson is one too many, you stand in excellent company. Whoever takes on the job could perform one essential service within minutes of taking office, and get rid of Northern Drift, the witless entertainment hosted by Alker, which comes live from the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge.

Readers of a certain age may recall the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on television in the Seventies, when the cloth-capped Colin Crompton acted as MC. Comrades like Bernard Manning would trot on to do a turn, and it was great fun. “Keeping the very best of order.” Crompton would bark, in the days before those self-advertising alternative comedians emerged, to deconstruct material which required no post-modern gloss.

Manning, one of the great tellers of filthy gags, was never bested. “Anybody can tell a dirty joke,” Esther Rantzen told him one evening on the Parkinson show. “Alright,” he replied, “let’s hear you!” Even Saint Esther cracked a smile, almost.

Alker’s show, by contrast, is woeful. It purports to give northern people a voice, and succeeds only in patronising the audience it is trying to reach. What is so precious about the north, in any case? For the past half century popular entertainment has been saturated by northern voices, many of them talented. Listeners in other parts of the realm are entitled to ask “What’s so special about these people that Radio 3 want to tickle them so often?”

Which brings us again, oh my giddy aunt, to what Conan Doyle might have called The Strange Case of the Barnsley Chump. Is there a more flatulent bore in British public life? Yet up he pops on the wireless, month after month, year after year, reading his execrable poems, and speaking in that ludicrously exaggerated voice; a caricature of a certain kind of Yorkshireman.

Northern listeners must be shocked to know how little the folk at Radio 3 think of them

Prodded by Alker, who clearly thought she was addressing Goethe, this preening ninny praised the town they were in for “believing its ownmyth”. Ah yes: Athens, Rome, Hebden Bridge. Then he read some doggerel about a football match in Barnsley (“like any northerner I’m in search of the transcend- ent and the sublime”), and a miner’s “three cloth caps at the bottom of the stairs”, a cultural artefact, he claimed, comparable with Churchill’s statue at Westminster.

You couldn’t make it up, but Radio 3 manages to do so every week. This was an intolerable half hour, beyond parody. Northern listeners must be shocked to know how little the folk at Radio 3 think of them.

So that’s the first task for the man or woman who succeeds the hapless Davey. To erect a set of stocks in Langham Place, for the dozy people who commissioned Northern Drift. As for the gurning McMillan: prepare that plank, midshipman, we have one more duty to perform.

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