Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Classic Celebrations

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Classic Celebrations

Article excerpt

It's 20 years since Classic FM launched itself on the airwaves with a blast from Handel's 'Zadok the Priest'. Its mission was to play 'the world's greatest music' non-stop to an audience for whom the classics was a no-go area. On paper it's worked a treat. The station now claims five million-plus listeners, who love its blend of Vivaldi, Prokofiev and John Barry interspersed with adverts for dental implants, Age UK and classicfm.


Last Friday was devoted to its birthday celebrations. Alan Titchmarsh brought in a celebration card, John Suchet confessed that as a newsreader on ITN he dreamt of being able to present a programme on the station (he's now a morning anchor), Gareth Malone, musical guru of The Choir, told us that the station has played a part in shifting perceptions of classical music. It has 'a very important role in the cultural life of the country'. The next moment we segued into the theme tune to Dr Finlay's Casebook. No, I don't expect you to remember it (the programme ran on BBC1 from 1962 until 1971).

'But you do, don't you?' Suchet asked of his Classic FM audience.

It's all very smooth, very gentle and deliberately unchallenging. 'Film music is classical, ' we were assured, and so it follows, says Suchet, that the theme to Schindler's List is 'a modern violin sonata'. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. But after just a few hours I was ready to scream.

It's all so determinedly laidback and relaxing. Give me a blast of the Ramones, anything but more Mozart, I caught myself thinking.

I'd also managed to identify most of the music before we were told what it was, which made me feel exceptionally knowledgeable, except that I'm not. It's just that all the old faithfuls are there, each and every day, the 'Four Seasons', a bit of Bach, that aria from Puccini which featured in A Room with a View.

I know, I know. I'm sounding like a middle-aged grump from Staines-upon-Thames who still calls her radio the wireless and has it tuned permanently to Radio 3. Surely in 1992 there was a need for a classical alternative to the Third? Competition would sharpen up the station, funded, after all, by every taxpayer, and ensure that it reached out beyond the narrow elite who go to concerts, opera, the ballet?

In fact, the audience for Radio 3 has remained remarkably stable, and the only noticeable effect on the old-fashioned Third is that it has become much more chatty, more interactive, more inclined to interrupt the music (and our meditative reception of it) with texts and emails. …

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