Magazine article The Spectator

Mindless Populism

Magazine article The Spectator

Mindless Populism

Article excerpt

Sir John Drummond, the former controller of Radio Three, was in fine form on Radio Four's evening arts programme Front Row last week. He was there to talk about his new book, Tainted By Experience: A Life In The Arts (Faber), much of which covers his period at the BBC, particularly during the early Birt era when he had to deal with an army of overpaid management consultants who were, he said, `taking millions of pounds out of the BBC every year by misunderstanding what the BBC was for'.

The consultants didn't much like the BBC's three orchestras: too many humans involved, presumably, all 700 of them. Perhaps they wished they could be computerised. Each week the consultants would grill him about these 700 inconveniences and each week he would try to explain why he thought they were necessary. One day, he told the presenter Mark Lawson, he decided to ask John Birt what he really thought about them. Birt replied: `In my view, the orchestras are a variable resource centre whose viability depends on the business plan of the controller of Radio Three.' In that one sentence you see not only the death of the English language but an inability to grasp any idea of the point of the BBC. Birt later denied having said it, but it was typical of the sort of drivel he was fed by the consultants over the years; I once heard him refer to television and radio as `delivery systems'. In any case, as Drummond pointed out, he couldn't have made up the quote because he didn't speak the language.

Drummond was also quite amusing about what he called `mindless populism' on radio and cited the Blue Peter Prom this year as an example. Wondering what The Young Person's conProm, as it used to be called, had to do with the television programme, he described how a girl came on to the platform and said, "Allo everybody, are yer ready to party?' Is that how you have to introduce the Proms just because you're talking to young people, he asked. Do you have to scream and shout?

He was dismissive of long Radio Three plays, saying that during his six years at the network he never once met anyone who had listened to one. `The idea of listening to a long play on the radio now is like playing the harmonium, something that socially doesn't happen any more.' Perhaps he's right, though I'm not so sure. The audiences are bound to be lower but it's important to keep radio drama alive. I am glad, for example, that Radio Four mounted a production of Alan Bennett's 1968 satirical stage play Forty Years On (Bank Holiday Monday), with the playwright playing the retiring headmaster of the public school Albion House, a role first performed by the late Sir John Gielgud. …

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