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.com/romance.
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 élite 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. None of which adds to our knowledge of what we’re hearing. Instead it gives us emotional feedback, someone else’s memory of what we’ve just heard. It’s also tempted Radio 3 down the path of making a feature of the classical charts, giving us a weekly Top 20, as if all music needs to be categorised according to what’s in and what’s out.
Classic FM has developed its own very individual voice. Its mix of music with chatter is smartly done. The regular time-checks and roadworks’ warnings can be useful. Just don’t let any more of that relentless cheerfulness seep over into Three.
One thing Classic FM has got just right: there’s not a grating voice to be heard, not even in the ads. On radio this matters. The voice becomes the medium of so much more than mere words. It has to be distinctive, crystal-clear, but also warm, personal, connecting. Yet we rarely discover very much about the continuity team on Radio 4, who wake us up and send us back to sleep. Last week, though, those two bulwarks of the newsreading team, Charlotte Green and Harriet Cass, were belatedly raised to medal-ranking status with the announcement of their imminent retirement from the network. Both have done that magic thing of retaining a sense of self-effacing distance while engaging directly with their listening audience. Who will be able to match Charlotte’s giggles or take over from Harriet’s reticent authority?
On Tuesday Nina Garthwaite returned on Radio 4 with a new series of Short Cuts, a collection of brief encounters and ‘radio adventures’, spliced together from documentaries made around the world (produced by Eleanor McDowall). This week Garthwaite gave us various meditations on ‘the line’, from the cosmetic lines we study in the mirror day-by-day, to potholers tied together by life-saving ropes, and a strange item from the BBC’s Newsnight economics editor, Paul Mason.
A musician as well as a journalist, Mason became fascinated by the idea of transposing a graph of the latest cataclysmic events in the financial world into notes on the diatonic scale. Would it be an effective way of illustrating quite how drastically different things have become money-wise — from a gentle undulation of harmonious interest rises and falls to huge, jerky leaps and catastrophic plunges? He drafted in a choir of tenors to sing the notes. If Osborne, Cameron and co. ever needed convincing that things are bad and getting worse, they should listen to this. It was eerie, unearthly and more than a little unnerving.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012