The licence fee is both a blessing and a curse for the BBC. The clue is in that nickname — Aunty — both affectionate and slightly patronising. Aunty implies that the corporation is a friendly family affair, middle-of-the-road and just a teeny bit desperate to stay in favour, like grown-ups attempting the dance moves of the next generation. The Beeb may have an unfair advantage over its commercial rivals because of the fee but its reliance on taxpayers’ funding also makes it dependent on the goodwill of whichever political party is in government. That means it has to be seen to be a vote-earner, or rather not a vote-loser, if it wants to retain its fee-supporting status. It must cater for all tastes, and keep up (and in) with the popular mood.
Why else would Russell Brand have been invited back into the fold of luvvies with a guest appearance on that flagship Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs? It shows a lack of confidence, a determination to please, to prove to the great British public that the BBC, and especially Radio 4, is in touch and not elitist or too highbrow. Brand may have sinned (by making those lewd phone calls to Andrew Sachs while on air on Radio 2) but that was ages ago (in 2008) and in any case he’s too great a talent to let go — or so the argument must have gone when Brand’s name was put forward as a possible castaway. Never mind that two senior members of the BBC’s staff lost their jobs in the ensuing furore. Never mind that Brand (and his mate-in-crime Jonathan Ross) dishonoured not just Sachs and his granddaughter but also the BBC and all its listeners. Brand cannot be let go; he’s too much part of the celebrity scene, always trending on Twitter, his demonic grin never off the front pages of the tabloids.
It’s a habit that the Beeb has got into, hanging on to a talent that’s gone to seed. Why it feels it must is curious. It’s as if every so often it must compensate for its superiority by supporting someone or scheduling something that is way below the Reith Line of rectitude and responsibility.
But, by some quirk of fate or the mischievous antics of a scheduling gremlin, just as Brand was choosing his luxury item (a taxidermied Noel Gallagher) on Radio 4, a rather different conversation was about to begin over on 3. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, is retiring from his post as head of the Jewish congregation in the UK in September and as a valedictory gesture he was invited on to Private Passions to give us a selection of his favourite music while in conversation with Michael Berkeley.
Whenever Sacks has spoken on Thought for the Day he’s always come across as deeply spiritual but also unusually pragmatic for a man in his position. On Private Passions we discovered why this might be so. ‘The more I study the extinction of so many Jewish communities the less I understand it,’ he said, after choosing music by Stravinsky conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who once came to a service he was conducting at the Marble Arch synagogue. Bernstein stayed on to meet Sacks afterwards and told him he was composing ‘something to do with the Holocaust’. Sacks’s family were refugees in England some time before the second world war but his roots lie in Berlin and Poland. ‘There’s an incredible weight you bear as a Jew, of all these tragedies,’ he said, simply.
Yet Sacks insists that Judaism is not ‘a tragic faith’; on the contrary, it’s ‘a celebration of life’. As if to prove it, he chose music by Simon and Garfunkel as well as by Thomas Newman, the film composer, alongside works by Mahler, Bach and Beethoven, looking to music not just for hope, joy and spirit but also ‘to bridge partners in a conflict’.
He also turned out to be a gifted storyteller, recalling a lunch he was once invited to at No. 10, given in honour of the President of Israel. Sacks was asked by the host, John Major, to say grace, only to realise there was as yet no food on the table. Jewish grace involves thanking the Lord for a specific item of food. What should he do? He was caught in a dilemma, between offending the PM and the President or God.
Ever resourceful, he noticed a bunch of grapes, intended as decoration, in the middle of the table. Sacks said grace referring to the grape which he then ate. Afterwards he told Major, ‘Prime Minister, you must understand. Your faith is different from ours. In fact your faith is greater than ours, because you are prepared to thank the Lord for what you are about to receive. Whereas we, after long experience, prefer to have received it first.’ Follow that, Mr Brand.