Make no mistake: the Proms, whose 2015 season was launched last night, would not, could not, exist without the BBC, or the licence fee. Just under half the cost of putting on such an ambitious nightly series of concerts throughout the summer, drawing on orchestras from across the globe, commissioning new work, pulling together programmes that mix popular and safe with little-known and challenging, comes from the sale of tickets, the rest is subsidised by taxpayers. To social-justice campaigners this might seem like an outrage. Why should such an ‘elitist’ series of classical-music concerts, 92 this year, attended by some 300,000 members of the public (a considerable proportion of whom will be tourists), be paid for (in considerable part) out of money (£5 million approximately) raised from those taxpayers who will never enjoy (or want to enjoy) the experience themselves?
It’s the kind of question you can imagine being discussed by the panel of experts —from commercial television and radio, digital technologies and the civil service — that has just been announced to advise the government on the renewal of the BBC charter next year. After all, you could argue that the Proms is maximum expenditure on minority entertainment, ending with the flag-waving jingoism of the Last Night. What it’s so easy to miss is the value of the Proms as an international asset, giving character to British culture beyond football, fish and chips and the royal baby.
The summer season may be a product of what we now disown as Victorian pomp and patronage, Robert Newman and Henry Wood determining in 1895 that they wanted to take classical music to the people by putting on concerts as cheaply as possible. Those first Promming tickets sold at one shilling each. There was a lot of music in each concert, often as many as 12 pieces, with programmes specially designed by Wood to ‘improve’ his audience but also including lots of ‘new’ music: Debussy, Rachmaninov, Sibelius. Now it costs just £5 to stand and listen in the arena or up in the gallery. But those cheap tickets, important as they are as a principle, are as nothing compared with the importance of bringing to London each summer so many international musicians, and of then broadcasting all the concerts live on Radio 3 to audiences that now reach across the world. (This year six of the Proms will also be aired on the World Service.)
Desperate attempts have been made in recent years to fend off the accusations of elitism by inviting performances from Goldie, the Pet Shop Boys, CBeebies. Much more profound is the BBC’s Ten Pieces campaign, which is taking music into primary schools (and now also secondary schools) in a drive to replace what the government has abandoned — its commitment to music education and giving every child the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. Tonight’s concert in the Albert Hall will include all ten pieces chosen for the scheme, from John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, via Holst, Mozart, Handel, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Anna Meredith and Peter Grimes. As the crossover musician Nitin Sawhney says, music ‘empowers children to understand their own identity and emotions’. It should be thought of as an important aspect of education in every school.
This week’s Sunday feature on Radio 3, Looking for the Moor (produced by Roger James Elsgood), was an exploration of the identity and emotions of Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Othello. Is the play a racist text, wondered the presenter, Hugh Quarshie, who for years has refused to take on the role because as a black actor he’s uncomfortable with Shakespeare’s characterisation? Surely, he asked, the transition from the mature, magnanimous, noble general to the murderous obsessive, so poisoned by jealousy that he murders his white wife Desdemona in the mistaken belief that she has betrayed him, is too sudden, too unbelievable and too much a caricature of the irrational, unschooled black man?
This was a totally uncompromising, typically Radio 3 programme. No background music. No easy way in. Just Quarshie talking either straight to mike or with his guests, actors and academics, as if in a rehearsal room struggling to make sense of the part. And it was absolutely fascinating, asking all those questions that have so bothered me about the play since seeing an unbelievably badly blacked-up Laurence Olivier playing the role in the 1965 film.
Quarshie wondered whether Shakespeare could have known any black people. He talked to Janet Suzman who had acted in the play in apartheid South Africa; to Jude Kelly, the director, who had put on a production where Othello was played by a white man (Patrick Stewart) and all the other players were black — and significantly in Washington DC, which is still so racially segregated. But it was Bonnie Greer who perhaps surprised the most, insisting, ‘The least important thing about Othello is the colour of his skin…’ That’s why the play still has such power over us. It’s not about the darkness outside, but within.