You might be forgiven for thinking that the cuts to broadcasting have already been implemented, with nothing but Mozart on Radio 3 and the Bible on Radio 4 on Sunday. Meanwhile, we’ve discovered that the actor who played the unfortunate Nigel Pargetter in The Archers, Graham Seed, has lost 75 per cent of his income, with only a few weeks’ warning — is he another silent victim of the national overspend?
Switch over to the BBC’s World Service and the New Year diet becomes even more stringent. No drama for at least a month, so that between the briefings on world news and sport there are instead endless repeats of The Strand, Crossing Continents or The Forum with just one or two new half-hour documentaries per week. We should be asking questions. The international play-writing competitions sponsored by the World Service have just about survived — but for how much longer? We need more drama, and more short stories, on public-service radio, not less, and especially if libraries are given the chop as recession-hit local authorities have threatened.
The Mozart season has been a brilliant masterclass; a cheap way to fill up 12 days of radio, yet carefully planned and thought through. The single day of readings from the great riches of the King James ‘authorised’ version of the Bible was, in contrast, a very odd experience. Treated as if they were Shakespeare or Sophocles, with huge chunks of text read in an actorly manner, the passages from Exodus, Daniel, Judges, Revelation became mere stories, which had, it seemed, been chosen (and abridged) at random. Some among the team of readers pulled it off; others could not reach the right tone of intimacy juxtaposed with grandeur, so that the words were read as a collection of lines rather than as an invitation to reflective thought.
Perhaps because we have become so inured to the daily repetition of awful events in Albert Square or Ambridge, the biblical tales of baby killing, murderous brothers and wicked temptresses seemed almost tame in comparison, and far too long-winded. The two-hour chunk in the afternoon was particularly badly timed. Who is sufficiently alert at that time of day on a Sunday to appreciate the trials of Samson or troubles of Job? Most of us listen while doing something else, but it is impossible to take in the King James without concentrating pretty hard. The anniversary deserved an inquisitive, sensitive brain like Neil MacGregor at the helm, and an expensive two-year gestation. Could the celebration not have taken a much more leisurely course, with each week a focus on a different book, all 66 of them?
Cuts, like diets, can have a beneficial impact, concentrating the mind wonderfully on what must not be lost, restricting output (or input) to what really matters. It’s puzzling, then, that Radio 3 has just launched a new project, diversifying into yet another web-based scheme set up by the BBC. (How many web-based employees does the organisation now have, I wonder?) Brave listeners are being invited to log on to BBC Lab UK and to take part in a test that will assess their ‘musical profile’ — defined by this experiment as enthusiasm, perception, emotional connection, creativity and curiosity.
‘How Musical Are You?’ is being masterminded for Lab UK by a group of ‘music, mind and brain’ scientists at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose interest is in ‘broadening our notion of musicality’. They want ‘to debunk some of the myths about classical music’ and ‘prove that we’ve all got it in us’. Great astonishment has been expressed that Nicky Campbell of Radio 5 Live (who cannot read music) has scored as highly as the classically trained Katie Derham of Radio 3 in the ‘perception’ test. This measures the ability ‘to understand the qualities of music, such as rhythm, pitch, tuning and genre’.
But does anyone still think that musical appreciation is the preserve of those with a musical education? Surely not, in this age of enlightened thought and global communication, linking up the leaf-whizzers of Papua New Guinea with fiddlers in Shetland. Who would wish to discover that in spite of believing themselves to be a true fan of Wagner or Westlife their scores on musical receptivity are less than brilliant.
Evan Davis, from Radio 4’s Today programme, was an early volunteer, and discovered that in spite of some musical education as a child his ‘perception’ is rated at 34 per cent. Will this improve his ability (or willingness) to appreciate classical music? It’s doubtful. Such profiling can be counter-productive, making us self-conscious about matters that should be spontaneous and intuitive. In any case, conducting such a survey on Radio 3 is like preaching to the converted. If they want to reach out to the young of Peckham Rye, they’ll need to be a bit more creative.