Anyone who has listened regularly to Radio 3 over the decades — not to mention the Third Programme, which Radio 3 replaced in 1967, and which provided an incomparable musical education for many of us — can’t have failed to notice the change in style and standard of presentation. Listening to any radio announcer from 50 years ago is bound to cause hilarity: carefully read scripts, un-emotional delivery; all told, quite like the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. It would be ridiculous to expect no change in the way that the music, and the occasional talks, not to mention the regular poetry programme — a northern camp Thursday-night regular — are presented.
Nowadays even the golden voice of Patricia Hughes might be regarded as comic, and I can’t imagine any listener turning on the radio for the sake of the announcer as well as the music they are ‘presenting’. The question is: need things have gone so far; need we have to endure the matiness and simulated breathless enthusiasm that is now de rigueur for concert and opera announcers?
The last excellent presenter was Rob Cowan, who for whatever reason left Radio 3 and moved to Classic FM. He didn’t lack enthusiasm, might even be thought to have too much, but his knowledge of the catalogue of recordings, past and present, was incomparable, and to listen to him introducing his often recherché favourites was invariably educational and often fun.
The tone these days is quite different, though the varieties of irritation and downright rage they induce vary. On Essential Classics, from 9 a.m. to noon, there is a fortnightly alternation between Suzy Klein, tolerable and a bit bossy, and Ian Skelly, co-author of a book with Prince Charles and reminiscent of old-style uncles, cracking semi-jokes and chuckling at them afterwards, though it’s unlikely that anyone else is. Both he and Klein, at 9.30 each morning, play a brief piece of music — nothing is very long — and then ask for our collaboration: what would we suggest a listener should hear after he or she has just listened to the presented piece? Something utterly different or quite similar? Written before or after? For voices or instruments? etc.
Excitement is intended to mount as listeners write in, invariably with admirable suggestions. But alas only one can be played, and duly is. That programme, Monday to Fridays, is followed by Donald Macleod’s Composer of the Week, a paradigm of information, choice of repertoire, and manner of presentation. Macleod has the tone and depth of knowledge that is alas now unique, though Tom Service — who presumably has a flat in Broadcasting House, since he is ubiquitous between and often during programmes — is always at hand to pant enthusiastically about all music.
But now on to the real villains, who have made me read the Radio Times carefully to ensure that I don’t hear them, though that is becoming ever trickier. Tom McKinney is merely maddening. He contrives to be both laddish and cocky, modulating his voice in a way inappropriate to his subject matter, and he is a worse joke-cracker than Skelly.
But the absolute depths are plumbed by his friend Elizabeth Alker, who has introduced a wholly new level of infuriation. She is on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and if you are unlucky enough to catch her talking about her choices you will hear the tones that stupid adults use when they address small children: modulating her voice to express amazement or self-endorsement; using every known, and some previously unknown, irritating inflection. No, worse there is none. And now she sometimes presents the afternoon programmes too. I defy the BBC to find anyone more tasteless and insufferable.