The Last Of The BBC Proms

This summer’s dumbing down is just the prelude to ditching everything this great festival stands for

Heritage Music
Under threat: The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who played six Proms this year (photo: BBC/Betina Skobro)

Enjoy this summer’s Proms? Then cherish the memory. They were the last of the BBC Proms as we knew them. Triple pressures are converging to distort and diminish the world’s largest orchestral festival. The first clicked in this summer when, in a regime-change power vacuum, six Proms were removed from Radio 3 editorial control and parcelled out around the BBC for corporate dumbing down.

Few would dream of objecting to having a Prom night devoted to television theme music from David Attenborough’s Life Story with animals fierce and fluffy running around on a big screen. Nothing to do with the Proms mission, but never mind. Where the bone stuck in this lion’s throat was Radio 1’s Ibiza night with the DJ Pete Tong, a neon sign of things to come.

A mantra is being parroted by BBC executives about the need to attract young people to “elitist” classical music. The Pete Tong audience was packed with middle-aged 1980s nostalgists, among them a heavy-metal fan in a sombre suit who turned out to be the Culture Secretary. Whatever John Whittingdale made of his Prom, it won’t have changed his life, or his mind about the future of the BBC.

Proms controllers for the past quarter-century — John Drummond, Nick Kenyon, Roger Wright — fought to protect the festival’s unique character from interference by the rest of the BBC. When Wright signed off on the first night of the 2014 Proms, the resistance ended. It will not be revived. The incoming Proms chief, David Pickard, is a former yes man to the Glyndebourne set. His boss, the Radio 3 controller, Alan Davey, is a career civil servant. Both are Musilian men without qualities, ill-equipped to withstand the coming storm.

The next phase is commercialisation. Year after year, Wright resisted BBC demands to exploit the Proms brand by taking on a sponsor. The Proms cost £9 million, of which half is recouped in ticket sales. The net BBC outlay of £4.5 million is a piffling sum in exchange for perpetual broadcast rights in 76 prime concerts and the glory of looking after a treasure of national heritage. Ignoring these benefits, BBC suits have pressed persistently for external finance. So stand by for next year’s Audi BBC Proms — or maybe a bigger betrayal, the Apple iTunes BBC Proms.

The third pressure, by far the most pernicious, affects the BBC orchestras and Radio 3. The five BBC musical ensembles — the London-based BBC Symphony and Concert orchestras, the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, the Scottish in Glasgow and the National Orchestra of Wales in Cardiff — cost £25 million a year. Radio 3 reported a £38.4 million budget in the 2014/15 published accounts. Both orchestras and classical radio are now under intense scrutiny for immediate savings.

Past controllers have argued that the Proms depend on having BBC orchestras who can put in extra rehearsal hours on new and esoteric works at no extra charge. The new bosses cannot hold that line, which, truth be told, has been weakened by the rise of smart London start-ups like Aurora and South Bank Sinfonia who can play anything you put in front of them in the blink of an eye.

The BBC’s two London orchestras are in real and present danger of extinction. So too is their under-used studio building which, occupying almost the entire length of a Maida Vale street where one-bedroom flats fetch £800,000, must be worth £200 million to a property developer.

The only thing that can save the orchestras would be a national strategy where BBC ensembles are deployed to plug geographic gaps between regional orchestras that are funded by Arts Council England (ACE). That’s the common-sense solution. But the BBC and ACE have refused to coordinate their musical assets and Davey, a former ACE chief executive, is in a squirmingly ambiguous position when it comes to saving BBC orchestras. The likely outcome is that two will go. The Proms without a solid core of BBC musicians will not be the same again.

BBC Television has failed the Proms year after year, shunting them in 2015 to the bywater that is BBC4, away from mainstream viewing and live excitement. The recorded concerts are often a week old. No surprise that the audience is minimal.
As for Radio 3, its fate is now in the hands of known enemies. John Whittingdale has named Darren Henley as one of eight advisers who will “work closely with the government over the renewal of the BBC charter”. All eight are in varying degree anti-BBC, but Henley, a former head of Classic FM who now heads the ACE, has trenchant id-eas on which popular parts of classical music should rightfully belong to private enterprise, and which crumbs should be left to the BBC.

In these troubled times, not one hint of support has been heard from the BBC’s top floor. In fact, the trouble actually began at the top when Lord Hall, a bland, ill-advised director general, put classical music under an extra and altogether unnecessary tier of management called BBC Music, hastening Wright’s departure. Hall’s close adviser and “creative director” Alan Yentob has no sympathy for classics. In the coming Auntie vs Tories battle for the BBC’s survival, classical music will be treated as collateral damage.

What I have described may be a worst-case scenario, but it won’t be far from the final outcome. Defenders of culture will blame a philistine government but the fault lies in Lord Hall’s failure to fight for our heritage as a core BBC value. His recent predecessor Mark Thompson was an active Proms-goer whose passion was respected by his executives. Now, Visigoths rule the roost.

The budgets I have laid out above for the Proms, five orchestras, and Radio 3, amount to less than one-third of the £204 million the BBC agreed this year to pay a greedy Premier League for an hour or so of edited football highlights on Saturday nights. ITV, exercising sound commercial sense, declined to bid.

The BBC has lost any sense of real-world value and, critically, the innate balance of its triple mission to “inform, educate and entertain”. The Proms exemplified all three ambitions of the BBC charter. The Proms must now pay for the BBC’s greater failures.