‘The BBC’s Classical muddly’

‘The BBC’s Classical muddly’
BBC Proms: will no longer feature the BBC Singers (Picture: Amanda Slater/Flickr)


Director-general Tim Davie creates a “toxic culture of fear and paranoia” in BBC Classical Music. But BBC bosses before Davie have been just as savage.

Overshadowed by the L’affaire Lineker, the recent decision to axe the BBC Singers (established 1924) has been relegated to the arts pages of the broadsheets.

But with Monday’s truce established between the largely victorious football pundit and the hapless Davie, the issue has come under renewed focus. An online petition to save the BBC Singers has so far over 110,000 signatures. The Singers have been told that they will not be performing at this year’s BBC Proms.

More than 700 composers wrote to the DG to slam the move, “As composers, we recognise the BBC Singers as one of the world’s great advocates for new choral music throughout their 99-year history. The loss of this extraordinary group would be devastating for the future of the art form, for the composers it champions and for the audiences it serves.”

When the news was first announced, BBC orchestra conductors remonstrated with Davie and other senior managers, “to consign [the BBC Singers] to the dustheap … displays a shocking disregard not only of how artistic excellence takes root but [of] how the BBC’s great legacy across the arts is viewed and envied around the world.”

The decision to terminate the venerable and much-loved institution is odd since it is precisely the kind of cultural artifact that the Tory Party is supposed to treasure.

So why would Tim Davie, who has been assiduous in cultivating the Government, decide to send the Singers to the metaphorical knacker’s yard?

The Windmills of his mind

Sub-McKinsey-ite zeal? The desire of a desiccated calculating machine to be seen to be hacking away at ‘dead wood’? I’ve long since given up attempting to figure out the workings of Davie’s mind.

And it’s not as if the Singers are terribly expensive, considering the prestige and cultural ‘soft power’ they represent and project abroad.

To quote Bob Hoskins’ Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, the BBC Singers symbolise British “culture, sophistication and genius, a little bit more than a hot dog.”

Coming in at apparently £1.5m a year, the BBC Singers and support staff total around one and a sliver Gary Linekers, or two episodes of a modestly budgeted peak time drama. Not burdensomely expensive by anyone’s rubric. The cuts will also affect the BBC Orchestras themselves — at around 20% of the £25m annual budget.

Davie has form with this kind of ‘change for change’s sake’ tinkering. Readers will remember in 2006 he then used his Mentat analytical skills to arrive at the determination to bin 6 Music, along with sister digital station, the Asian Network.

He said: “I do not believe that offering the current range of nine standalone digital networks is the right way to serve audiences and ensure radio remains strong in a digital world. Clearly, we didn’t arrive lightly at the decision to recommend the closure of 6 Music: it is distinctive, much-loved and I too am passionate about its output. But I believe the best way for us to provide that kind of programming is by looking at other ways to find it a bigger audience.”

Of course, this edict was later reversed, but Davie appears to have learned little from the experience in relation to the BBC Singers, reminding us of the old saw (misattributed to Albert Einstein) about the definition of insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’.

Still anyone who joins the Conservative Party in their early 20s (as did Davie) remains something of a mystery to me in terms of motivation and worldview. The tradition of moderate intelligence defined as ‘liberal in youth, conservative when older’ appears to have bypassed the current DG, who can appear somewhat confused/inarticulate when interviewed on live TV.

Davie isn’t unique in his actions, witness the wrecking ball strategy of DG John Birt and later, on a lesser, more Saruman-esque scale, the unwelcome activities of Jane Mote when in charge of BBC Radio London.

Barbarians at the Gate?

I suspect the new BBC “quality, agility and impact” mantra declared for BBC Classical Music will draw moths to the flame. The BBC’s chief content officer Charlotte Moore stated: “This new strategy is bold, ambitious and good for the sector and for audiences who love classical music. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t had to make some difficult decisions, but equally they are the right ones for the future.”

For example, outgoing ENO boss and former TV executive Stuart Murphy could see this as a pathway to worming back into the good graces of the Beeb where he was previously controller of BBC3.

This time in the guise of an ‘Arts Guru’ flogging his increasingly threadbare gimcrackery of diversity, yoof, celebrity wooing, and ‘flashmobs’ to expand the appeal of classical music beyond the current staid, older audience. In other words, people who don’t need tacky gimmicks to appreciate the form.

Murphy partnered with Sky Arts for 2022’s Anyone Can Sing, so expect more in this vein if he returns to the Corporation.

Anyone Can Play The Harpsichord/Flugelhorn/Ocarina etc? Gawd help us, as the phrase goes.

Meanwhile, as the battlelines over the BBC Singers are drawn, Auntie has begun the process of recruiting contestants for the reboot of ITV/Sky’s Gladiators….

Stephen Arnell began his career at the BBC, moving to ITV where he launched and managed digital channels. He continues to consult for streamers and broadcasters on editorial strategy. He currently writes for The Spectator, The Independent, and The Guardian on film, TV and cultural issues. He is also a writer/producer (including Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime for Sky Arts) and novelist.

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