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The Company Of Friends: The Miracle Of BBC Radio 3
A love letter to the greatest radio station on earth.
One of my favourite walks is down by the canal in Ansty. You have two choices from the Social Club car-park. Turn right to see sheep, boats, cart-horses. Turn left to go under the motorway bridge and see race-horses, gorgeous elegant things, who even at a distance seem to look at you with a faintly repulsed aloofness. Was going under the bridge the other day and saw a bit of graffiti that sunk the heart. ‘Defund The BBC’. A walk in Warwickshire instantly became doom-strolling, because in the past five years anti-BBC sentiment - which has always been with us - has accreted an extra tincture of bitterness and rage-inducing stupidity for me. Perhaps because the BBC, and in particular my favourite BBC network, the daily miracle that is Radio 3, have come to mean an awful lot to me. To the point where I want to defend it, protect it. To the point where I can’t imagine life without Radio 3.
That sense of evangelicism and advocacy stems from the space Radio can uniquely inhabit, especially for those of us who find ourselves alone. I recall after my dad passed away when I’d go to see my mum in her flat, she’d always have the radio on. Always. Always BBC CWR for the local natter and chat. It was only after she had passed, and then my own wife passed, that I really apprehended why. It’s the company that radio gives you, a conviviality specific to that medium, a medium whose demise was confidently predicted by all kinds of eejits at the advent of t’internet, and whose resilience should remind us all that some aspects of technology pass beyond the usual life-cycles of superannuation and actually remain intrinsic to our lives because they fulfil a very specific and immortal human need.
After my wife passed my eldest went to uni within a few weeks and there I was, at home, a mess of course but minded/duty-bound to survive. The silence was deafening, that empty bedroom of my eldest, and also my bigger bed and a loneliness that yawned open like a desert, in which every move hurt. A house like an anechoic chamber to the point where I could almost hear the grisly creaking of my bones, my blood’s maddening refusal to stop circulating, my annoyingly reflex-borne breath, my occassional wracked tears. In this sparse wilderness of solitude - with all the fear that suggests - I found myself increasingly populating the space, the empty air, with Radio 3. And although I’d always been a listener, the shows and presenters who I got to know, who ultimately I came to count on as friends (in a strictly airwaves-bound sense - I think I’d actually be overwhelmed if I ever met anyone from Radio 3), took on the importance of your morning cuppa, your evening orisons and your nighttime spliff. They became part of what I had to create for myself to keep clinging on - a routine. Yes, at times a balm. But more often, a thrill, a laugh, a smile. My god I needed that. And Radio 3 gave it me without peripheral annoyances, without endless trails and ads, without condescencion and without pleading. They came at me - as they still do - like a friend, direct, across the table. Here’s beauty. Here’s a way of time unfolding with less pain. An absolute fucking godsend, then and now.
I do worry about the way classical and experimental music is often seen by mainstream pop culture as essentially meditative, a place to accentuate ‘well-being’ and ‘mindfulness’. Whenever classical music is sliced-n-diced into playlist-shapes or podcast-shapes by the BBC it’s usually with this kind of ‘healing’ impetus in mind. I understand that, and I know that on those insomniac nights ‘Night Tracks’ and ‘Through The Night’ are doing vital important work. But for me that thing of suggesting that hey, over here, classical music is just this background cushioning sound you don’t have to think about but can just relax with is inimical to a true apprehension of both its diversity and its humanity.
And don’t get me wrong - there have also been moments when Radio 3 has fatally lost its nerve. I precisely LOVE the way that of late Radio 3 seems to have entirely regained its nerve and is finding its own place and space beautifully. I recall an appalling trailer for a 'Sunday Feature' on R3 called 'My Problem With Classical Music' in which David Baddiel ‘tried to get into classical music' (with the help of Frank Skinner of course). Besides my Baddiel-aversion what angered me about it was how it crystallised that way networks become apologetic about what they do - this muddle-headed desire to unshackle culture from its 'stuffiness' and engage fearful neophytes through celebs/idiots-guides. I know podcast ads are always guaranteed to be full of posh chortling irritation but a dreadful repeated motif is ‘the (insert supposedly high-cultural/abstruse subject) podcast for people who don’t like (said high cultural/abstruse subject)’. The history podcast for people who don’t like history, the mathematics podcast for those people who don’t like numbers, the poetry podcast for people who don’t read poetry, the classical music podcast for . . . . . always with multiple exclamation marks implied and sometimes used. Always with a populist expert and a fucking COMEDIAN as our guide. I realise these wanksnaps from 90s panel shows will never be short of this kinda work but sheezlouise, so blatant how they tweet ignorance of something purely to get these kinds of commissions. Always felt in these craven moments of ‘reaching out’ that Radios 3 & 4, rather than making something that requires effort to engage with seem effortless to engage in (with the attendant perpetuation of this malignant idea that you SHOULD know about this stuff even though !!!snooze it’s a bit boring!!!) should have spent that programming budget on just having experts talk about what they’re expert in. It’s not hard, In Our Time has been doing it peerlessly for decades. If yr not into classical music FINE: why do you need a fucking podcast where David Baddiel has his classical-music hatred ‘challenged’ amidst incessant smirking attempts to prove the music’s ‘relevance’? Sometimes culture and knowledge demands an effort on your part, a willingness to learn because you want to, not because you feel you OUGHT to. Too many pods/shows over the years have betrayed an intellectual insecurity and shame that really isn’t worth addressing, acquiesce to the dilettantes and entryists and their reification of these ancient cultural snobberies, and also to those ratings-obsessions that should be part of commercial broadcasting but are anathema to the BBC’s unique public-service remit. Rather than cosying up to the phillistines I would rather an hour of uninterrupted Charles Ives or Scriabin sonatas. See how the people who 'don't know where to start' do with that. Whenever trust breaks down in broadcasting or writing, between editorial and readership, or programmers and listeners, you get this kind of flailing. This inability to realise that one of the most magical things about music isn’t that you need the physical blow, the intellectual hit, the sensual fix, anaesthetising - rather music can be that thing that arrives in your day without your negotiation, this galdr that absolutely blows your mind and sends you on your own spirals of reconnaisance. Crediting the audience with that ability is key to what makes Radio 3 so very special. In a sea of dumbed-down simplifications and in a broadcasting world in which surprise is being ruthlessly eliminated with the splintering and ghettoisation of audiences it remains both a dizzyingly wide open launchpad and an ideal, something to be caught up with, whoever and wherever you are, endlessly.
Because here is a station that I think is in a golden age of rude health. The schedules are PERFECT and it would break my heart if they were fucked with. My day is conducted, and remains intact only with Radio 3 as its soundtrack. I start the day with Petroc Trelawney, a presenter who has that indefinable thing I can only call ‘twinkle’ or ‘sparkle’, a wry sense of humour, and a voice that starts your day in the perfect space. No breakfast shoutiness, and no shoutiness from you either (as always seems to occur if you make the error of going to Radio 4 ‘Today’) - I firmly believe that the nation’s mental health would be massively improved if more people made the switch to Trelawney’s breakfast show in the morning. I recall a beautiful moment, in the depths of the Boris Johnson shitshow in which the former PM ‘addressed the nation’ at 8am - I was tuned to Radio 4 hoping to hear him resign but as soon as I heard his repellent tones I swiftly scurried over to Radio 3 to hear Petroc say gently ‘for those of you just turning over from Radio 4’. He KNEW, and it could have been risky to say it, but the delight was immense. Trelawney’s contact and understanding of his audience makes all his broadcasting a joy. He plays the hits, the big tunes, but he’ll also startle you with soundtracks, found sounds, connections and digressions (will never forget hearing Nico’s ‘These Days’ on his show) because he TRUSTS you and you TRUST him to go with him. That trust can’t be arrived at via focus-group. It can only come from a presenter who cares, a presenter who without trying too hard, engenders that kind of fierce affection because he’s being himself, not what the normal ‘breakfast’ schematics of broadcasting demand. Starts your day off right (and so do Elizabeth Alker and Sarah Walker at the weekend) and then at nine my daily commute is accompanied by ‘Essential Classics’ with Georgia Mann . Mann is probably my fave R3 jock cos she’s just funny as fuck, proper ROFL- moments, but also allows herself to be moved, transported by the astonishing breadth of music she plays, and the music suggested by the audience on the fab ‘This Morning’s Playlister’ section. This morning she said, after a Chopin nocturne that seemed to stop time, ‘I almost don’t want to spoil the poignancy with my words’. You don’t get that kind of smartness and understanding and openness on any other network, least of all the Daily-Mail-esque cheese-factory of Classic FM. At midday there’s a show that’s been on air since 1943 but that remains - because of the brilliance of its format, research and presentation - utterly compelling. Composer Of The Week, originally titled This Week's Composer, was first broadcast on 2 August 1943 on the BBC Home Service, running from 7.30am to 7.55am, Monday to Saturday. In terms of longevity, it is only surpassed by Desert Island Discs. In December 1964 it was transferred to the BBC Third Programme, and in 1995 Composer of the Week was moved from its long-standing 9am slot to 12 noon, making way for the new morning schedule at Radio 3. Since 99 it’s been written and presented by Donald Macleod and he’s astonishing, insightful, observant, incisive - offering biographical context but also clear critical analysis of composers both familiar and obscure, whether in the studio or visiting composers at their home (I’ll never forget his interviews with Harrison Birtwhistle in the slot 3 years ago). Since May this year, with Macleod understandably fancying some time off, some weeks have been presented by the brilliant Kate Molleson (her first week was about György Ligeti) and Molleson is another gem on the R3 roster. Her book ‘Sound Within Sound: A History of Radical Twentieth Century Composers’ is a mind-riot, get it. And it’s so good to hear voices on the network that utterly deflate the cut-glass-RP prejudices of R3’s detractors. Macleod and Molleson have the kind of voices you can curl up in but that will speak without condescension or neediness to anyone from 1 to 101. The show manages that (really quite easy but frustratingly rare) trick that for me is emblematic of all that’s best about R3 - it never talks to the listener like they’re an idiot. It’s smart radio for everyone and anyone. It’s always, even if you know the composer, an illuminating revelation. The research and scripting - the way contemporary reviews, correspondence etc are weaved into the narrative is always enthralling - crucially it’s a show that never feels the need to be tediously linear or chronological in its treatment of what could be the usual ‘great lives’ narrative. It feels intellectually confident and free enough to establish themes and pursue ideas without wittering or conjecture or wasting time, all communicated without hype and with clarity, concision and intelligence throughout. What I pay my license fee for.
A word about ‘diversity’. I’ve noticed huge changes in the music R3 plays in recent years, a wonderful foregrounding of African-American composers (Florence Price and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor have become mainstays) in particular, but this is a diversity you feel hasn’t come from above, but has emerged precisely from the presenters’ own growing consciousness of a world of classical music traditionally marginalised, and you join them on that journey of discovery rather than feeling hectored into it or forced. The increased presence of female DJs and presenters has been intensely gratyifying to hear for a kid raised on Annie Nightingale (Hannah French and Sara Mohr-Pietsch are ace), and I cannot stress enough how many times during the day Radio 3 bring something into my life, ancient, modern, Northern or Southern hemisphere, that just blows my mind (last time it was Molleson covering for Trelawney and playing the remarkable Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou as I was getting lunchboxes ready). And even though the afternoon repeats of live performances from across the UK and Europe (there’s often a fab Brexit-refusing connection forged between Radio 3 and the European Broadcasting Union) could have been an excuse to slip into comfort, into a ‘greatest hits’ style set of the predictable what you get is a big symphonic moment at 3 which delivers the tuneage but that’s surrounded by all kinds of oddities and wonderful derailments, chamber concerts and recitals in castles, in churches, in halls no other network would dangle a mic in (Ian Skelly is an amazing presenter too, his cut-glass accent could've been on the air at any point since radio's birth, but his voice also has a disinterest in being 'engaging' that makes it entirely engaging). The evening concerts do this too - and the Proms coverage is exemplary - but that element of startling surprise really hits its stride at the weekend.
Three shows I HAVE to mention in this love-letter for that is what this is. Perhaps more than any other show on the Network, ‘Radio 3 Record Review’ on a Saturday morning is an essential hinge of my week, a thing I HAVE to listen to because in these years of loss and stasis it offers such constant wonder and comfort. Cup of tea in hand, perhaps a fag in the other, R3RR on and I’m . . . . as close to pure happiness as I can be. Andrew McGregor is sharp as fuck, only picks the best new releases and talks about them with a true critic’s subjectivity, but it’s the contributions from critics to the ‘Building A Library’ sections that really enrapture me. As a pop critic stranded in a pop critical era terrified of trying to describe sound (swift, short, cliched, well-worn adjectives) when longwinded regurgitative ‘contextualisation’ is preferred I genuinely do think pop-crits could learn from the classical crits on R3Record Review. Anna Picard’s always amazing (her characterisations of a Smetana recording having a ‘schlerotic heaviness’ and of a Beethoven Trio recording being ‘arthritic, stolid’ still haven’t left me) as are the hilarious Mahan Esfahani and Marina Frolova-Walker - always funny and natively pungent about Russian music. I can’t think of any other music show in which I’ve heard critics say (of a Chopin Sherzos recording) that you ‘just want to slap him’, or that a piece is ‘ecstatically incandescent and this piece should always burst into flames’. As someone still daftly attempting to wrap sound in words the phraseology you sometimes encounter on R3RR sticks with you like the music writing of your tutelage. Three other weekend shows really stick out for me - Music Planet is a weekly mindbomb of sounds you’ve never heard the like of from across the globe, Lucy Speaking’s ‘Early Music Show’ is like time-travel that pipes the medieval into your home and heart, and ‘Words & Music’ is an amazing way to see the weekend out on thematically led poetry and sound that emanates and immerses you entirely. And the next day it’s Monday. And Petroc will console and comfort you. I don’t love Radio 3 because I love classical music. I love Radio 3 because I love music.
In my old home, in those tough first few months as a widower, I felt watched. My hallway is a gallery of family, and every time I walked past it I felt slightly judged, slightly guilty about those no longer here and how I was still here. I moved house last year and put the photos back up and noticed - it doesn’t feel like that anymore, it’s starting to feel less like a panoply of grief and more like an array of those who loved me and who I loved. In those tough times, and now, Radio 3, without intending to, helped in nurturing me back to a kind of acceptance simply by giving me something no-one else did - a resonance that came from openness, generosity and a refusal to engage in the usual superciliousness or supplicant-shame that characterises so much music broadcasting at the moment. In an era in which the enemies of the BBC are many, and those who would attempt to render the complex ‘palatable’ are legion in all senses - culturally and politically - the range and calm reach of Radio 3 should be seen as a genuine national treasure to be protected at all costs. In an era in which our ‘choice’ is infinite, they provide a daily reminder that sometimes, that music you didn’t ‘ask’ for, that music that can’t be predicted by demographic constraints, is often precisely the music you need to hear, the music that most often blows your mind wide open. To whit, seriously, go listen to THIS.
Long may they astound us.