PASSING BY… The arts of Auntie
Antony Thorncroft recalls the publicly funded organisation that gave him some of his most memorable cultural experiences
It could be argued – so I will – that the BBC is more important to the cultural life of the nation than the Arts Council. If the Arts Council disappeared its big four clients, (RHO, ENO. RSC and NT) who consume and inordinate amount four clients (RHO, ENO, RSC, and NT) who consume an inordinate share of its cash, would continue and by being forced to embrace both popularism and innovation might well thrive. The Council’s other clients would discover how much they were cherished by local and national audiences.
But the BBC, through TV and radio, delivers the arts into every home in the country on a daily basis. It is perhaps biased towards classical music but delivers enough news, features, competitions and performances to serve every taste. Its most obvious contribution is the Proms, which, adopting Lampedusa’s truism that “for things to stay as they are, things will have to change”, has in recent years introduced late night Proms, lunch time Proms, children’s Proms, comedy Proms, grime and Asian Proms, Proms in the park and more.
This year it has given us a Prom from Hull neatly manifesting a growing BBC involvement in the arts – sponsoring events. Hull’s surprise selection as the UK’s cultural city of the year now seems quite obvious given the BBC’s promotion of its activities.
The same cross fertilisation can be seen in the BBC’s commitment to the Cardiff Singer of the Year competition. There is a growing tendency to inject some X Factor crassness into the broadcasts, with too much back-story and judges that overindulge the competitors, but this has become an important and watchable musical occasion.
And then there is the BBC’s embrace of Glastonbury. Again the presenters give the impression that they have died and gone to heaven, but now that Glastonbury is as much a part of The Season as Wimbledon or Ascot it is admirable that the television audience can enjoy in comfort what looks like a very stressful experience, even if this year, apart from Ed Sheeran, the line up hardly justifies the hoopla.
Which brings me on to my digression. I went to the first Glastonbury, no I went to proto Glastonbury. In 1970 I think an event was held on a hill at Pilton near Glastonbury. The headliners, The Kinks and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders failed to appear but Tyrannosaurus Rex turned up, putting down a marker for what Glastonbury was meant to be, a celebration of peace and love to the Hippies’ song book.
I was there as a pop critic for the FT which was one of the first national newspapers to field such a creature. It happened because Lord Drogheda, chairman of the FT, was also chairman of the Royal Opera House. He insisted on a daily arts page so that he could read Covent Garden reviews over his breakfast and indeed often gave Andrew Porter, the music critic, an early morning call of disapproval which Andrew resolutely ignored.
The arts page editor of The Financial Times was John Higgins, a friend, and in those musically fluid days classical music morphed into folk and folk into pop and I got the gig, which lasted for over 30 years. If I was surprised when record companies bombarded me with LPs and concert tickets the answer came when a PR informed me that the FT’s coverage was much prized because it was the only paper read by the company chairman and they loved to see their bands mentioned - shades of Lord Drogheda.
But I remember nothing of that proto Glastonbury event. Many critics seem to recall every performance they have attended, but not me. Of the thousands of pop concerts I reviewed, I have just a handful of memories. Pop culture was rich in every sense in the late 20th century and it is the excesses that I recall. The managers who thought that they could get wide coverage for their new band, Brinsley Schwartz, by arranging that it made its debut in New York, without taking into account travel delays. We arrived half way through the performance. The trip to Moscow to see Big Country, who could not get their Soviet royalties out of Russia so spent them on a British press freebie. Then there was Jimi Hendrix playing guitar with his teeth at the Royal Festival Hall; watching the flamboyant Led Zepplin at the Royal Albert Hall from a box reeking with the smell of pot (I let the side down by being a non-smoker); David Bowie, then still David Jones, opening for Pink Floyd at, memory suggests, the tiny Purcell Room, dancing around the stage in owing robes as an exotic dancer; being spat at by The Clash at some club in Camden Town.
Of course, there were down sides. Those interminable waits before the star bothered to take the stage, the endless drum solos during the pomp rock era, stuck in the Wembley car park for hours after a Bruce Springsteen concert. But really it was a wonderful dimension to the day job and best of all were those evenings when you went along for the UK debut of a little known American newcomer – a Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris – and discover a new all time favourite. And there was that perfect evening in Hyde Park at the rst Proms in the Park concert where the atmosphere was buzzing, the music eclectic and the audience at one in its good nature. Thank you BBC.