Lord Widmerpool rising at the BBC

Lord Widmerpool rising at the BBC


norman lebrecht

September 28, 2014

Of all the wretched executive appointments we have seen at the BBC – up to and including the shortlived last director general – the installation of Alan Davey as controller of Radio 3 goes down as the greatest betrayal of BBC values and aspirations.

Mr Davey, whose press lackeys have been mobilised to extol his love of classical music, is a faceless bureaucrat, without one independent act in his public career to show for his inflated salary.

Let’s consider first his predecessors in the role.

John Drummond was an impresario, an ideas man who led the Edinburgh Festival to its final summits and provoked lively discussion wherever he went.

Nick Kenyon was a journalist who had manned the barricades of the early music movement, served time at the New Yorker and written a couple of good books.

Roger Wright had directed the crucible of contemporary British music, served as artistic administrator to the Cleveland Orchestra, headed the Deutsche Grammphon label and saved the BBC orchestras from self-destruction.

All three were men of achievement before they accepted the Radio 3 chalice.

And Davey?



Nothing. Nul points. Zip. Zilch. Ohne Eigenschaften.

No international experience. No independent decision making. No engagement with the commercial sector. No broadcasting track record. No capacity for public presentation. No discernible personality.

Nothing but a desk and a pen to push on it.

In the novels of Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, the one certainty in each successive tale of the cycle is that Kenneth Widmerpool will crop up at some point in an ever higher social or state position. Widmerp0ol is the acme of the ordinary.

So it is with Alan Davey. He is a man without qualities, a colourless functionary who rises through a mindless system like plastic bags on a polluted sea*.

Lord Hall, the BBC’s director general, has sold out to its bureaucracy. Alan Davey will do no noticeable harm at the BBC. But he is the last person to pull Radio 3 out of its summer of slumbers since Wright’s departure, the last to revivify one of the crown jewels of British culture.

This is a miserable moment for music in Britain, a shameful one for Tony Hall.


* Alan Davey’s c.v.:

Starting as an Administration Trainee in the DHSS 1985, he was Private Secretary to the Minister of State for Health, 1988–90. He went to the Department of National Heritage in 1992 to head the National Lottery Bill Team. He was Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for National Heritage, 1993–94, then Head of European Business, Medicines Control Agency 1995–97, then secretary of the Royal Commission on Long Term Care, 1997–99. He was awarded a Fulbright/Helen Hamlyn Scholarship in 1999. After this, at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, he was Head of Arts Division from January 2001 to April 2004, and subsequently Director of Arts and Culture from May 2004 to December 2007. Davey became chief executive of Arts Council England in 2008,




  • David Pickett says:

    The Guardian article is indeed informative. When someone’s qualifications for this job are that he has a collection of over 3,500 CDs and 750 LPs, one realises that the writer of the encomium thinks that playing a CD is in some sense as relevant and appropriate a talent as playing the violin. That Davey is a bureaucrat through and through and “knows the language” does not lift my spirits any higher.

    • Will Duffay says:

      Well it does rather help having a controller of Radio 3 who is obsessed with good music. I suspect this will turn out to be an excellent appointment. At a time when the Right definitely has the BBC in its sights – i.e. it wants to scrap it because it viscerally hates the idea of anything not in the private sector – it is probably a very good idea to have somebody in charge of a classical music station who a) seriously loves music, and b) understands how the system works and can negotiate a path through bureaucracy and administration. He might be unflashy, but I think he’ll be good.

  • Neil McGowan says:

    When I was a lad I served a term
    As office boy to an Lottery firm.
    I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
    And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
    [CHORUS OF FIENDS OF R3: He polished up the handle of the big front door!]

    I polished up that handle so carefullee
    That now I am the Controller of Radio Three!
    He polished the handle so carefullee
    That they made this man Controller of Radio Three!]

    Now listeners all, whoever you may be,
    If you’ve got all Chopin’s operas amid all your cds,
    If you think “Rosenkav” is by Johann Strauss
    Then stuff musical knowledge! Just use your nous!

    Stay close to CD-desks, and put on a cd!
    And you may soon be Controller of Radio Three!

    Our vitriol is aimed at Radio Three!
    We welcome a non-entity like Alan Dav-ee!

  • Ray Richardson says:

    Wikipedia tells us that Alan Davey (Civil Servant) was born in November 1960. Thus if he continues to push his pen as is a civil servant’s wont (especially in his declining years), we’re stuck with no inspiration at the helm of R3 for another six or so years. I never cease to be amazed that so many non-entities end up in top jobs nowadays. This continuation of a trend in particular makes yery dispiriting news indeed for the future of Radio3.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Norman, whatever happened to the good old British principle of fair play and giving somebody a chance to prove themselves? Admittedly, some people who are put in high places with little or nothing in the way of suitable qualifications can still end up making a complete hash of things – the ludicrously out-of-her-depth ex-NHS administrator Catherine (oh dear, I forgot the “Lady”) Ashton, who is thankfully nearing the end of her inglorous reign as the EU’s “Foreign Secretary”, springs to mind. But why attack somebody in this way who might just surprise us all? If Davey does indeed sell the arts and classical music down the river, then I will be up there calling for his head on a spike, but in the meantime why not give him an opportunity to show what he can do? After all, you can’t impress an appointments panel on nothing but hot air and glib promises.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      He’s had nearly 20 years to do something at the DCMS and Arts Council

    • Neil McGowan says:

      The same argument could be made for selecting a random job-seeker from a dole office, and giving them the job – on the offchance they might turn out not to be a disaster?

      Do you think it’s fair or reasonable to the highly professional musicians of the BBC’s orchestras to place their management and livelihood in the hands of a know-nothing duffer – whose closest contact with an orchestra previously has been Row 7 at the ROH?

      Or perhaps you believe that Europe’s largest-scale music festival – the Proms – is in safe hands with a man who’s never even a booked a DJ for his children’s school disco?

      But no, I’m being churlish. You’re right! Let him wreck it and leave everyone jobless and R3 in ruins. Then we can find someone to fix it, eh? How tewibbly Bwitish.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        It’s also all “tewibbly Bwitish” to build people up in the arts as the greatest thing since sliced bread – instrumentalists, conductors galore – and then to knock them off the podium with one barbed, sour-mouthed review after another. Remember what the London critics did to Sinopoli? I can’t say I find that approach has very much to commend it either.

        • Neil McGowan says:

          So you don’t see any problem in putting someone with 0 experience in orchestral management in charge of several major orchestras at once?

          • Alexander Hall says:

            I really don’t understand this outpouring of moral outrage and self-righteousness. There are dozens of CEOs of major hospitals in the UK without an iota of medical experience. Their competence to manage is hardly ever questioned. Nobody is suggesting that Davey should be able to perform on the piccolo and the double-bass, surely? Grow up, please.

          • Neil McGowan says:

            Nobody is suggesting that Davey should be able to perform on the piccolo and the double-bass, surely?

            And nor have I. You’re the one who needs to grow up.

            But I see you’ve outed yourself as a BBC shill.

          • Alexander Hall says:

            People who have nothing substantive to say always resort to innuendo and personal abuse. And just for your benefit, I am nobody’s stooge.

  • Nick says:

    I wonder where Tony Hall was hiding out when this appointment was being considered.

  • Mikealdren says:

    “There are dozens of CEOs of major hospitals in the UK without an iota of medical experience. Their competence to manage is hardly ever questioned.”

    What an extraordinarily ill-informed comment, their competence is constantly questioned by medical staff and by the courts and the press for their frequent failings.