Why the BBC has to Fach up the Proms

Why the BBC has to Fach up the Proms


norman lebrecht

April 24, 2015

Slipped Disc editorial:



bbc proms

There was always a risk when Roger Wright stepped down on the first night of the 2014 Proms that the power vacuum would lead to a decisive weakening of the event. Nine months later, those fears have born fruit.

Edward Blakeman, the acting controller, has fulfilled his job admirably without the slightest hint from his superiors that he is the right man for the job. If they wanted to confirm him in the post, launch day was the time to do it. They refused.  He survives without a vote of confidence.

The absence of a strong controller has exposed the Proms to all the corporate forces within the BBC that Wright – and before him Nicholas Kenyon and John Drummond – fought with vigour and resolution. The forces of darkness that seek to equalise all forms of activity and creativity within the BBC. The foolish and malign executives who, on an annual basis, propose ‘sharing’ the Proms around the BBC and, ultimately with outside sponsors.

Those forces have won round one.

The imposition of club music night with DJ Pete Tong on the classically-oriented BBC Proms was, we know for a fact, never contemplated in Wright’s time. It was easy to push through a temp controller and a civil servant head of Radio 3, Alan Davey.

Aside from Pete Tong, there is BBC Asian Network Night, BBC Radio 6 Night, BBC Radio 1Xtra, Radio 2 Night and so on….

You can see what’s happening. The Proms are being parcelled out across the BBC as corporate property in which any and all of 100 BBC executives on 100k salaries can feel free to mangle for their own politcally correct purposes.

Watch out, sponsorship will be next.

The Proms are what they are because strong controllers over recent decades have preserved their musical character – their Fach, as musicians would say. The Proms are a festival of high-value classical and contemporary music. They are now at risk of being royally Fached up.

As Richard Morrison warns in today’s Times: ‘The Proms ultimately come under the “arts and music” grandees at the BBC who seem to have little passion for the classical repertoire…. It doesn’t take long to wreck an indestructible British institution.’

Cracks have begun to appear in the indomitable Proms. The glorious festival will soon fall to pieces unless someone stands up to defend the Fach.


  • Michael Endres says:

    Maybe classical music is sometimes too demanding and after all not that exciting…

  • Brian b says:

    That may be a rant, Norman, but it’s an awfully good one. Thanks.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    Norman is absolutely right: for a number of years the Proms has become an increasingly trivial, dumbed-down festival with no sense of direction and a kind of ‘let’s chuck any old thing together and hope it sticks’ attitude to both artists and repertoire selection. This year’s disaster is no exception and proves once again the BBC’s lack of understanding – or even fear – of classical music.

    Sir Malcolm Sargent, William Glock and John Drummond must be turning in their graves.

    • John says:

      I don’t completely agree with you, Robert. If you look back to the earlier history of the Proms it often had a rather ramshackle quality. As for dumbing-down, pleasing the masses with populist fare was always a prominent feature from the very earliest days of the festival.

      But I agree that this year’s offering is an absolute mess. With so many concerts, there cannot fail to be some potentially exciting highlights, but there is no overarching vision, no audacity. One cannot help wondering whether the BBC chiefs have set up the Proms to fail by exploiting the power-vacuum caused by Roger Wright’s departure.

      It seems extraordinary that, at a time when the very existence of the BBC as a public service broadcaster hangs in the balance as never before, the corporation executives should seem so keen on self-destruction as to rip out the beating heart of one of its greatest institutions, offering it up on the altar of corporate blandness and contempt for a huge audience that is clearly more intelligent and discerning than they are.

  • Martin Locher says:

    There is some really good, non-classical music with interesting lyrics, some really good electronic music which fits well in an orchestral format. I see no problem in trying a few things in late night proms. Many such projects are going on.

    Any composer willing to write a Rammstein song cycle for Stuart Skelton (or anyone else who might be intersted) and orchestra, arrange one or a few of the 15 or so minute Moonsorrow songs or a Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike set for orchestra?

  • Michael Kenward says:

    The Proms have been a cue to turn off Radio 3 for years. No drama slot, no opera slot.

    For insights into how the BBC now works, watch the TV series W1A. The programme, which has just started a second series, is a comedy about the BBC. It portrays an organisation that is incompetent and incapable, with muppets pulling strings along the lines that Lebrecht suggests.

    For a sign of how useless the Proms mob is, check the website for music by particular composers.

    The official Prom site has a listing by composers.

    BBC – Proms 2015 – Composers

    The Handel page

    BBC – Proms – George Frideric Handel

    has a couple of events for kids.

    It does not, though, include the concert with the name Handel in the title:

    BBC – Proms 2015 Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

    Oh dear.

    Fortunately, in these days of Internet radio, I can tune into music from around the world.

    • Martin Locher says:

      You seem händel a very distinct problem.

      As you miss your baroque, I list the stuff I would be eager to hear:
      Albert Dietrich’s D minor Symphony, Hans Pfitzner’s Violin Concerto, Lowell Liebermann’s Piano Concertos and his Piano Quintet, Hans Gal’s Symphony No. 2, Sergei Slonimsky’s Symphony No. 32, Alexander Radulovich’s Chekhov Symphony, a new concerto for timpani, Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons arranged for Piano and Orchestra by Cherkin,…this list could get very, very long if I’d continue.

  • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

    Pack your stuff folks – the last one to leave turn off the light. Again – perfectly adheres to my conclusion that classical music is now anything but.

    The “LETS REACH NEW AUDIENCES” meme has already taken over pretty much every institution. To achieve it, requires to sugarcoat the art form until all is left is sugar: younger composers, ‘cool’ music’, physically attractive ‘stars’, outreach concerts (such as this one).

    The result will not be more people liking Mahler because they attended a Rave in Royal Albert Hall, the result will be people thinking ‘classical’ means the channel, not the music itself.

    They have succeeded.

    • Martin Locher says:

      Did you actually read the schedule before posting your rant? All or most concerts in question are late night proms targeting a different audience, are late night events and actually just a fraction of the whole 2 month program.

      As the BBC site doesn’t learn from Wheresrunnicles.com blogger Tam Pollard’s yearly complaints, one still needs to visit Bachtrack.com for a great, simple overview of the Proms: http://bachtrack.com/4001/find-events/festival=5;startrow=0

      Read it, I’m pretty sure you see that you find your fear to be footless.

  • Ray Richardson says:

    As Richard Morrison warns in today’s Times: ‘The Proms ultimately come under the “arts and music” grandees at the BBC who seem to have little passion for the classical repertoire…. It doesn’t take long to wreck an indestructible British institution.’ –

    But youve got to pay Murdoch to be able to read the article. Soon he’ll have his hands on The Proms too.

  • Dave says:

    I think NL has got it somewhere near right. The season is a mess, infected in various ways by pre-licence review panic that will ultimately benefit few – a few that will include those who want a slice of the Proms to which they have no justifiable claim.

  • Michael says:

    The BBC plans to televise 28 Proms concerts this season, starting on Friday. Leaving aside the first and last nights and 5 late night concerts (these last have to be watched on-line), not a single one will be transmitted live. Beethoven’s Choral Symphony will be packaged for a tape-delayed broadcast at 9pm on the evening of 19th July apparently as the first of a series of symphonies to be introduced by Sir Mark Elder. Leif Ove Andsnes’s concert on 24th July gets the tape-delayed packaged treatment starting at 8pm on 24th July. The other 19 recorded concerts are scattered randomly over BBC Four’s evening schedules. Given that other than first and last nights all the concerts go out on BBC Four, what on earth is stopping the BBC simply broadcasting them all live as “concerts” and not as neatly edited packages, often condescendingly omitting anything modern or too “difficult” for their TV audience?

    Each year the BBC provides resources to create this magnificent summer music festival. Those at Radio 3 clearly understand the enormous difference between listening to a live concert and hearing it later in a recording, but year after year the BBC TV “packagers” (programme planners?) show no understanding at all. When did they last record a football match for transmission with a 30-minute tape delay? When did they last record a day’s test match cricket play for broadcast the following week? Why do they even bother to broadcast the first or last nights live? When did they even try to provide some sort of explanation for their packaging policy? Is it cheaper? Are they scared their presenters cannot handle live broadcasts (Radio 3’s team copes brilliantly!)? It would be nice to be told, but I am not holding my breath!