Radio Times wonders: Why’s there no classical music on BBC TV?

Radio Times wonders: Why’s there no classical music on BBC TV?


norman lebrecht

March 04, 2020

A letter published in this week’s issue of the listings magazine:

Classical Absence
What has happened to classical music on British TV, apart from the token Christmas opera or ballet? BBC4 used to have a regular classical music spot on Fridays, before the five or six hours of vintage pop, but even this has disappeared.
I remember seeing, as a teenager, orchestral and chamber concerts, masterclasses and documentaries about composers and performers. Andre Previn’s Music Night and Barenboim on Beethoven inspired me to become a professional musician.
Showing some of the “less” taxing concerts at the Proms is no substitute for regular coverage. Through the licence fee (long may it continue), the BBC funds a number of symphony orchestras and choral groups. Can we please see more of them?
David Cathcart
London SW15



  • Simon Gregory says:

    Seconded! And think of all of the archive material they have, Music in Camera, Previn et al.
    Or are they saving it all for their new on-demand service (who’s programmes we’ve already paid for but will be asked to pay again to watch).

  • Rob says:

    The BBC has the wrong people making the big decisions.
    They would never have a dedicated classical music channel. The Promenade concert programming has gone right down’ pan.

  • Bostin'Symph says:

    Radio 3 celebrated 25 years of the New Generation Artists scheme a few weeks back, and quite right too. But it would be nice if the BBC thought about encouraging a New Generation Audience! Purging classical music from mainstream television in the UK doesn’t dispel the myth that it’s an elitist pursuit.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    Totally agree. And whilst we are about it the same can be said for Channel 4 which in the days of Jeremy Isaacs regularly scheduled opera on Sunday afternoons.

    Both the BBC and Channel 4 have a public service remit but it seems the ‘public’ they choose to serve is one which on the whole is the least interested in engaging with them.

    Now much too late to think that anything will change other than the broadcast media will dumb down even further, if such a thing were possible.

  • Derek says:

    The BBC Proms still has much excellent content.

    However, the TV programming choices and the BBC’s general TV coverage is poor, tries and fails to appeal to all, and has definitely lost the plot!

  • Joe says:

    Agreed, especially when there are indeed so many great documentaries and concerts in the archive. It’s frustrating enough that BBC Four is only on for a few hours.

    I’ve also noticed that most of the ballets and operas shown on BBC Four tend to be lifted from previous cinema broadcasts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but given that there are so many screened, can’t they get the rights to show more? In particular, with ballet programmes often being double or triple bills, they’d surely be able to squeeze a shorter one-act ballet taken from an evening’s programme into an odd slot at least.

  • Una says:

    Too minority, probably!

    • Cynical Bystander says:

      Not ‘minority’ enough maybe in today’s chase for an illusory Diverse and Inclusive audience fixated on their phones and media that will not overtax their attention span?

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Would it be prohibitively expensive re-showing the ‘Andre Previn Music Night’ progs from the 1970/1980s ?
    They were wonderful

  • Jeff Burgess says:

    I’m not sure that seeing an orchestral concert on the screen adds much to simply listening on the radio. However, TV should certainly show programmes about classical music as in the past.

    • DavidX says:

      My wife has Alzheimers; seeing as well as hearing a concert makes a huge difference to her. Think how a regular music programme would brighten her life!

      • Michael Turner says:

        On Slipped Disc (and other forums), I am often extolling the benefits of music (and the arts in all their forms) as part of a “care-package” for so many people who have a challenging interaction with life as a result of Alzheimer’s, Asperger’s, depression, anxiety, loneliness and much more. Obviously, music can’t in itself cure cancer, mend a broken leg or help people avoid a stroke. However, principally through my conducting, I see how music can really change lives (I know that it’s a bit of a sound-bite, but it’s true). Its restorative properties can work wonders with those needing care, while being part of an ensemble (rock band, flute choir, ukulele group, symphony orchestra or drama group, book club etc), is every bit as beneficial to many youngsters as being in a sports team, a scout/guide etc.

        The BBC, Channel 4, DCMS, NHS and local govt should all be working together to harness music and the wider arts for their social and medical benefits, not just seeing them as a form of entertainment. So-called classical music needs to be a central part of that strategy.

  • Hugh Molloy says:

    Good question: especially as the BBC employs so many musicians in Orchestras, BBC Singers etc., one would have thought it would be relatively ‘inexpensive’ TV to broadcast performances by the BBC’s ‘in house’ ensembles? I think the BBC is frightened to put out anything which might be regarded as ‘elitist’… Sadly, we are in an era of dumbing-down: How wonderful were the days when the BBC were proud to present the Tortelier Masterclasses, David Munrow’s Early Music programmes, exciting Prom performances, Young Musician of the Year – all at PRIME time, (as opposed to being stuck in the back-end of schedules…). Come on BBC – show some backbone!

    • Rob Keeley says:

      I vividly remember watching Paul Tortelier’s Masterclasses (with Martin Isepp?) with my grandmother ca 1971/2. On the Beethoven Sonatas I think.

      And Barrie Gavin’s marvellous programmes on Boulez and the 2nd Viennese school. Now it’s endless Top of the Pops on BBC4. a huge loss.

  • John Harmar-Smith says:

    In 1988, I worked as Weekend Producer for the Arts output of BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) – from 2-11pm on Saturdays and Sundays, we broadcast back to back concerts, documentaries and operas… unsustainable as it was, it felt a real contribution. Memorably, the Berlin Wall fell the following year and we did a complete weekend of German arts programmes to celebrate.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    I don’t know what’s happening to TV in the U.K., but in the U.S. people are quickly cutting the cable, remove antennas and have taken to streaming with various devices. The BBC should start a Roku channel for classical broadcasts. Charge a fee; I’d bet there are plenty of people both in the UK and elsewhere who would love to subscribe. Run the Proms LIVE!

  • Bruce says:

    Same in the US. “Live From Lincoln Center” or “Great Performances” (basically the same thing) once or twice a year, and occasionally something during pledge drives so they can say they play classical music. That’s it. Oh — a Met Opera telecast approx. once a year; that’s mainly a movie-theater thing now.

    I must be very very old if I remember “Evening at Symphony” (Boston Symphony/ Seiji Ozawa in a turtleneck with love beads), “Evening at Pops” (featuring the reanimated corpse of Arthur Fiedler, and later John Williams and even Keith Lockhart for awhile — like Dr. Who, they kept getting younger), “Previn and the Pittsburgh,” and even occasional shows by non-big-5 orchestras.

  • Ellingtonia says:

    This is the kind of programme that BBC4 used to put out “from the archives”. Possibly the finest interview / conversation between two consummate musicians who have total respect for each other. Surely the BBC have more stuff in the vaults that is worth reshowing.

  • Symphony musician says:

    Much as I love the BBC, and would fight hard to save it from the cultural barbarians in the UK government:
    the loss of serious music of all kinds from BBC TV has been a massive disappointment for the last 25 years, and their dismal failure to reflect music-making in the UK in all its diversity and magnificence has passively undermined the success of much of that music-making. The organisation would benefit from a programme of cultural awareness and education within its own management and executive ranks.
    BBC2 used to be the beacon of cultural excellence in broadcasting, but even BBC1 used to show far more music than BBC4 (supposedly the home of culture on BBC TV) does now.
    Putting more music back on BBC TV now would probably do even more to transform musical participation and listening in this country than a radical boost to music in the education system. Come on BBC, sort it out!

  • Michael Turner says:

    Like so many international record companies, I wonder if the BBC and Channel 4 know what is in their archives. We know that there are some absolute gems that deserve an airing.

    That said, I do recognise that, just because a broadcast is old, doesn’t mean that there won’t/might still be legitimate contractual matters to sort out and potential royalties to pay for repeats.

    People have spoken about viewing things on-line and similar. In terms of the BBC, on I-Player, there have been a relatively small number of concerts available for years. However, these haven’t been added to except during the Proms, for the expected limited period.

    So, I’ve watched the early Proms performance of Britten’s War Requiem, Boulez’s 80th Birthday concert, Glass with Marin Alsop, Cage with Lawrence Foster, Vaughan Williams with Richard Hickox and a handful of other “hand-picked for us” by Clemency Burton-Hill. Then there are the excellent documentaries on Previn at the BBC, or Julian Bream, along with introductions to great violinists and pianists etc.

    However, where are the concerts from the studio conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and others? While the performance of the Enigma Variations was controversial, what about Bernstein’s televised concert with the BBCSO, as opposed to the rather awkward rehearsal sequences? Abbado’s concert with the LSO for the opening of the Barbican?

    I could go on…

  • John Wills says:

    I ask the same question of Australia’s ABC.

  • BillOxford says:

    I agree entirely that the BBC should be broadcasting a more diverse music offering, not just (occasional) current and (more regular) archive popular music on BBC4. I’m not sure, though, that a large archive of classical programmes does indeed exist – the BBC were notorious for re-using video tape in the late 1960s and during the 1970s. Even if such recordings could be found, the picture quality of many archive classical TV recordings might be unacceptable in today’s HD world.

  • Garry Humphreys says:

    … and don’t forget the ‘Much-Loved Moosic Show’ with Owain Arwel Hughes in the 1980s. Here’s one from Scotland, lurking on YouTube at
    Definitely not to be sneezed at.

  • John Rook says:

    Absolutely. I started piano lessons after seeing John Lill on the BBC playing Beethoven. Music has been my career for the last thirty-odd years. Still, maybe I’d have become a chef if I’d seen a cookery programme or an estate agent after watching property porn, who knows…?

  • Alan says:

    I seem to remember concerts from the Edinburgh International Festival being televised as well.
    Sadly I listen less and less to R3 and R4 preferring to cherry pick later because of the bias shown on R 4 and the childishness of R3 ( there are exceptions of course).

  • Rob Keeley says:

    Two words: Barrie Gavin!

    One has to assume that the BBC has simply lost or wiped this marvellous man’s programmes in one of their many acts of cultural vandalism.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    ==Abbado’s concert with the LSO for the opening of the Barbican?

    Oh yes, back in March 1982. Ashkenazy doing Beethoven IV, Yo Yo Ma doing Elgar Concerto and the Queen and Prince Philip both looking a bit bored !

  • Brendan Carroll says:

    Never mind BBC TV. I would like to hear more classical music on Radio 3. I am fed up of having to turn it off at various times throughout the day to avoid American show tunes, Rock & Roll, Jazz, Country & Western, Irish jigs, Pop – the list is endless. It’s becoming the musical dumping ground of broadcasting. At some point in the late 90s, the BBC management clearly decided that Radio 3 should embrace all music genres, in an attempt to be “inclusive” and “yoof oriented”. IN TUNE is a particular offender in this regard. The Sunday R3 version of Desert island Discs called Private Passions is another. I am sure those invited to share their ‘passions’ are told to include a Pop choice to prove they are not “elitist”.