30 June 2022

From this week’s Private Eye


Axing TV arts is a disgrace


RADIO TIMES, 2-8 JULY 2022, p. 7

Viewpoint: Waldemar Januszczak

BACK IN THE 1990s, I used to be head of arts at Channel 4. I put Glastonbury on television. I put the Turner Prize on television. We did Glyndebourne. We did the Edinburgh Festival. Dennis Potter talked to us in a famous interview that lasted 104 minutes. We showed the whole thing uncut.

My boss Michael Grade [chief executive of Channel 4 1988-97] believed in the arts. On top of all the specials and live broadcasts, he gave me 30 primetime slots a year: 9pm on Tuesdays, one hour long. J’accuse – Citizen Kane won a Bafta. We won Emmys. The music department did The Three Tenors. It was a heyday.

And not just at Channel 4. Omnibus on BBC1 was producing excellent arts coverage. BBC2 was largely and brilliantly an arts channel and Arena was scooping award after award for its supremely creative approach. Even ITV was showing The South Bank Show at regular and viewable times. British television, you felt, was doing right by the arts.

Compare that with now. The announcement that BBC4 is to be scrapped as a terrestrial channel, while the ‘yoof’ channel, BBC3, is restored, means that the only channel dedicated to the arts left on British television is the heroic Sky Arts. It’s a national disgrace. When people talk to me about diversity and choice on British TV, I laugh in their faces.

Channel 4 began backing out of its ambitious arts coverage pretty much as soon as Michael Grade left. These things are always down to who arrives next. Set up with public money, charged with a public-service remit, Channel 4 should not have been allowed to run down its arts coverage and replace it with freak shows, creepy voyeurism, extreme this and that. It’s why I have no sympathy whatsoever with the current fight to ‘save’ Channel 4 from privatisation. In television, as elsewhere, ou reap what you sow.

A worse crime, though, is what has happened to the arts on the BBC. BBC4 was set up specifically to cater for an arts-loving audience. But for years, the BBC has been starving it of resources in order to make even more expensive dramas.

BBC2, meanwhile, gave up pretending it was interested in the arts decades ago. It’s self-evidently a lifestyle channel, as pointless and disposable as a Sunday newspaper pull-out. I’ve met all the recent controllers of BBC2 and not one of them has shown a tangible interest in the arts. What they were all tangibly interested in was cooking, property, driving, travel, more cooking, ballroom dancing and quizzes.


NONE OF THESE lunkheads appears to have realised that the best way to prove you’re fulfilling a public-service remit on the BBC is to put public-service programmes on the BBC – catering for those who aren’t otherwise being catered for.

Everyone knows the ‘yoof’ audience doesn’t need BBC3. It doesn’t watch terrestrial TV, it watches stuff on its phone in the bedroom. By chasing after them like an old grandpa who’s bought himself purple flares because purple flares are ‘dope’, the BBC is embarrassing itself. Worse still, it’s chasing after the same demographic as everyone else, and that isn’t the public-service broadcasting we’re paying for.

Meanwhile, there’s another audience out there that really does need more arts on television. Perhaps some of them are so old that they don’t know how to watch stuff on their phone. But so what? When did growing old become a crime?

Bravo then to Sky Arts for continuing to supply public-service television even though they’re not legally obliged to do so.

26 June 2022

Music: Into the Light by Paul Carr (Bury St Edmunds)


Garry Humphreys was at Bury St Edmunds for a special concert

BURY ST EDMUNDS in Suffolk is currently celebrating — two years late, owing to Covid — the 1000th anniversary of the founding by King Canute of the Abbey of St Edmund, whose ruins stand next to the present cathedral. From April until October, there is a programme of events ranging from anniversary tours, sculpture, and art exhibitions, displays of manuscripts from the Abbey’s scriptorium, lectures, and pilgrimages, as well as concerts, one of which featured the first performance of Into the Light, commissioned for this anniversary from the composer Paul Carr.

This was heard on 28 May at a concert given by the English Arts Chorale, the Eye Bach Choir, and the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leslie Olive. It began with superlative playing in Benjamin Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury, written in 1959 for the Pageant of Magna Carta and scored for three trumpets, placed, as the composer wished, “as far apart as possible”. Next came Parry’s “I was glad” and Vaughan Williams’s Folk Song Suite, then Carr’s new piece, and ending with Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations.

Into the Light is a large-scale work, lasting about 25 minutes, scored for tenor soloist (the excellent James Gilchrist), four-part mixed chorus and orchestra, including harp, organ, and an extensive percussion section, but without timpani. The Abbey of St Edmund was a Benedictine foundation and Carr’s text incorporates quotes from The Rule of St Benedict, woven through verses from three psalms (84, 129, followed by an extract from Anima Christi, and 61).

Musically, the opening movement is inspired by Handel’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713) — a recent discovery of the composer’s, which he heard for the first time the night before receiving this commission. Although a secular cantata, it seems, in Paul Carr’s view, “to embrace, and even enhance the splendour of devout belief”. On lower strings, ppp, the music begins, and grows, the chorus joining with the words “Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God”, a phrase repeated several times with growing intensity and a climax on the word “God”, and repeated at the close of the whole work. The “dramatic core” (composer’s description) of the piece is the second movement, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord”, with movements of praise to the glory of God on either side.

Paul Carr’s music is evolutionary rather than revolutionary — there are no surprises, or anything likely to frighten the horses — and yet the result is music of great beauty and originality, with a structure rooted in melody and (in particular) harmony, which Carr believes can furnish the soul with an “emotional embrace”. He wants everyone to feel love, and, while the music grows like life, it ends positively.

This is achieved not only through his setting of the words (which, incidentally, the choir really seemed to enjoy singing, and sang well), but through his handling of this large-scale score: there is an elegiac quality to the woodwind writing — oboes, cor anglais and clarinets in particular — and (again) trumpet, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the second movement of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony.

The words from the Rule of St Benedict were sung with characteristic fervour and intensity by the tenor James Gilchrist, though not always audibly or clearly over the orchestra in the cathedral acoustic.

When it came to the “Enigma” Variations, in addition to instruments previously mentioned, there were fine viola and cello solos in variations VI and XII. I felt the opening too slow and the finale rather laboured, but, otherwise, this was a hugely enjoyable performance by a first-class orchestra. The near-capacity audience was long and loud in its grateful applause for all the pieces.

13 June 2022

Signs of the times at Jubilee thanksgiving


Letters to the Editor

From Mr Garry Humphreys

Sir, — How revealing – and telling – was the television coverage of the Jubilee service at St Paul’s: in the many shots of the congregation, the great and the good were clearly ill at ease. Unfamiliarity with the hymns and signs of incomprehension – perhaps even boredom – were apparent, with conversation during the anthems, as if it were background music.

There were exceptions, of course; but the general impression was that the traditions with which those of us of a certain age were brought up, and which are deeply rooted in our psyche, are now alien to a significant segment of our society.