I spent some time at the photo call for the BBC Proms 2011 yesterday, speaking to all sorts of people about the forthcoming season. It was a slightly surreal event, it has to be said. But there was an undeniable buzz despite all that.
If you’d have asked me a few weeks back – as a number of people did – whether I was looking forward to the summer I would have sighed and said ‘no’. The inevitable retort would have been ‘But what about the Proms? I thought you loved the Proms? Don’t you?’
Don’t tell Radio 3 Controller and BBC Proms Director Roger Wright but I was actually fearing it. In previous years the mere thought of the forthcoming season enlivened dark winter afternoons whilst I sat staring as the miserable A40 out of my office window. This year I noted I didn’t have that sense of abandon.
What was wrong? Had I fallen out of love with the Proms? Had I seen it for what it was? Just a series of live broadcasts over a series of consecutive nights, all broadcast from the same venue and all branded with an instantly recognisable name?
Now I look back on the first few months I can see there are two reasons for not having got wildly excited early on as I have done in previous years. The first is very simple. I haven’t made any plans to make any videos. Over the past four years the Proms hasn’t just been about music but producing material to encourage other people to embrace the season. It’s been heartfelt. Sincere. Genuine.
It’s also helped develop my rather obscure on-screen presentation skills (no surprises that the BBC Academy won’t be offering face to face training based on my particular style) and slightly anarchic approach to production. It’s also provided me with hands-on experience on how to persuade people to do things for no money, just for the sheer joy of … working with me. You see the challenge. (Such a shame I didn’t highlight all of this in one of those really important ‘meetings’ I had the other day – no matter.)
But after four years of doing those things in my free time, what’s the return? What have I gained over and above acquiring new skills? Should I have expected a return? Should it have opened doors? Is there really any point in investing further time and effort, thinking of and developing ideas if I’ve rung this particular rag dry?
I’m not complaining. I’m pointing out the thought processes since January. About the BBC Proms. And, thinking that against the backdrop of severe cuts at the BBC and most markedly online brought me to the second reason. If the outlets are being reduced – if online is no longer the experimental playpen I’d once seen it as (and persuaded a great many long in the tooth naysayers it was) did producing short online videos seem like an example of bloated production at a time when we’re meant to be cutting back?
The BBC Proms stretched out like a massive headache. A rusty bandwagon I didn’t want to get on. Maybe it was time for a break. Maybe it was to look for a job at BSkyB instead. Or ITV. Or maybe I should just abandon the BBC completely and go open a sandwich bar somewhere in South East London somewhere. I do often have these thoughts.
And yet coming out of all of that there’s a third ‘bonus’ reason not to do video. I never wanted to work in TV anyway. I always wanted to work in radio. Speech radio. I wanted to get other people to talk about the thing I love. Radio is cheap. It’s also self-sufficient in production terms. I can just get on with it.
I’ve spent two and half years working with journalists on a journalism learning website. Some of the principals have rubbed off. Not least the notion that to get on in this business you have to keep the production wheel turning. You have to constantly demonstrate passion at the BBC. “Don’t leave anything at the door,” like man said late last week before the interview actually began.
And then … less than a week ago … I caught sight of something buried on my to-do list: email Proms Director Roger Wright’s assistant.
“I figure space is at a premium this year, but is there any chance I could get an invite to the Proms launch?” Roger Wright’s assistant was – as ever – utterly adorable and pointed me in the direction of the person who had all the power (not Mr Wright, as it happens). That lady issued a warm invitation and offered up some other interview opportunities which – if I was interested – probably warranted further discussion in the Proms office with one of her communications assistants.
Which is how I ended up in the BBC Proms office a few days ago. Unexpectedly. Talking about the season. Doing the journalist thing. Planning stuff. Arranging a few interviews for a podcast. And spying a pile of brochures in a box. All fresh, crisp and clean. Untouched.
“You can have one if you promise not tell anyone what’s inside,” said the publications manager as he started showing a now familiar film about his work from a few years ago to a colleague sat beside him.
I hesitantly reached inside the box and retrieved one. Smooth under the finger tips. Dense. Brimming with words. Existing in its own cloud of inky goodness.
With the brochure under my fingertips I’m reunited with the season. I’ve reconnected with the notion. Up until a couple of days ago the BBC Proms was just an opportunity for interview material. Now it’s a season. A season full of opportunity. Now I’m excited by it. I’m looking forward to it. And that’s weird.
That’s how unexpectedly committed I am to the BBC Proms this year. A photo-call, press briefing and an official launch awaits. And I can’t wait. And all it really took was a piece of print with a gorgeous design on the front.
(The blog covering the 2011 appearance at the BBC Proms of the John Wilson Orchestra is available to read here.)
I’m still not absolutely convinced about how deep Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music actually goes. There were moments when I found myself listening to music from Flower Drum Song and thinking how I must make sure not to let the show appear on my birthday Amazon wish-list. Songs from Carousel too did leave me looking a little blankly around the near capacity Royal Albert Hall.
But that lack of enthusiasm for some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs wasn’t down to soloists Kim Criswell, Anna-Jane Casey, Sierra Boggess, Rod Gillfry or the brilliant Julian Ovendon. Nor was it down to the John Wilson and his orchestra. All were fully committed to the cause. Take a look at the first violins close to the beginning of the concert when the show is broadcast on (Saturday 28 August, 7.45pm on BBC Two).
Fundamentally, the problem is down to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s melodies, rhythms and lyrics. Yes, their work would have changed the face of musical theatre in the 1950s and 60s. But now there are moments when the seemingly two-dimensional characters end up giving the game away in the opening lines of each song. Its as though the surprise – the conclusion – is given away in the first few lines of the song. ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ is a rousing song. But once you’ve heard the opening call to arms, suddenly the rest of the song loses my attention.
Sometimes I found myself longing for complex rhythms. Maybe just a little bit more syncopation? What the performance reminded me of was the time Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music existed in. How as a kid I been exposed to the orchestral sound for the first time listening to the Sound of Music on record and how thirty years later I felt distant from some of their catalogue.
Similarly, if future audiences are left wanting musically when they hear the scores for the first time, will that mean that interest in the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein dwindles? Will the likes of the Sound of Music or Carousel or Oklahama soon become unfashionable curiosities like over-orchestrated arrangements of Bach?
The work of people like John Wilson will – undoubtedly – keep this music alive for future generations. He reconstructed orchestrations for tonight’s performance demonstrating the same love for the genre as he did for the MGM Prom last year and the Carry On medley he arranged a few years ago. And its that kind of commitment which is both indicative of and vital to the BBC Proms.
It is only by being exposed to a wide variety of music that the opportunity presents itself to think about how that music effects the individual both in the past and in the present. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s entire catalogue may not make it to my wish-list, but one might. Keep an ear out for Something Good.