Music Richard Osborne
BORIS’S DESERT ISLAND DISCS
The most striking feature of the 24-hour news cycle is how little news it contains. Take the morning after the recent General Election, when the entrail-gazers turned their collective attention to the future of the BBC. Given that the present licence-fee settlement extends to 2027, it seemed an odd subject to be entertaining.
Still, something must be afoot, which
leads me to wonder whether there is anyone in government who realises the degree to which Britain’s musical life is bound to feature in any future debate about the BBC.
I say this because there’s no comparable country in which high-end music-making is so intimately related to the well-being of the national broadcaster. Blame it on Lord Reith, if you will. For it was the BBC that he set in train that, between the late 1920s and the early 1960s, transformed British musical life from the status of a slightly embarrassing European sideshow to an international hub whose interrelated trades and competencies were the envy of the world.
As the post-election entrail-gazers gathered, I decided to dial up Boris Johnson’s 2005 ‘appearance’ on Desert Island Discs. We know that the fellow is a dab hand where the cultures of the ancient world are concerned, but what of the culture of modern Britain, and of its musical life in particular?
At one level, the programme was reassuring. Here was Boris revising for Mods at Oxford to the soothing strains of a Bach chorale; Boris roaring down a German autobahn to the sound of the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; Boris recovering from a serious childhood illness with Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn playing in the background. (For years he thought the variations were by Elgar, after his father, whose idea of musical Lucozade this was, put the LP in the wrong sleeve.)
Boris being Boris, there were some hairraising embellishments – E M Forster did not liken Beethoven’s Fifth to ‘elephants
walking over the roof of the world’ – but at least he’d heard the music and been affected by it, which is more than can be said of many latter-day party leaders.
Aside from its role as the nation’s most powerful musical educator, the BBC continues to be the country’s largest employer of musicians. Which is why it came as something of a shock when, in 1980, it announced that it was about to abolish five of its in-house orchestras. The result was a ten-week musicians’ strike which brought chaos at home and threats of retaliation from musicians and broadcasting organisations abroad. For the first time in their history, the Proms lost half their season.
Something musicians discovered while standing on the picket line outside Broadcasting House was just how little the general public knew about musicians’ lives. ‘So, what’s your proper job?’ was the most frequently asked question.
One reason is that rank-and-file players rarely speak out, which is why it’s a pleasure to welcome Ledger Lines, a vividly-written, no-frills memoir which former LSO horn-player and fabled raconteur Terry Johns has self-published through Amazon (£6.60 in paperback).
British orchestral players are known the world over for their industry and adaptability. As an apprentice hornplayer, Johns would be playing in Oliver! one night and deputising in a Klemperer concert the next. Recording the music for Star Wars with the LSO, it turned out, was not much different from playing Wagner under Leopold Stokowski, except that composer-conductor John Williams was less prone to memory lapses.
A miner’s son from Aberdare who arrived in London in the early 1960s, Johns hung out with all manner of folk in the French House in Soho and the now vanished Rising Sun in Marylebone, whose patrons included Mandy RiceDavies, Jeremy Thorpe and Johns’s own great mentor and friend Anna Instone, the famously formidable head of the BBC Gramophone Department. (Not formidable enough, alas, to deter Bill Cotton from hiring Jimmy Savile to host the BBC’S new 1964 show Top of the Pops. ‘He’s a terrible man,’ Instone remonstrated. ‘Absolutely terrible.’)
Orchestral musicians work like navvies, yet the Upstairs, Downstairs world in which they operate has its rewards. I love Johns’s story of composer Henry Mancini telling Lew Grade to sling his hook when, during the million-dollar launch of The Return of the Pink Panther at the Gstaad Palace Hotel (the town was painted pink), Grade tried to billet the musicians in some downtown hostel.
Like the players in Hamlet, these people are more than a little special.
Johns himself is nothing if not political. ‘Nurture and support of the arts mean much more to society and humanity than soulless party politics and the results of feasibility studies,’ he warns near the start of his memoir. Prime Minister, you have been warned.