Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Back when I were a wage slave in London, the only thing that made the Monday morning commute bearable was listening to a mini disc of the previous night's Malcolm Laycock show, recorded off BBC Radio 2. Despite being in my mid-20s at the time, I enjoyed both halves of the show equally - the 30 minutes of British dance bands, then the 30 minutes of big bands. Well, I say 30 minutes of each. I remember my dear, much-missed friend Tony Moss, president of the Cinema Theatre Association, muttering to me on a visit to the Regal Sloughborough or somewhere that "Malcolm's been short-changing us. The dance band section is always under the half-hour nowadays". As a fan of both genres, I didn't mind quite so much as Tony the purist, and was simply grateful that someone, somewhere was broadcasting any amount of this stuff.

I can only begin to imagine how Tony would have reacted last December when Laycock was ordered by executives to drop the dance band half of the show. I know I could have expected at the very least a long telephone call of elegant, refined profanity. Informed profanity too, as Tony spent many years in the personnel department of the BBC and remained well versed in Corporation gossip. I was pretty angry myself, but knew that Laycock wasn't to blame. I've only met him once, in the bar at a Ted Heath band concert in Westcliff-on-Sea, but our brief conversation confirmed how much he cared (and cares) about the all aspects of the music in his show. In particular, his willingness to request obscure 78s from the BBC Gramophone Library, using the programme budget wisely to get them transferred, restored and shared with a devoted listenership, did him and producer Roy Oakeshott great credit. This was real public service broadcasting in action.

The alarm bells began ringing when Oakeshott left the show and was replaced by Bob McDowall, producer of Big Band Special. I believe Oakeshott retired from the Corporation staff, only to return as producer of Russell Davies' independently-made Song Show. Suddenly, every side played by Laycock came from a commercially-available disc. Then, there was no room for dance bands at all. Finally, Laycock disappeared on holiday for a few weeks - the first time I recall this happening in all of the time I'd been listening to the show - to be replaced by Clare Teal. Now, I like Clare Teal. I'm not a fan of the current crop of female jazz singers. In particular, Stacey Kent's reedy singing voice brings me out in a rash. I'm sure she's a lovely person and all that, but if offered a chance to hear her sing, I'll pass. Clare Teal's pretty good, though. I saw her at a jazz festival in Guernsey a few years ago and was impressed by what she did with the songs she sang, and her general witty on-stage manner. She is, however, flavour of the month at Radio 2, and her stand-in stint on the Laycock show seemed an obvious indication that Malcolm's tenure was coming to an end.

So it has proved. Last Sunday, without fuss or fanfare, Laycock signed off with an announcement that this show was to be his last. There were no DLT antics, but what he didn't say was very telling to those who've been following this particular saga. He thanked Oakeshott and current producer Caroline Snook, but there were no garlands for McDowall. The BBC Radio 2 website pushed out a statement that he was leaving for personal reasons. He's since dismissed this as untrue and made it clear that his departure was due to a disagreement on programme policy.

When McDowall kiboshed the dance band element of the Laycock show, the logic seemed to be that only coffin dodgers listened to that part of the show. Not so. I know of quite a few people my own age and younger who listened devotedly to that side of the proceedings. Given that much of the current popular song book dates from the dance band era, the original versions continue to be relevant to an audience of all ages. If any research was commissioned (and the BBC doesn't fart without focus group approval these days), chances are they deliberately canvassed the opinion of the worst kind of tinnitus-afflicted iPod abusers, who wouldn't know a tune if it came up and goosed them.

So, here's hoping that an enlightened station will snap Malcolm up and let him do a show like the one he used to do. It doesn't have to be a national network. If he's broadcasting somewhere, we'll find him online. In the interim, at least we still have The Late Paul Barnes on BBC Eastern Counties. Before some prannet like Mr G Reaper makes the connection, I will declare an interest here. Paul is a good friend of mine, and my visits to Norwich usually end with a trip to Barnes Towers for coffee and a natter. I was, however, listening to his simply spiffing show long before I knew him personally. So there.