Tuesday, August 18, 2009

To my great surprise, I've just had a phone call from Bob McDowall. To my even greater surprise, it was a long, constructive conversation about the show, the issues and Radio 2 in general. He said a lot of things that I suspect would be heard sympathetically by a lot of his harshest critics, and he said that he'd love to say them in public, but that he was unable to make any definitive statements until he's talked to Bob Shennan (currently on holiday) about the situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Mail story is not quite how he remembers what happened, and I know the problems involved in relying on a single source, so a contrary view is always instructive. What he did say, though, was that he genuinely didn't want Malcolm to leave and that he was and is looking for ways to incorporate relevant dance band music into the programme. He also corrected some of my assertions about gram library usage, which I'm happy to take on board - the process of transferring rare material for use in programmes is ongoing, and his view is that he's happy to spend whatever it costs to do the programme right. The information that he's an ex-BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra musician goes some way to scotching (no pun, etc) the idea that he's a faceless bureaucrat, meddling in perfectly good programmes.

Anyway, I'll be continuing to lobby for BBC Radio 2 to reinstate its commitment to dance band music, but I'll be easing off on Bob McDowall, in hopes that, when he and his programme team have had time to regroup, they'll confound all of the critics.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Two reviews for the papperbok edition of Turned Out Nice Again this weekend. In the Sindie, Brandon Robshaw says " I thought I was going to love it at first – there are fascinating accounts of the early variety acts...The evolution...is entertainingly told...But there is too much emphasis on the behind-the-scenes stuff, the hierarchies, management structures, procedures, and budgets." Agree to disagree. I've always found what goes on backstage as fascinating as what happens out front, and have also always believed that the writers, producers, session musicians and crew members are the most reliable sources of information. Also, in this case, hierarchies and budgets play a large part in shaping what ends up on our screens. Still, Mr Robshaw thought it worthy of 3 stars out of 5, and expressed his reservations in a polite, constructive manner. Can't say fairer than that. Just one thing, the Parkinson show he cites was 1982, Richard Burton wasn't involved and if he still wants to see it, the section I write about is on YouTube. Meanwhile, in the Mail on Sunday (4-star review not yet online), Simon Shaw says that I'm "an excellent companion to have on this visit down memory lane". That's very kind.

Also in the MoS was this piece about Malcolm Laycock's exit from Radio 2's Sunday night schedules. The Mail stable's anti-BBC agenda is well-documented, but as this story seems to come from a reliable source - Mr Laycock himself - we can, if we can bring ourselves to dismiss the Mail's motive, trust it. So, it appears that the dance band element of the programme was canned simply because executive producer Bob McDowall didn't like it. In which case, was there nobody around who would have happily taken over the dance band side of the show, so that McDowall didn't have to sully his lugholes with Jack Hylton, Jack Payne, Jack Hylton again and the band at the Brixton Astoria? The show still has a constituency, and it's one that has every right to be served.

The decision to get drop the dance bands was symbolic of a problem with the BBC that needs to be flagged up a lot more than it currently is. While the Corporation is impeccably, and quite rightly, anti-racist (The BBC's 'urban music' digital station 1Xtra has a weekly reach of 491,000, while the Asian Network has a reach of 473,000. So, their pulling power is only about 30% more than Laycock's listenership, but would anyone even dare suggest replacing either station with something else entirely? Feel free to take your time in answering that one.), anti-sexist and anti-most other isms you'd care to name, it is deeply ageist. This would be offensive enough if it weren't also a complete and utter fallacy that you have to be old to appreciate dance band music. I'm 36, and I'm far from alone. The BBC's entertainment programming was built on live relays from the major London hotels, and that precious weekly half-hour of music was a direct link to the Corporation's origins. It should be viewed in a similar light to the Tower of London's ravens.
I'd be interested to know whether that figure of 360,000 listeners is from before or after the decision to narrow the programme's focus, and how many have deserted the show since?

Below the Mail story, there's a host of comments including one from 'Deanna of London': "Awwww poor diddums, a measly 24 thousand pounds for 52 hours work? I expect the people who work in a supermarket who take home around 300 measly single pound notes for 52 hours work, will be sobbing for the injustice to this poor man!!". You're missing the point, Deanna. Laycock's saying that the 52 hours of radio involve far more than 52 hours of work, indeed that it's a full-time job - scripting, checking discographies, timings, creating running orders, etc. Given some of the other salaries given to Radio 2 presenters, the asked-for £38,000 for a year of impeccably-researched, meticulously-prepared programming that credits the listener with intelligence looks like a bargain.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on a bench near Lowestoft station, sharing my cod and chips with the youngest member of the Swiss Family Cheeseford. The sun was out, the nosh was lovely, my ankle is on the mend, and I thought that things couldn't get much better. And then, I looked towards Lowestoft station and noticed a set of carriages unlike those that haul the normal services in and out of town. A mixture of mark 2 and mark 1 stock, I deduced, leading to the logical conclusion that there would be a locomotive of some note at the front. So there was - BR Britannia class 70013 Oliver Cromwell was paying a visit with a steam enthusiasts' excursion from Liverpool Street to Norwich, then to Lowestoft, then back down the East Suffolk line to Stratford. Cheeseford Junior showed enormous interest in the big, noisy machine, and having established that it would be in town for a couple of hours, I resolved to go home, grab my camcorder and capture its departure, which I share with you now. Like James May in yesterday's Telegraph, I'll admit to a preference for early diesel locomotives. Faced with a choice of a famous steam loco pulling modern carriages and a modern locomotive pulling vintage carriages, the smell of warm leather and moquette always beats any amount of atmospheric smoke. However, I did feel a pang of jealousy that I wasn't on the Easterling as it chuffed away back to the capital.