Radio Three's Paul Gambaccini has been the target of an ugly campaign-accusing him of driving the once highbrow music station downmarket. Edward Pearce speaks out in his defence and offers views of his own on the station's past and futureby Edward Pearce / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
A few weeks back the Radio Times carried a sheaf of letters denouncing the hideous descent of Radio Three and damning to hell its presenter, Paul Gambaccini, whose Morning Collection represented an acceptance of “Classic FM values.”
Gambaccini, an American who once worked for Classic FM, whom Radio Three’s controller, Nicholas Kenyon, picked up in the manner of a football manager grabbing a much-fancied centre forward, is symptomatic of a more general argument about the station. I want to clear the record over an absurdly traduced individual; it is also time to look at the wider issues raised by the controversy.
The letter writers seemed not to have heard any of Gambaccini’s programmes. They included Richard Ingrams (never one to need the crutch of information), who chucked a surly paragraph at the presenter; and Gerald Kaufman, to whom schoolmaster sarcasm is second nature. More surprisingly, they were joined by the excellent Alexander Waugh of the Evening Standard. Waugh has it in him to be a musical Brian Sewell, but in this instance he, too, joined in the chorus. The Gambaccini obsession even reached parliament, where a select committee asked Nicholas Kenyon whether the programme was proof of commercial pressures.
The message was clear: once there was a great enlightened music station, but the cost accountants and the Virginia Bottomleys had got to it; everything scholarly and earnest (and, as it were, properly highbrow) had been junked in favour of snippets, excerpts, and Gambaccini “melody-bites.”
These claims are revealed as nonsense if you listen to the programmes. Gambaccini works by themes: he finds a composer, some period or genre of his work, and goes through it, trying to get people interested. He began with the minor compositions of Gustav Holst, went on to the songs of Henri Duparc (all 17 of them), worked through the symphonies of Dvor?k, including the early neglected ones. He then marched through the Beethoven violin sonatas, followed by the cello sonatas. At the moment he is digging out a shining lode of Scarlatti.
Nothing could be more remote from snippets and popular classic excerpts than such sustained and often arcane undertakings. But the essential test is concentration. The DJs of popular classical music, such as Alan Keith with Your Hundred Best Tunes, would run ten or 11 items an hour. Brian Kay, on his Radio Three Sunday Morning programme, manages about six. Gambaccini has lately…