BBC Apprenticeship 


‘Humility, the realistic recognition of one’s own musical littleness, 

compared with the masters,

is the very first requisite of any writer on music.’

In November 1970 I turned twenty-six, a freelancer with a degree from Durham in my pocket, a portfolio of unperformed compositions and novice reviews on the shelf, and an occasional broadcast to sully the ear. Time to get a proper job. The BBC in London were advertising for a Music Information Assistant, responsible for compiling, modernising, editing and writing an encyclopedia of programme notes and continuity scripts for Radio 3. I applied, was fortunate to be selected for interview, and some weeks after got a telephone call saying I’d been appointed, together with Hugh Keyte, an early-music authority who’d come from the academic sector. We were the only survivors out of more than one-hundred-and-fifty applicants. Under the radical leadership of the pro-European William Glock - who’d studied in Cambridge and with Schnabel in Berlin, and whose self-declared mission was to provide the public with ‘what they will like tomorrow’ - the BBC Music Division, based in Yalding House, 152-56 Great Portland Street (not far from where Weber died when he visited London in 1826), was a place, a shrine, like no other. A formidable gathering of intellectuals and practitioners, a fabled cultural forum, epitome of the universitas magistrorum et scholarium ideal. 

Joining the Corporation in March 1971, I found myself assigned to Deryck Cooke, the Music Presentation Editor, a weighty, shambling, jowelled, large-headed, baggy-eyed pipe-smoker oscillating between depression and Jovian humour, then in his early fifties. (Roger Allam would play him well.) Like Neville Cardus of the Manchester Guardian (a writer I admired) his twin passions were music and cricket. Like William Mann of the The Times and Hans Keller, he was among the first to analyse the Beatles seriously (notably Yesterday1), sending shock waves at a time in the musical climate when the barriers between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ were, like the Berlin Wall, far from down. Embodiments of durable creative genius, ‘Lennon and McCartney,’ he was convinced, would ‘still be remembered when most of our “modern composers” are forgotten’. Reasoning that ‘all music is music’ (following the Second World War, he’d been an army dance-band pianist touring Austria: he knew from within what constituted a ‘standard’, an ‘evergreen’), the Liverpool pair were for him ‘genuine creators of a “new music”’. A scrupulous, profoundly thinking musician-scholar of the post-war British rather than German/American variety, Deryck was the man who'd famously 'realised' Mahler’s Tenth Symphony recorded by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He’d enjoy playing Beethoven recordings loudly, drinking in the drama and emotion. One morning Schmidt-Isserstedt’s recently re-pressed Eroica with the Wiener Philharmoniker stopped all work, held up with a roar as a model of how to conduct and shape the musicHe wrote memorable programme notes combining humanity with erudition, with Bill Mann's a model of the art. He was the greatest Wagnerian of his generation. He championed Bruckner and Delius. Music was his abiding obsession, a consuming vocation not a five-day-a-week-to-retirement job. Music, he was quick to correct me - in his gravelled, half-chuckling, Leftist Leicestershire voice - music was not a career, it was a life-journey. Estranged from his Belgian wife, he lived with his young secretary, Hazel - never mind that the BBC assiduously discouraged love in the office. They seemed happy with their lot. Tobacco and alcohol were never far away, the stale smell of both permeating the department and turning daylight into a misty haze, metalled windows steaming up.

Too junior to be confidant, I knew Deryck Cooke as a figure of searing intellect and eloquent vocabulary. Come the end of the day, however, he went his way, and I mine. We shared few concerts, few intimacies. Years later, reading the introductory memoir to Vindications by his Hoxton-born Cockney friend Bryan Magee, another portrait, another persona emerged. A ‘great warm bear’; a post-Romantic counter-modernist; ‘before all else a man of feeling’ (his epochal 1959 book, The Language of Music dealt in what he believed to be the perennially shared emotional symbols of sound and pattern throughout Western written music); an increasingly frustrated, unfulfilled human being of complex fears, paradoxes and final bad luck. In his youth he’d wanted to be a composer but the break-up of a love affair in post-war Cambridge put an end to that, virtually everything he’d written up to then being destroyed. ‘I found in him,’ Magee says, ‘a strange combination of towering gifts, of which he was aware, with a self-effacing diffidence about exercising them […] he had, it seemed to me, a fear of self-assertion in any form, artistic or otherwise.’

Deryck, who ravished literature and relished language, taught me the finer graces of English, how to distinguish between the spoken and written word. Writing an article was one thing, generating continuity to be read on air something else. He stressed the importance of grammar and punctuation, the effectiveness of ‘natural speech’ contraction, when to paraphrase rather than quote other people’s ideas, how to précis a song text. He read my work, advising and correcting. He gave me principles and values, the tools to self-criticise. ‘Humility,’ he declared, ‘the realistic recognition of one’s own musical littleness, compared with the masters, is the very first requisite of any writer on music.’ He valued ‘the expository writing of Tovey’ (as I did). In time, during the various spells of hospitalisation he was to endure, I took over some of his work-load, sharing duties with Michael Howard, the ex-Ely Cathedral organist and choir master, and Harry Croft-Jackson. Quietly excising phrases deemed unpalatable ('goose stepping jackboots' disappeared from one of my Eisler scripts), Michael was British to the core. Publicly, in his dapper style and modulated Queen’s English. Privately, in his Chelsonian/Bloomsburian disposition, his ‘Byronesque approach to the opposite sex’. At Ely it forced his resignation. At YH it fragranced the hours. He married six times. A busy, short, rotund, bewhiskered BBC stalwart, Harry, commuting daily from Colchester to Liverpool Street (Wadhurst to Cannon Street for me), was good for a dram of whisky, bottles of which were secreted away among the files of his desk drawer, as well as the occasional life-wisdom - ‘kiss and make-up with your wife every night’ being one of his favourites. Harry was the man to turn to when you had a hangover.

My job in the Music Division brought me into contact with high and low. One day, I’d be talking piano-rolls with Deryck; Liszt with Alan Walker (responsible for the elite pianist profile the BBC then enjoyed); the newest Round House modernity with Veronica Slater, the trousered, chain-smoking producer ‘in love’ with Xenakis. The next, Handel or Beethoven with Basil Lam; the Scandinavians with Robert Layton; Schubert or Skalkottas with Leo Black (whose sporting interest was lady's tennis). Hans Keller – from pre-war Vienna, ‘the musical conscience of British Broadcasting’, master of the string quartet Haydn-Schoenberg, analyst, football fanatic – would occasionally drop by my room to trenchantly argue a thesis, bullet-point by bullet-point, until Deryck, long-standing friend and sparring partner, felt I might need a life-line.

Undemanding company came in the form of Nick – an alien-skulled early-music terrestrial of radio-incompatible voice fresh down from reading modern history at Oxford. A casual summer help in the Proms office, he made decent cups of coffee and wanted to be a journalist. Good brain, politically shrewd, he succeeded. Then there was Ron, secreted away in the odorous bowels of the ground-floor Music Library, a musty domain, not that well lit, of forgotten scores, faded folders, bibliophilic obsession and damp sweat. Aspiring to be a conductor - British light music being his thing - he too made it. More worldly was the avuncular writer and broadcaster John Amis – who claimed to know ‘everyone’, administered the influential Dartington Summer School of Music for Glock (its founder), and invited me to deliver (badly) a couple of lectures there on Alkan and Roberto Gerhard. Long Soho lunches and inconsequential conversations at The Gay Hussar (the clandestine post-war Hungarian restaurant at 2 Greek Street, dimly smokey haunt of journalists, artists, actors and Leftist politicians), downed by Bull’s Blood, are all I can remember of those encounters. That the place, Profumo and Lady Chatterley resonating still, lurked 'between peep shows and brothels, theatres and cinemas, between the offices of Private Eye, the Establishment club, the Coach and Horses and the Colony Room'2, Ken Tynan's Oh! Calcutta! playing nightly at the Royalty around the corner, somehow escaped me.

Deryck Cooke introducing his first incomplete attempt at a 'performing version' of the draft of 

Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony 

BBC 19 December 1960

The young women the BBC attracted - a particular type working more for the kudos than (low) salary - variegated the terrain. Enjoying the panoramic rooftop bar and restaurant of the fashionable St George’s Hotel built on the bomb-site of the Queen’s Hall, Langham Place (opened in 1963), conscious of BBC planners and radio stars doing business (Kenneth Williams coyly furtive), we’d mischievously ‘look down’ on Broadcasting House berthed to the right, many decked and port-holed, momentarily imagining ourselves superior to the captains of the waves who sailed her. Mitra, the Persian beauty of love and light with her chauffeur and liking for dots at the end of sentences, hours 10-4 … Liz, leonine heiress to a frozen-food dynasty ... Cathy, who left to run a sheep-farm in Australia ... Pre-Raphaelite Laura ... Eighteen-year-old Josephine, the gap-year pre-classical girl with a liking for violin concertos on her way to Leeds and Alexander Goehr – who never went but became my wife. Deryck and Hazel came to our wedding.

I spent four summers and winters at Yalding House. At the Royal Albert Hall I enjoyed a seat in the Director-General’s Grand Tier box. Horenstein's Bruckner Five (September 1971). The contentious first performance of Ronald Stevenson's Second Piano Concerto under del Mar (August 1972). Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic celebrating Britain's Euro entry, Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies flaming the ether (January 1973). I contributed various Prom programme notes - from Beethoven Seven, through Liszt and Tippett, to Stockhausen’s Mantra and Carré for four orchestras, the latter receiving its British premiere (September 1972). At studio sessions I shadowed Eleanor Warren, Alan Walker. Occasionally I scripted, presented and produced ‘trailers’ previewing forthcoming broadcasts. A refuge to ponder, run through repertory, or practice a duet or two was provided by the intimate staff library and piano on the top floor. In the summer of ’74, my first book appeared, The Proms,  a socio-cultural history, in the event much truncated and weakened from the original draft commissioned by Tom Stacey but culminating in a tolerable enough survey of the Glock era. Though vetted and approved by BBC officialdom, The Proms gained me few friends within an institution where levels of public exposure went unspokenly with seniority of grade, an organisation to which I was obliged further to give my every working hour - evenings and weekends being set aside for recuperation rather than personal endeavour (that they weren’t wasn’t the point). It didn’t surprise me. Any more than the rain of arrows which greeted my attempts to ensure proper and fair script-writing acknowledgement - something Deryck, in his self-effacement, had never, so far as I was aware, felt the need to battle for.

Radio 3 those days, contrasting other wings of the BBC, advocated anonymity – disagreeably so I thought. Within the ranks neither personality cults nor value judgements were encouraged. Dispassionate, dignified objectivity was our brief. At ‘live’ concert relays announcers introduced, linked and closed proceedings, their words were the ‘BBC’s’ not an individual’s, they resisted improvising unscripted continuity. Working for Radio 3 was about subjugating oneself to the will of the Corporation. So, broadly speaking, though the voices may have been familiar, the styles of scripts distinctive, the public had no ready means of knowing who anyone was or who was responsible for what. The BBC employed producers, studio managers (tonmeisters) and writers of the very highest standing – but who where they? Very occasionally we were told, but not often. Scripting an ambitious, historically complex series for Bob Simpson, juxtaposing music written in the same year (Cross-Section), I felt I should be credited my due. So the programme commentaries went out under my name. The powers reacted swiftly. The inner coterie of Yalding House elders – Cooke, Keller, Simpson himself – might get away with this, but certainly not anyone else, least of all a coal-face underling. I argued my right to identity. Bob backed me. Deryck threatened to resign were further action taken. Part of the growing vanguard that consciously eroded away media and product anonymity in Britain during the 70s (even The Times Literary Supplement, bastion of the unsigned review, gave in), it felt like I’d won a moral victory however small. But the murkier, the more obstructive, the more red-tape the atmosphere the more apparent it became that this was no longer the climate for me or my temperament (‘there are two kinds of people,’ the witticism goes, ‘those trying to get into the BBC and those trying to get out’). I wanted the adventure of other things, new challenges.

Sir William, who'd radicalised BBC music and turned the Proms into the longest of global celebrations, coaxing Pierre Boulez to the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1969, left in 1972, to be succeeded by Robert Ponsonby, an ex-Oxford organ scholar of military bearing and glacial disposition (Eton, Scots Guards). Reminding of John Mills's character in Tunes of Glory - 'officers' privileges and amateur dramatics' - his aloofness and bruising style, surnames barked out parade ground style, didn't sit well. Increasingly, too, despite initial overtures - including the carrot of a BBC Music Guide on Schumann's orchestral music, which subject I failed to appreciate hence never finished (Hans Gál took it over from me) - I felt uneasy with the Music Division's long-standing Assistant Controller, the polymathic Lionel Salter, proof reader supreme, he of the well-oiled smile and ingratiating flattery who'd signed off my Proms book. Minor stags of the glen, Establishment administrators, neither man offered the kind of programming or creative vision, the fantasy and liberty, I needed personally. They piloted their ships along well-plumbed channels, they cellophane-wrapped rather than nakedly lived their music. Or so it seemed to me, watching from the lower cobbles of 'empire'. Passion wasn't in their dictionary. Losing out to Hugh on a production vacancy - I pitching the Romantic Revival movement, he going on to edit the New Oxford Book of Carols: we were very different people - turned the tide. Richer in knowledge, wiser in life, I resigned, leaving the Corporation in January 1975. Deryck died the following year.

Turkish version Andante, İstanbul 2004

English original revised Christmas 2021

© Ateş Orga 2004, 2021

not to be reproduced without permission

1 The Listener, 1 February 1968, reprinted in Vindications, London 1982.

2 Tim Hayward, Financial Times, 10 October 2020.