Tuesday, December 15, 2020

About The Lark Ascending

Tonight’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s arts/culture show Front Row was presented by Liv Little, who is black, female and 20-something and whose presence, one assumes, is intended at least partially to address the Corporation’s concerns about its own lack of diversity and increasing irrelevance to young people. Little managed the first segment, on the new Wonder Woman movie, perfectly well, and seemed equally confident moving on to discuss the 100th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending with violinist Jennifer Pike. 

But then she did something rather unusual; she admitted that until she’d started to prepare for the show, she’d never listened to The Lark Ascending. Let’s be clear, this is not some obscure nugget by Hildegard of Bingen or Iannis Xenakis, unrecognisable and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in the theory and lore of classical music. It’s the piece that’s regularly voted the nation’s favourite by listeners to the avowedly populist Classic FM. It’s a Favourite, a Standard, a Classical Greatest Hit.

In many ways, Little’s admission was refreshingly honest. I remember when Ned Sherrin presented Loose Ends on the same station, regularly flubbing his lines as he gave scripted introductions to bands of whom he’d clearly never heard, mispronouncing the names of genres of which he was equally ignorant, and giving the impression that he didn’t really care. I’m sure Little does care but, as she acknowledged, this lacuna in her own personal canon probably puts her in a minority among Radio 4 listeners. (That’s the ones who do currently listen, rather than the ones the BBC wants to listen.) And inevitably, if she didn’t know The Lark Ascending until a few days ago, those listeners might wonder what other gaps there could be in her portfolio of cultural capital.

I argued recently that presenters on Radio 4 shows such as In Our Time and You’re Dead To Me operate as spokespeople for the moderately informed listener, knowing enough about the subject to ask sensible questions, but happily deferring to the experts when things get serious. Little’s honesty raises a question, though; what’s the rationale for a presenter who knows less than the audience?

PS: Also from the BBC: Neil Brand’s delightful programme about TV music shows what can be done when presenter and interviewees alike actually know what they’re talking about; and then there’s Idris Elba interviewing Paul McCartney and the less said about that...

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