Wednesday, 6 November 2013

They turned him off (Russell Davies show axed)

Big news in my little world, and I regret to say it appears to be a done deal, though there is a campaign: Russell Davies' Sunday night programme on the art of the songwriter on BBC Radio 2 is no more.

And so ends a line which stretched, for me, from the seventies and Benny Green in the same slot (before it was shunted from the afternoon, during the Davies era, to make room for the chumminess of Ms Paige).

It's also a source of sadness because although I believe he will still be presenting the odd programme for Radio 2 this marks the end of regular broadcasting of the last of those presenters who educated me in pre-rock'n'roll music, most notably Benny Green, Hubert Gregg, Ken Sykora and Robert Cushman.
Of that quartet only Robert Cushman is still alive, although as far as I know he is no longer broadcasting.

I'm not going to go into detail here about why the decision to drop Russell Davies is so wrong. Others have already done so (links at end). But to put it briefly, the "presentation reason", as we psychiatrists say, is that he isn't, apparently, cost-effective for a programme only lasting one hour - even though one hour is precisely the right amount of time for something which demands more direct attention than most of Radio 2's output.

The suggestion - made by Mr Davies himself, among others - is that his show being dropped is part of the plan to make Radio 2 into "Radio one-and-a-half", catching those who have grown out of Radio 1.

By and large I have approved of that scheme in the past, and enjoyed the music documentaries and spots for different genres on Radio 2. But there has to be room for the popular music which preceded the rock explosion.

Is it about time passing? I can't remember exactly when  "Radio one-and-a-half" was first mooted - I suppose around the time of Matthew Bannister's cull of dinosaur DJs at Radio 1, and he was appointed controller twenty years ago.

Has somebody therefore made the pragmatic decsion that Radio 2 cannot go on infinitely expanding its capacity and so the earliest decades - the thirties and forties - must perforce be jettisoned?

It sort of makes sense, I suppose ... provided, that is, you don't believe that any of the subsequent songwriters benefited from the example of those who came before. (Wonder what Macca would have to say about that? Or Lennon, come to that, who was taught Scatterbrain, a song I first heard on a Hubert Gregg show, by his mother.)

It's significant, I think, that the majority of the broadcasters I have mentioned were working from a script - in other words what they were giving us was something polished, not just chatter to fill the moments in between recordings. And (like Russell Davies) Benny Green and Ken Sykora were musicians, and Hubert Gregg was a singer, songwriter and all round man of the theatre.

Robert Cushman is a journalist and critic - he may play an instrument, for all I know, but the point is that in all of these cases you were getting something which hadn't been thrown together, and there was an implied respect for the audience. More than that: you had the sense that they were sharing something which was precious to them, but their knowledge was worn lightly. You never felt you were being lectured.

I'm sorry to say I missed Mr Davies' last few shows. Blame technology: I had grown to depend on Radio Downlo*der, now outlawed, for my fix of BBC radio shows in mp3 form, and it was fatally easy to stockpile. The first mention of the show coming to an end had apparently been by Gillian Reynolds in the Telegraph in July, and I had missed it.

In terms of world events I suppose the end of a radio programme means - well, not that much. But regular listeners will know that with the closing down of this show something important is going from Radio 2 and from our lives. We will no longer be introduced to songs, and odd pairings and coincidences, by someone who had taken the time to shape his thoughts for us, and who opened our ears to the richness of the catalogue of music before Chuck Berry.

You can, if so inclined, read my longer tributes to the broadcasters mentioned, along with Ian Whitcomb, via the links below. Ian Whitcomb is still around and currently recovering from a stroke.

There is a brand new website dedicated to his warmly recommended radio show, here (above image is only a screengrab), where you can listen to excerpts or buy cheap downloads or CD versions of the show, and there are links to his monthly "Letter from Lotusland."  


Part One (Ian Whitcomb)
Part Two (Ken Sykora)
Part Three (Hubert Gregg)
Part Four (Benny Green & Robert Cushman)
Part Five (Russell Davies)
Part Six: (Those Unheard  or There is a Balm in Islington)

Mick Brown on Russell Davies here. There is a petition to save the show here, where you can also read comments by those who have signed it.

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