Classical: On The Air: There's nowt so queer as our folk music

Click to follow
IMAGINE: A caravan rolls up in the town square and opens to disgorge a little concert platform. Out come an amplifier, a pair of loudspeakers and a grand piano. Soon a Prokofiev performance is in full swing - the locals look a touch nonplussed as they peer out of their windows.

No dream, this. It was happening around the Languedoc-Rousillon region, the caravan bore the name of Radio France, and the Arte television channel carried a report about it. We claim in Britain to be serious about "audience development". Could you see the same thing happening here? Either the project would be scuppered by hawkish purists who thought amplification destroyed the integrity of the music, or the townsfolk would be so patronised they'd leave the windows shut.

In another holiday encounter, a radio report investigated the new concert hall in Lucerne. State-of-the-art building work includes ready-made television facilities, so that broadcasters don't have to spend half the day setting up the basics. The hall has acoustic design by Russell Johnson, as in Birmingham's Symphony Hall - at least that's something we've got right.

Who paid? The city voted to provide half the cost, and now it gives free public transport to ticket-holders. This report was on the BBC World Service, so there is no excuse for ignorance. Future UK city mayors, please note. Which way the vote would go, of course, is another matter.

If we really were developing audiences, instead of planning to throw money into cheaper seats for people who already go, there might be grounds for hope. But a lot of us hate sharing privileges. Look at the rubbishing Ken Russell got for making popular films about classical composers. There he was again on Bank Holiday Monday, safely hidden away in a late-night Channel 4 slot in case anybody got ideas.

They would have, too. Ken Russell in Search of the English Folk Song was one of his quirky classics. If you survived the opening dream sequence, and Percy Grainger's orchestral version of "Brigg Fair", you will have decided that the mix included a dose of self-mockery.

Setting out like a collector of the early 20th century, he found a guitar band in his local Hampshire pub that writes its own songs. The leader's father, a devotee of Native Americans, is even more prolific and composes anti-redneck numbers, eg "You Don't Have to Join the Ku Klux Klan to be a Wizard Under the Sheets". "Haven't got anything a bit more English around here, have you?" asked Russell.

But that was the point. On went the trail, to Bob Appleyard of Lymington who sang poetically about the Fawley oil refinery, to the derelict Greenham Common site where three veterans recalled their anti-missile lyrics, to June Tabor delivering a touching tale of a heroic pigeon-racer, to veterans Fairport Convention and Osibisa, to the creative Waterson/Carthy family, to Donovan still droning on about Nirvana, and to the dynamic Edward II fusing reggae with Celtic tunes.

Russell's foibles faded away. He slipped in his conclusions so deftly that you might have missed them, and left Ashley Hutchings of the Albion Band to say that the old function of folk song died before the television age. And now? "We English have always plundered other people's cultures," Russell summed up. "Maybe there's no such thing as an authentic English folk song."

But you didn't need to catch him saying so; the whole programme showed the land heaving with sincere, strong and sparky music in all sorts of guises. The spirit is alive and well - the substance has just grown a bit.