ARTS: Four minutes that shook R3

Paul Gambaccini switched from Classic FM and took the blame for ruining Radio 3. But, says Bayan Northcott, the rot may run deeper still
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Very well, maybe one might find something just a little tricksy about the opening formula. But at least it is succinct. "In Friday's Morning Collection: Sibelius writes for the theatre; Beethoven writes for the Archduke; and Tchaikovsky writes on holiday. First the Sibelius: his suite to the play Belshazzar's Feast." Whose play it was and other such details were kept back until Sibelius's exotic little pieces had been heard in last Friday's edition, in a spoken link that moved quickly on to the next item: Beethoven's 10th and profoundest violin sonata.

Moreover, both pieces turned out to be the final choices in sequences that had run through a number of Morning Collections: of works by Nordic composers, and the complete Beethoven sonatas in chronological order. Neither item could be condemned as hackneyed - indeed, the gently radiant Beethoven is strangely neglected - while the programme's only popular classic, Tchaikovsky's Italian Capriccio, was reserved for the last 15 minutes. And though the commentary revealed little about the structures of the three works, it duly filled in biographical backgrounds, mentioning dates, keys, opus numbers and whatnot. In fact, compared with the personalised gush so many Radio 3 presenters now go in for, the script retained a touchingly old-fashioned formality. And, out of a programme lasting an hour, it took up precisely four minutes.

So why all the fear and loathing about Morning Collection with Paul Gambaccini even before it took to the air last October each weekday at nine o'clock precisely? Granted, he came, not just from Classic FM, but from its most market-oriented operation, Classic Countdown, with its pop-promotional razzmatazz. And then there was the little matter of that transatlantic drawl, which unkinder critics complained made him sound as if he were about to try to sell one snake oil or silk underwear, or something. Yet, in the event, he has conspicuously refrained from insinuating The Piano or Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary into Morning Collection, preferring - would you believe it? - songs of Duparc and piano sonatas of Haydn. As for the voice, this is surely nothing out of the ordinary in a Radio 3 which, by now, ranges from the ineffably stylised Americanese singsong of the jazz-presenting Geoffrey Smith to the rollercoaster whoops of Natalie ("Stay Tuned!") Wheen.

So maybe the advent of Gambaccini should be viewed less as cause than catalyst of the ensuing rumpus - the last straw in a cumulative anxiety over recent Radio 3 developments felt by many for whom the network matters. If so, the focus of the fury upon relatively peripheral symptoms such as spoken accent is the more depressing. For there are signs enough that, in order to hold what cultural high ground he can in a BBC which increasingly seems to see itself as a quasi-commercial operation, Radio 3's controller Nicholas Kenyon has had to strike a potentially Faustian bargain, offering to popularise the network's presentation in order to preserve its range and seriousness of content.

From this point of view, the high quality of repertoire sustained by Morning Collection could be considered something of a triumph - even if one might doubt, for that very reason, whether the glitzy name of Gambaccini has pulled in quite the extra numbers of pop-classical listeners the management might have hoped. And with the imminent extension of Radio 3 into a 24- hour service competing continuously with Classic FM, Kenyon's balancing act threatens to get still more precarious.

There also remains a serious cavil about Morning Collection itself - though this is only indirectly to do with Gambaccini's style. Anticipating government pressure, BBC Radio has recently been opening some 10 per cent of its broadcasting time to independent tender. This year, Radio 3 has allotted 475 hours to independent companies ranging from substantial outfits such as Classic Arts to single producers such as Annette Morreau. But it turns out that Morning Collection is also supplied by an independent (Mentorn Radio) and is set to swallow 250 hours, thus depriving all other candidates of over half the potential time at a stroke. One would have thought that, if Gambaccini is deemed so vital to Radio 3 ratings, he ought to be produced in house. It is odd that the network should starve itself of the vitality and variety of the independents just when it looks to be most in need of them.

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