'There's this man who comes with an inflatable parrot. And all night he's bobbing up and down with his bloody parrot. Me, me, me! is what it's all about' - Sir John Drummond, BBC man at the Proms, retiring
Monday 24 July 1995
This follows last year's Last Night of the Proms, during which, it was widely agreed afterwards, the balloons got out of hand. "Some girl pushed 200 of them off the balcony and, of course, everybody popped them and Andrew Davis ended up abandoning his speech. Well, what was this girl thinking about? Balloons are a bloody nuisance."
Sir John is sitting in his functional office in one of the BBC's less attractive Sixties properties near Broadcasting House. He is a formidably large man, known for having opinions and a loud voice with which to express them. It's an uncomfortably sticky day, promising a storm. When Sir John opens the window, the room appears to get hotter. This may merely be the personal climate he takes with him everywhere.
"It's television that causes all the fooling around," he says. "Before television, the Last Night was jolly, but not so ridiculously exhibitionist. Last year we made a CD of the Last Night and there was a beautiful Vaughan Williams piece which we couldn't include because of noises in the audience. And I thought, it's really rather silly that we have to remove a piece of music because some jerk in the audience is going 'mw'urr, mw'urr' with a motor horn. I mean, come on, everybody. It isn't a rock concert; it isn't a riot in which the audience has the principal role ...."
Drummond has begun dabbing himself about the nose and forehead with a folded white handkerchief.
"There's a man who comes every year with an inflatable parrot on a string. He comes up and says, 'I've got my parrot.' And I think, 'Oh, yes, of course you've got your bloody parrot.' And all through the thing, he's bobbing up and down with his bloody parrot." Sir John's exasperation crescendoes. "Me, me, me, me, me! That's what it's all about."
Drummond's critics may find this allegation of attention-seeking a bit rich, coming from him. He has been the BBC's Controller of Music and was Controller of Radio 3 until 1992, when he stopped to concentrate on the Proms. In this time, as he says himself, he has been regularly accused of being "a monomaniac ego-tripper". His values are determinedly high- minded and unashamedly cultured. He says so himself. And he is apt to find it odd that these qualities should occasionally be turned against him. "It's ridiculous that in our age we're put on the defensive about having high standards of taste or knowledge. It's grotesque. Nobody's proud of the fact that I know a lot. They think, 'Oh God - how elitist: he's heard of people.' "
This year, Drummond has generated controversy by positioning in the Last Night programme, in what is generally an easy canter through the standard fare, a new piece by the contemporary composer Harrison Birtwistle, who is not regarded by everyone as easy on the ear. The people who run the television coverage are said to be not best pleased about this. Is this Drummond's one last thrust at the timid, conservative establishment? He is claiming to notice no discrepancy. "It seems to me it would be absolutely lamentable," he says, "if we couldn't commission perhaps the greatest composer of my generation to write something for a big, popular festival."
Drummond insists that Birtwistle "understands the idea of occasions". It may not, though, calm the anxious to learn that the piece Birtwistle has composed is entitled "Panic" and is set for saxophone, drums and massed wind. It probably won't appease them either to know that Birtwistle himself has remarked that the audience can bring all the klaxons and exploding balloons they wish because there's no way they're going to make themselves heard above the music.
You might deduce from this that Drummond was of that vocal contingent who decry the Last Night, who find it an embarrassment and an anachronism and would rather be shot of it. In fact, the opposite is true. In the year of the Gulf War, when the conductor Mark Elder voiced unease about the inclusion in the programme of "Pomp and Circumstance" and suggested he might leave it out, Drummond sacked him.
"Mark was a good friend of mine and remains one," Drummond says. "He was right to have his anxieties. But what I couldn't understand was why he discussed his anxieties with the Evening Standard before he discussed them with me."
Drummond, for his part, likes the singing. "There is a human pleasure in community singing which people get very little opportunity to do these days. It's no more jingoistic or inappropriate or out of date or any of the words some people use about it, than singing 'Abide With Me' at the Cup Final. I think the way people sing their way through 'Jerusalem' is really quite moving."
What annoys him is the amount of attention given to the Last Night, as if that were somehow the point of the entire season. "Look," he says. "You've got limited time with me and we've spent 15 minutes talking about the Last Night." I point out that, strictly speaking, it's he who's been talking for 15 minutes. "Well, you asked me the question," he snapped. "Look, I'm not hostile," he said, softening a little. "I just get tired of talking about it."
The image of Sir John Drummond tired of talking does not come easily to mind. Talking is one of the things he is famous for. Earlier this year, the Edinburgh Festival Theatre offered "An Audience with John Drummond", billing it as "an evening of top raconteuring". Pithy remarks aimed at the stuffy and the pretentious are Sir John's speciality. He said of Stephen Dorrell, who was at this point the new National Heritage Secretary, that "he wouldn't know an art if it farted". He likened Nigel Kennedy to Liberace.
Not that all his quips have quite found the target. On another occasion, Sir John mocked Kennedy for appearing on stage dressed like a vampire, "complete with rubber bruise on his neck". The "rubber bruise" was, in fact, an ailment which violinists know as "Paganini's curse", caused by the chafing of the instrument against the underside of their chins, and Kennedy was at this point booked into a hospital to have the lesion operated on. Still, the occasional gaffe is the career hazard of the professionally outspoken. Sir John insists that he remains on good terms even with the people he has slighted, including Stephen Dorrell. ("I met him since, he turned out to be an extremely nice man, and I'm very sorry we lost him.")
When his knighthood for services to music was announced recently in the Queen's Birthday Honours, he was irritated by two things. First, he didn't get a name-check on BBC news, unlike, say, Cliff Richard. Secondly, the BBC in-house magazine, in its note of congratulation, said Sir John had served at the Corporation for 10 years. Actually Drummond first joined the BBC in 1958 and, at 60, is one of its most distinguished seniors. That editorial slip has not gone down well. "It's outrageous that anyone should say that about someone like me," he says, and his eyes become firmly fixed.
To set the record straight then, Drummond first worked for the BBC on the television side after a history degree at Cambridge and National Service with the Navy. "I did the famous National Service Russian course with people like Michael Frayn." (Russian is one of Sir John's five languages.) It was a good time to be at the BBC. Down the corridor were Jonathan Miller, Ken Russell, John Schlesinger. Drummond directed some award-winning programmes - the Tortelier Masterclasses, a series about British architecture called The Spirit of the Age - but there was no smooth ascendancy. He was known even then as a severe critic of his employers. It got him into trouble and he didn't get the promotions he wanted. "I'm not, perhaps, naturally a number two," he says. This seems incontrovertible.
Sir John stepped away from the BBC in 1978 and directed the Edinburgh Festival for five years. When he returned, it was as Controller of Music and in 1987 he became, additionally, Controller of Radio 3 and went to work to change the station's tone.
"Scripts at this time were written by a script unit and handed to an announcer who read them. They were written very often in a language which is not the language of ordinary speech. Hand-outs from the Ministry of Music, I used to call them. 'Dr Leo Black contributes the following elucidatory note.' And you don't turn to your wife and say, 'Would you care for an elucidatory note?'" Drummond got the announcers writing their own scripts. "I wanted Radio 3 to stop reading at people and talk to them."
He says he has always borne in mind a remark of Peter Ustinov's: the people who get to the top are the people with no qualifications to detain them at the bottom. "I'm not a loner," he says. "I'm a team player. I simply believe that if you lead something, you've got to put a face on it. For seven years of my life, I was Mr Music at the BBC and my attitude was, 'I will show you what we want to do and why we want to do it and why you should care.' The fact that I am confident in public should never allow anyone to believe I'm confident in private. There are whole areas of self-doubt, but I can't stand people who agonise in public, because then everyone feels nervous."
He thinks television now has become over-manned and it makes him despair. "It's almost impossible for television to grapple with ideas now. Even serious documentaries are treated like children's books. Like the Simon Schama series recently: every time something was mentioned, you'd have somebody dressed up in funny clothes, popping up in a landscape on a horse. You didn't need that with Kenneth Clark or John Berger, the people I worked with when I was younger, who were perfectly capable of standing there embodying the idea themselves."
It would probably be fair to suggest that the John Birt regime makes Drummond uneasy. "It's all strategy," he says, the word fizzing on his tongue with contempt. "What is a strategy? Strategy is nothing. What you have is programmes and programmes come out of people's heads. This McKinsey view of the world has taken over everything. Nobody is sitting around doing things because they believe in them: they're doing them to see if they can make the business strategy work."
Baffling memos arrive on his desk which he sends back marked "Please translate". "I have simply no idea what they mean," he says. His fear is that the new management has all but eradicated "the club and the canteen", places where ideas were exchanged and friendships built. When Drummond was in television, Huw Wheldon would sometimes come into the office at the end of the day, park himself on the radiator and talk to people: "you got to know what kind of person he was," Drummond says, "and what kind of person you were".
Sir John maintains he is "by some 15 years, the oldest person in the building now". He must cast his eye around sometimes and see no kindred spirits: a man of noisy principle and commitment, surrounded by dull, visionless people whose only real skill is in organising meetings. "The BBC has lost all connection with its past," he says. And as he says it, the energy seems to drop out of his voice. It's a cruel irony that Drummond's office is directly above some of the BBC's most obscurely bureaucratic operations, including the people who organise the telephones. He hears conversations in the lift and his five languages are no help to him.
He is looking forward to having some time. As a farewell present, the BBC regional orchestras gave him the complete Haydn symphonies, all 104 of them. "There are probably 35 or 40 that I don't know, waiting for me. I am still restless in an obsessional way about what I don't know. And I can't understand why people feel so content with the garden they've made, the shelf of books they've already read, the CDs they've already listened to. But it may be that I'm without family of my own and have more time."
He is not clear what lies ahead, but nor is he especially perturbed by that. People have suggested to him that he should go and run the Barbican. He's not so sure. "I'll busk," he says. "Something will come up."
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