Lorna Clarke: Hooked on classics
Can the BBC make the Proms idea work for rock'n'pop? Liz Thomas meets the woman to whom the task has fallen, Lorna Clarke
Monday 23 October 2006
Two years ago, the BBC's director general Mark Thompson began his transformation of the corporation, cutting 4,000 jobs and promising in return a lean machine fit for the 21st century. The idea was that, with the savings made from the cutbacks, £350m would be ploughed back into programming.
While many are still grappling with the realities of the seismic overhaul that has seen the corporation shrink by close to a quarter, the money is now trickling through. With it comes a wave of commissions.
Notable among these is this week's Electric Proms, a five-day festival boasting more than 50 artists - among them Damon Albarn, James Brown and The Who - at venues in and around Camden Town in north London. Performances will be broadcast across BBC TV, radio, online and interactive, making the Electric Proms arguably the first tangible realisation of the all the management-speak; an example of Thompson's "360-degree commissioning", where content is just the starting point.
Spearheading the Electric Proms is Lorna Clarke. Such is her reputation in radio and entertainment that once she had passed the sizeable interview board, the BBC head of radio Jenny Abramsky in effect handed her a blank piece of paper and told her to create a popular music event from scratch.
"Radio 1 and Radio 2 play to more than 20 million listeners each week. That's a lot of people who like music," Clarke says. "The idea is that we could raise that to the status of the kind of work that happens in the classical music world. If you are serious about classical music, you absolutely know what the BBC does in terms of that genre. We want a companion to that."
This electronic counterpart to the classical Proms that take over the Royal Albert Hall every summer is aimed at a younger audience that consumes media in a different way. "They are starting to watch television online; they are starting to receive content on their mobiles; they don't always compartmentalise everything the way they used to," Clarke says. "People are listening to 1Xtra or the Asian Network via their televisions. The Electric Proms is an event that spans the whole of the organisation, and this is how things are going to be done now."
Clarke's aim is to create "new musical moments", allowing artists to do things they haven't done before. "We're trying not to beige out rock and pop."
So The Who are premiering their new rock opera Wire & Glass, James Brown gets a full choir, and Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon showcase work from their new project The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Fatboy Slim plays in what is essentially a pub, and Kasabian and the Guillemots will perform with the BBC Concert Orchestra. "It is ambitious, but you have to recognise that young people need a deeper experience and access to live performances," Clarke says.
The event embraces photography and film, with an Arena documentary on Pete Doherty (which will go out later on BBC2) premiering at the event, and other films on Leonard Cohen and the Pixies.
It sounds a good deal for audiences in and around the capital but surely, at a time when the licence fee is under review, the corporation has to prove its relevance across the nation?
Clarke says: "I think, in this pilot year, London makes sense. It made it easier to co-ordinate, and in terms of music, Camden is a heritage-rich area. I'm a pragmatist and I had to show we could do it with the funds available. Yes, I thought of twinning the event - ideally I'd like to be in Liverpool for 2008 - but it is not in my gift right now."
She points out that the Next Stage initiative for upcoming bands has a national element. "Whichever city I picked, someone would say, 'Why didn't you put it here?' Actually, it's not the number who can attend the event that is important; that's fractional compared to the numbers who can access it via the joined-up broadcast."
Clarke has put things together in less than eight months, with a team of just six. Described by one insider as a "great creative, skilled at handling any tricky situation with real diplomacy," she is tipped as one to watch, particularly in an era where women are making an impact in senior management.
She was a launch producer at Kiss FM, which she helped to propel from piracy to legitimacy. "No one thought Kiss was going to work," she laughs. "At the time, Radio 1 was playing Status Quo. I knew there was another world for the young music-lover that wasn't being catered for. There was need and it had been overlooked, in a similar way to the Electric Proms."
Later, via stints in South Africa, launching projects with Emap, she headed to Radio 1, overseeing mainstream programmes during some difficult transition years. More recently, she headed BBC Talent.
She won't be drawn on how much the Electric Proms has cost, arguing that the main point is that it has come out of savings from efficiencies rather than an award of new money.
"A lot of people have felt that music programming has been neglected," Clarke says, "so after years of banging on about it, for people like me who have been here for a while, it is important that management put their money where their mouth is."
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