Media: Elvis, meet Mingus and all that jazz: Avril MacRory, lured from Channel 4 to take charge of music programmes at the BBC, talks to David Lister

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AT the Montreux television festival a few years ago Harry Enfield was chatting with Channel 4's commissioning editor for music, Avril MacRory, and mentioned that he was starting to become interested in opera. Ms MacRory filed the information away and the result was the teaming up of the alternative comedian and opera for the comic, didactic, musical travelogue that started last week.

The combination has all the hallmarks of the MacRory approach. It is an approach that signals an exciting period for BBC TV, which has lured her from Channel 4 to become its head of music programmes.

The effusive 36-year-old grew up in Ireland, a fact that has some relevance, not just because she refers to it rather a lot, but because she still sees herself as something of an outsider in television. Before joining Channel 4 she worked at RTE in Ireland, having graduated in history of art, English and music from University College Dublin.

The key to her approach is her insistence on not categorising music and not categorising viewers, a recognition that more and more people listen to classical and rock, go to opera and jazz.

She explains: 'I like to surprise the audience, do a programme on Mingus, but have Elvis Costello and Keith Richards playing it. I'm Irish and we don't notice the differences between musical categories. I think the segregation of musical taste is really on the wane. Classical is becoming less elitist and rock is maturing and becoming more complex and more interesting. And artists from one form are crossing into another.'

It is a cross-fertilisation she encouraged at Channel 4, commissioning six operas for television, one of which was written by Stewart Copeland, former drummer with the Police. The Red, Hot and Blue Aids special featured Cole Porter songs performed by contemporary artists; so for example Derek Jarman directed Annie Lennox singing 'Every Time We Say Goodbye'. The programme showed how television could do a benefit programme without the usual live event. Orchestra, fronted by Dudley Moore and Sir Georg Solti, again combined didacticism and celebrity.

Not all her ideas were unconventional. The Three Tenors concert must rank as one of her greatest triumphs at Channel 4, with The Ring from the Met not far behind. And documentaries on jazz and blues, again often interpreted by figures from other art forms to broaden the audience, gave much-needed exposure to sometimes neglected areas.

At the BBC, where she started this week with a pounds 10m budget, a 30-person department, existing high-profile commitments such as the Proms, Young Musician of the Year, live events and documentaries, the challenge is a more complex one than faced her at Channel 4, where she had a pounds 4m budget and a secretary.

One key area where she is likely to have an immediate input is AOR, adult orientated rock. Ms MacRory feels that adult rock tastes - the likes of Dire Straits, Elton John and Phil Collins - are ill catered-for in television.

Her predecessor, Dennis Marks, who leaves to become head of English National Opera, did much for opera and classical music. But as any record company boss will bemoan at length, rock music has very little television exposure now compared to the Old Grey Whistle Test days. While Top of the Pops will continue to come under Janet Street-Porter's youth programming, Ms MacRory hopes to increase the AOR output and has tentative plans for a music magazine programme.

She is also planning a revitalisation of an even more unfashionable term, MOR: 'I think there's an area of music the audience love and television doesn't do. It's what used to be called pejoratively 'middle of the road' music, big band, swing, trad jazz.

'The other thing is musicals. The scope for using the television medium for musical drama is tremendous. Perhaps the great musical writers like Sondheim could write smaller-scale work. For too long television has been treated as a means of relay.'

For Ms MacRory, the visual style of presenting music is important too. Orchestra was shot on film, on a huge sound stage with moving cameras and cranes, and lit with moving lights. The lights changed as the pieces progressed. It was much closer to the movies and rock music than classical music. Traditionally, when the music starts in the concert hall you don't change the lighting.

Her first commission for the BBC gives a pointer to the future integration of music with other arts. Late Flowering Lust will have Nigel Hawthorne reading Betjeman poetry with choreography by the contemporary dance troupe Adventures in Motion Pictures. 'The British public has changed and we have to change with them,' she says. 'Look at the success of Classic FM.'

(Photograph omitted)