Sir John Drummond

High-principled giant of BBC Music and the Proms and an energetic Director of the Edinburgh Festival
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Richard Gray Drummond, writer and broadcaster: born London 25 November 1934; Director, Edinburgh International Festival 1978-83; Controller of Music, BBC 1985-92, Controller, Radio 3 1987-92; Director, BBC Promenade Concerts 1986-95; Chairman, National Dance Co-ordinating Committee 1986-94; CBE 1990; Director, European Arts Festival 1995; Kt 1995; Chairman, Theatres Trust 1998-2001; died Brighton 6 September 2006.

The BBC's former Controller of Music, a sometime director of the Proms and of the Edinburgh International Festival, John Drummond was a big man, physically and intellectually. With his craggy, handsome features, his large shock of hair, his inclusive smile and his attractive voice, he could fill a room even when others were in it. When he was charming, he was devastating; when he fought a quarrel - or picked one - he was dangerous, took no prisoners, and carried some grudges to his dying day.

Whatever case he made, or whatever argument he fought, Drummond - as his close friends always called him - was fighting on the side of the saints. They and he believed in the infinite preciousness of European culture; in the necessity of sticking to total standards; in a hatred of cheap compromise, soft-centred populism, temporising accommodation in the defence of fundamental principles.

Drummond was absolutist about his beliefs - he could be inconvenient, awkward, relentless. If, finally, he paid a price of exclusion because of his commitment to his principles, that was a sadness that he bore to the end, though never happily or in a spirit of personal reconciliation.

Born in 1934 in London, Drummond was brought up in middle-class gentility in Bournemouth - his father a remote Scottish sea captain, his mother a dashing, attractive Australian. He always felt at home in Australia and made much of his being half Australian. At Canford School, he was the conventional "clever boy" with an encyclopaedic memory that only deserted him in his last years.

During National Service in the Navy - a tribute to his father - he was chosen for the celebrated Russian-language course at Bodmin. He became a fluent Russian-speaker, a lover of Russian music and literature, and was capable of conducting a news conference in Russian when the BBC Symphony Orchestra visited Moscow in 1987. There was a half-hearted attempt to recruit him for Intelligence but - wisely - it was not followed up.

At Trinity, Cambridge, Drummond read History, and mixed freely with the generation of Bamber Gascoigne, Michael Frayn, Margaret Drabble, Peter Cook, Ian McKellen and others. He was intermittently funny as a Footlights sketch performer and wrote a truly dreadful musical - The First Resort - about Regency Brighton which amazingly got a production at the Arts Theatre.

Though fully a match intellectually for any of his contemporaries, the " clever boy" from Canford also saw himself - probably unnecessarily - as the "poor boy" from Bournemouth. He often felt he was there to sing for his supper.

Bitterly disappointed not to get a First in History, Drummond then moved into the élite of BBC recruits, the much-coveted General Trainee scheme. For 20 years, he ploughed the furrows of the dazzlingly creative BBC Music and Arts Department. In his programming about Kathleen Ferrier, and Serge Diaghilev, or his four programmes about architecture, Spirit of the Age, Drummond made a full contribution to the department. Yet he was never very good at being a number two anywhere, still less number three or four. Here was a creative leader bursting to get out.

His real fulfilment came as Director of the Edinburgh International Festival from 1978 to 1983. His wide contacts with musicians and his extensive knowledge of the orchestral repertory made his music programming both brilliant and comparatively easy. What was more surprising was his relish for and determination to discover outstanding international theatre. From the extraordinary Polish director Tadeusz Kantor to the Rustaveli Company of Georgia's shattering Richard III, to his love for the National Theatre of Brent's sublime idiocies, the theatre programme had a zest and innovation that was breathtaking. But in his final festival, an in-the-round survey or the artistic innovations that sprang from "Vienna 1900", Drummond delivered the greatest - and possibly unique - example of all-embracing thematic arts programming ever seen.

Of course, it cost him - physically and intellectually. Drummond took his nightly "all-comers parties" during festival time in his stride, though it left lesser mortals on their knees. But the relentless worldwide scouring for talent, and the constant funding fights with the Edinburgh city fathers, left him exhausted and played out.

He had been an innovator in another very important sense. In the year before he took over as festival director, he attended parties and receptions with his longstanding partner, the television dance director Bob Lockyer. Even unliberated Edinburgh in the 1970s recognised, and acknowledged, a true human relationship.

Drummond's rather tortuous passage back to the BBC - this time in senior management as Controller of Music, Controller Radio 3 and finally Director of BBC Proms - is well told in his revealing, honest and often self-critical autobiography, Tainted by Experience (2000).

He committed himself totally to the BBC Proms, establishing the practice of attending every one of the concerts over the 10-week period, a gargantuan feat of stamina. His close friendship with composers such as Harrison Birtwistle and Hans Werner Henze, his contacts with conductors, soloists, agents and orchestras, were exhaustive, and contributed to the richness of the Proms, which he led successfully through not one but two centenary years.

Drummond's experience within the BBC bureaucracy and hierarchy was considerably less happy. He would amuse, divert and charm the BBC Governors when he gave his regular report on the state of music delivered in an unbroken stream of verbal brilliance. He was singing for his supper again, the intellectual as court jester. Goodness how they laughed.

Though he made his dislike of BBC time-servers clear to all concerned, Drummond reserved his contempt for the management nostrums of the Birt regime, seeing in them only fake theories, intellectual corruption and career opportunism fuelled by profound ignorance of and hostility to the values to which the BBC should have been devoted. He lived to see most of them discredited.

His friends were saddened to watch Drummond face a series of disappointments after retirement from the BBC. Deeply knowledgeable about classical ballet and contemporary dance - a love shared with Bob Lockyer - he hoped to become Director of the Royal Ballet. With a passionate interest in European architecture, he would have relished a role in the heritage cause. Neither of them was to be. The loss was not his alone.

Any lingering hopes he might have had were dampened by the prolonged ill-health that damaged and undermined his last years. He was a giant diminished, a fallible giant, a restless giant, an intolerant giant, but a giant nevertheless.

John Tusa

Comments