Music man in discord

Radio 3's big noise wants the Proms to be even livelier. By Marianne Macdonald : profile : Nicholas Kenyon
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The Independent Online
There is a rarefied aura around Nicholas Kenyon. Talk to him for an hour and you leave saying to yourself: "What a nice man." Then you think: "My God, he went through the Sixties without dancing to The Beatles. Carole King meant nothing to him in the 1970s. He couldn't recognise Madonna if he wanted to!"

This is a man who had no television at home until he was 17, who, as a child, found solace in the comparative study of Radio 3 schedules, who did not go to dances when he was growing up and who has developed a passing acquaintance with pop music only since his two eldest children entered their teens.

So after managing to avoid almost any involvement in popular culture in his 45 years it really is a delicious irony that Kenyon has become demonised as the Gerald Ratner of the airwaves.

The charges against him are as follows: that he has taken Radio 3 down- market; that he has hired a Radio 1 DJ to present the morning show; that he has introduced simpering presenters who talk too much; that he moved Composer of the Week to noon; and that, from yesterday, Radio 3 went 24- hour.

Now, as any fool knows, Radio 3 is highbrow, lofty, and expensive. It is not supposed to be presented by ex-Radio 1 DJs like Paul Gambaccini or to offer classics-for-beginners - as in Brian Kay's Sunday Morning. Nor is it supposed to be advertised by tattooed lorry drivers conducting imaginary orchestras over the slogan "Ludwig Van".

But Kenyon has been responsible for all these indignities during his four years as controller of the network. Now he is at it again with the Proms, having finally been appointed director and put in charge for the first time this year. He has redesigned the programme, persuaded stars to endorse concerts, hinted that hooters will be allowed on the Last Night (reversing the dictates of his predecessor, Sir John Drummond) and has introduced jazz and Broadway songs into the classical repertoire.

How very peculiar! On the one hand Kenyon personally eschews popularism. On the other he has forced Radio 3 down-market.

NICHOLAS Kenyon was born in Altrincham, Cheshire, in 1951, the son of a Customs and Excise officer and a geography lecturer. His mother was his father's tutor at Manchester University (but they were the same age - Kenyon's father went to university late, after serving in the Second World War).

Neither were remotely musical, and perhaps Kenyon would not have turned out to be either if he had not joined the church choir at the age of six. His life changed when he became a choirboy; all else followed from that. That is how he sums up his childhood - "Catholic choirboy", he says, and in many ways he still seems like one with his innocent, jolly manner and lack of pretension.

Kenyon continued singing when he went to St Bede's College, a grammar school in Manchester. It seems he was a rather odd, solemn boy, someone you might unkindly call a musical anorak: it was in this period that he compared Radio 3 schedules in old copies of Radio Times. By his own admission, he was a loner and never liked sports.

At 11 he had a musical epiphany when he was taken on a school trip to hear Jacqueline du Pre rehearsing the Elgar cello concerto at the Albert Hall. Even now he looks back on that moment more than 30 years ago with a kind of wonder: "It was amazing luck." He was inspired to take up the piano and cello and, instead of rebelling, getting drunk and dancing to The Beatles, spent his teenage years discovering early music.

It was a solitary young man who went up to Oxford to study history at the end of the 1960s, when student activism was at its peak and talk of revolution fired Oxford's august campus. His college, inappropriately, was Balliol, which then, as now, led the way in revolutionary conspiracies. Kenyonmaintained a donnish loftiness toward such activities.

On one memorable occasion the students conducted a sit-in at Clarendon House, on the erroneous assumption that confidential student files were held there. As they sped off, Kenyon was heard to abjure them not to step on the crocuses.

But even the straightest student falls victim to Oxford's seductive charms and Kenyon was no exception. Gradually cello, piano and bassoon playing fell by the wayside as he discovered Isis, the university magazine, and socialised with other Catholic students. He even became a member of a black-tie dining society which gave an annual screening of the Orson Welles classic The Third Man. After which "everybody got paralytically drunk in the approved manner", he recalls.

Kenyon left Oxford with a mediocre Second and took an arts administration course at the then Central London Polytechnic. His first job was at the English Bach Festival where he worked alongside David Siegall, now a musicians' manager. Siegall remembers him as "highly individual". "He used to wander down the road with his knapsack or a paper bag, not the young executive image at all." But Siegall also remembers believing that he would go far.

"We had a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It was a pretty eclectic collection and not atypical of the festival, which was wonderful in those days but seemed to suffer from its share of mishaps. The printed programmes for the concert didn't arrive but the audience were there already. Nick Kenyon was persuaded to introduce the concert from the platform. He got up at a moment's notice and introduced each piece and did it impeccably, and I remember sitting in the audience saying to myself, 'I could never have done that'."

Kenyon was also forging a reviewing career for the Financial Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph. His knowledge of early music came into its own since few other critics were then interested in the period. And he had his first brush with Radio 3, writing scripts.

By now Kenyon was married to Ghislaine Latham-Koenig, sister of the conductor Jan Latham-Koenig. His girlfriend from Oxford days when they moved in the same Catholic circles, Ghislaine had given birth to a little girl, Anna. So when he landed the job of music critic of the New Yorker in 1979, the family decamped to America for three years and enjoyed a spell on the Upper East Side.

Kenyon came back to work for the Times and to edit the music pages for the now-defunct BBC magazine, the Listener. A colleague from those days remembers him as "usually shambolic, but there was nothing shambolic about his work or the delivery of his work". Shambolic, perhaps, but none the less remote. "He seems warm," says the colleague, "but I never felt there was a great deal of warmth."

The Listener job called for critical reviews of Radio 3 programmes. Kenyon not only gained detailed knowledge of the Third Programme (as Radio 3 used to be called), but provoked bitter complaints from Ian MacIntyre, the controller, who felt his criticisms were most disloyal in a BBC publication.

In 1986 Kenyon became chief music critic for the Observer, rather a coup, as it had a tradition of appointing grandees to its arts pages. There he is remembered as being cheerful and jovial although perhaps not greatly caring of, or involved with, colleagues. His appointment as Radio 3 controller in early 1992 surprised him, he says. But having taken the BBC to task as a music critic he was fired with the desire to put it right.

He has certainly changed it with a vengeance, which redoubled in the barrage of criticism heaped upon him. Gerald Kaufman, chair of the heritage select committee, said he was going to eat Radio 3 for breakfast, rather than listen to it. Bamber Gascoigne accused Kenyon of unleashing "American presentation techniques". One listener sent him the on-off button to his radio as it was no longer needed. Kenyon was judged a vulgarian and snubbed accordingly.

It is unfortunate for him that, like Matthew Bannister at Radio 1, he could never really win. Whether or not he made a "Faustian pact" with the then Director-General Michael Checkland to take Radio 3 downmarket, as is rumoured, he was undoubtedly forced on the defensive by the extraordinary success of Classic FM. The commercial classical music station began in July 1992, four months after Kenyon's appointment, and has won 5 million listeners - double the audience of Radio 3 - with its popular classics, chatty presentation, and excerpts from longer works.

Meanwhile, Kenyon was grappling with the quirky traditions of his predecessor. The charismatic Sir John Drummond bequeathed him a station with an irrational schedule, elitist tone and fiercely protective listeners. Kenyon wanted the network to be more "approachable", hence the new chatty presenters, breakfast and drive-time shows, and 24-hour broadcasting, with the additional five hours between 1am and 6am filled with recordings of European concerts. He wants Radio 3 to appeal to the lorry driver in the advertisement; the problem is that his existing listeners rather like the fact that it doesn't. Such has been Kenyon's dilemma, and while he has made Radio 3 more accessible, he has not increased the audience: it stands at 2.4 million, 100,000 less than when he started the job.

Like Kenyon, Radio 3 is not easy to get right. Warm, but not warm. Populist, but rarefied. Solitary, but successful.