The Nation's Favourite Aria

English composer wins Radio 3 title.

BBC Radio 3's poll to find "The Nation's Favourite Aria" came to a rather unexpected conclusion last week. Knocking Mozart into second place, 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth" -- often known simply as "Dido's Lament" -- from his opera Dido and Aeneas was named the winner. Not bad for a nation once described by Mendelssohn as, "the land without music".

Launched back in May, the competition was entirely driven by listeners, who nominated their personal favourites, creating a shortlist which was then put to a final vote.

Despite nominations from an astonishing 15 of his operas (15 more than Purcell ever composed), Italian opera favourite Gisuseppe Verdi failed to break into the top ten. He was in good company however, with Bizet, Rossini, Handel and Beethoven also failing to make the grade, and even Puccini only edging into fourth place with "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca.

The shortlist was described by Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph as, "quite highbrow", and is disproportionately dominated by works from the more obscure outreaches of the repertoire. Coming in at number nine is Mozart's "Ruhe sanft", taken from the early and obscure singspiel Zaide -- an unfinished work only rarely performed. Also among the top ten are arias from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila and Dvorak's Rusalka -- none of them exactly core operatic repertoire.

With a dedicated slot on Radio 3's Breakfast Show, the competition seemed to signal yet another attempt on the part of the BBC to emulate rival station ClassicFM, with its often interactive, listener-driven programming and accessible tone. Just a few months ago Radio 3 launched their first ever classical chart show, a clear response to pressure from ClassicFM's ever-growing audience figures.

Voting with their feet -- or ears -- however, Radio 3 listeners have here emphatically declined a move into populism. Keeping football anthem "Nessum Dorma" firmly out of their line-up, they have shored-up the station's reputation for highbrow obscurity with their choices, even championing the "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde -- a piece that stretches the definition of "Aria" well beyond its elastic limits with its organic through-composed conception, and goes some way toward undermining the bleeding-chunk mindset of the competition itself.

At first glance the list looks like the result of audience over-compensation; a charitable interpretation might see it as the result of well-informed listeners keen to share their little-known favourites with a wider audience, while less well-disposed commentators might equally justifiably see it as a public exercise in showing-off.

Either way, Radio 3 executives take note: your audience have spoken and while they're undeniably fond of a good tune, they'd rather it didn't come from Carmen. Geek-chic has officially leapt off the catwalk and onto the airwaves. Perhaps now is a good time for the BBC to halt their ClassicFM-style makeover, and return to the earnest, challenging, good-quality programming that they do so well.

Watch top three arias here:

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution