Let’s get personal: Outlook on the BBC World Service

This show presents the arts as they should be, nestled inside all of this other life and sounding out with rhythm.

BBC World Service

A recent announcement from BBC Radio 3 outlining changes to its 2014 schedule confirms that, as rumoured in November, one of the last remaining music specialism programmes on the station, Discovering Music, which began airing well over a decade ago, is no more: “Instead, music context will be covered throughout the schedule by presenters in discussion with guests during intervals of live concert broadcasts.” This is something that will be hard even for the dogged Friends of Radio 3 to police – an analysis of musical phrasing here, an intense dissection of instrumentation there. But enough. Here’s hoping.

There is, however, some good news. I hear that the cuts-laden BBC World Service is to bring more dedicated arts coverage back into its schedules. In April last year, the station axed the station’s crammed and varied daily arts programme The Strand, instead extending the current affairs programme Outlook with a daily ten-minute section “looking at the people behind the world of music, entertainment, film and the performance arts”. Looking at it in what way? Was the World Service, in effect, being pared back to a rolling news channel?

Yet I admit that the first edition of the new weekend Outlook (Sunday 12 January, 8.30am) –“The best of Outlook’s extra­ordinary personal stories from around the world” – turned out to be the essential listen of the week. A touching and revealing interview with the Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta (“No, I did not like the dance when I was young. The discipline, the monotony, the fingers, the toes, the this, the that . . .”) sat next to an astronaut’s report from space (“We exercise every day and clean off. I never once smelled anybody else’s body odour as such. It’s not really a people smell at all, up here . . .”). A woman reminisced about how she used to send bits of John Lennon’s hair to fans (“I would go over and stand there while the barber was clipping it, scoop it up and stick it in an envelope”). There was also a man with an entirely new species of tick discovered stuck up his nose (“Yes! It was there”).

The show was riveting. Here were the arts as they should be, nestled inside all of this other life and sounding out with rhythm, wit and confidence.

Rossen Gergov leads the BBC's orchestra, 16 September 2009. Photo: Getty.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014