Class conscious - Andrew Martin finds true status in Classic FM
Classic FM coaxes its middle-class listeners to take life gently
How to move on, in middle age, from a youthful obsession with pop music? It becomes a social question as much as a strictly musical one. I've been trying to get into classical music for about 20 years now, but in all that time I have only ever found one "track" that I honestly like: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I also think that Beethoven's Sixth Symphony is quite good, although I would have advised him to knock it on the head about ten minutes before he actually did.
Someone who seems to have made the social and artistic leap without any problem is Simon Bates, who in my youth presented the mid-morning weekday show on Radio 1, and now has a similar slot on Classic FM. His hallmark on Radio 1 was Our Tune, in which he would sympathetically narrate the story of some doomed love affair over gentle strings. Now, he sometimes refers to the classical composers in the same heart-rending tone: "Tchaikovsky was sent to a military boarding school [exasperated sigh] . . . not the sort of treatment a sensitive kid like that needed."
I quite often listen to Classic FM while working. I find the experience intellectually flattering, in that although I am not familiar with much classical music, and know next to nothing about it, I have heard almost everything played on Classic FM. Hey, I think, this isn't such a steep learning curve after all!
The orientation is towards quiet and slow works. "There's such a mellow feeling around your Most Wanted this morning," purrs the female presenter of Most Wanted, a programme that constructs - by some unfathomable means - an instant chart out of listeners' online, phoned or texted requests. The tone of the show is somnolent or, at its liveliest, convalescent, and a typical listener dedication is: "To everyone who's in hospital." Even the newsreader sounds dazed, susceptible to dreamy ellipses: "The closure of the steel plant is part of a £32 modernisation plan," he slowly, strangely intones.
Later, there's a show actually called Relaxing Classics at Two, in which the constant breathy mantra is to "relax", "unwind", "take time out". There ought to be a warning against listening to Relaxing Classics at Two while operating heavy machinery, although I doubt that anyone has ever been class-conflicted enough to try it. The whole assumption of Classic FM seems to be that the listeners have lately undergone some terrible trauma (perhaps one of the accidents referred to in the station's regular adverts by solicitors seeking negligence claimants), and that, as a result, they must not be exposed to any sound too raucous, or any musical work by anyone not officially sanctified by membership of the "Classic FM Hall of Fame".
On Classic FM, unlike Radio 3, you seldom hear intellectuals arguing in shrill voices (or doing anything at all) and you won't hear the tribesmen of wherever-it-is doing their thing, or any other manifestation of eclectic taste. With its emphasis on peace and quiet, its determination not to rock the boat, Classic FM strikes the new listener as profoundly suburban. It is Country Living rather than Country Life. If Mr Pooter were alive today, he'd be sending in regular text messages asking for "something jolly" as he tended his garden.
What mystifies me is that although the station aspires to highbrow status, its presenters constantly invoke the unrarefied wider world by, for example, referring to Mozart as a "bloke", or by announcing, "I'm loving those string arrangements" (thus echoing a McDonald's advert), or by the sheer brash pomposity of all that "Hall of Fame" nonsense. But Classic FM is incredibly successful, so you have to assume that this mixture of the cultural and the naff is very finely calibrated indeed.