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14 May 2017

Diary: The summer’s musical promise, the withering of the BBC, and universities after Brexit

"Ahead of us, the summer is thick with musical promise."

By Joan Bakewell

Right now, London is awash with gorgeous music. Amid the election and Brexit verbosity, how welcoming it is to relax in the harmonies of golden sounds. Recent treats include Thomas Adès’s new opera, The Exterminating Angel, at the Royal
Opera House – an intense score of dazzling virtuosity, sung by the world’s finest.

When I first went to this venue in the late Fifties to hear Maria Callas and Jon Vickers, I sat on wooden benches in the gods; the toffs sat in the stalls in posh clothes. All of that has changed. Now, not only can I afford to sit in the stalls, but the tone is one of informality: perhaps not jeans, but open shirts and an easy style.

On Friday, I was at Kings Place near King’s Cross, where the Aurora Orchestra gave a concert of incongruous music-making – Mozart, Ligeti, Glass, Nancarrow and Hindemith – with the pianist Shai Wosner as its star. What a mix, owing much to the eclectic taste of the wizard behind Kings Place, Peter Millican, an entrepreneur who long ago spotted the potential of the then derelict King’s Cross hinterland and has been a great mover in turning it into one of London’s premier cultural hubs. All this, plus continuing riches at the Barbican, Wigmore Hall, The Magic Flute at the King’s Head Theatre . . . On it goes.

Ahead of us, the summer is thick with musical promise: not only the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals to come, but the weekend pop festivals across the country and, crowning it all, the BBC Proms. How blessed we are. Just don’t ask how much of it depends on EU residents working here.

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It’s not often that I think about Songs of Praise: it has been in the BBC television schedules for ever, a hymn-singing service that brings comfort to the housebound and believers who are too lazy to go to church. But now that the BBC has lost the contract to produce it, I care. It signals the last vestiges of the corporation’s religious department, which for decades offered me the chance to make programmes – both on radio and on television – for people interested in ideas.

Songs of Praise, along with a swath of BBC in-house producers, has been outsourced to independent programme-making. The corporation is giving up the reason for its existence: the making of quality programmes with public money for the public’s benefit. Now it is, in effect, joining the independent sector, creating in BBC Studios an independent company to bid against others for a place in the schedules.

Lord Reith won’t be the only one turning in his grave. Those who shaped the in-house abundance of the BBC in its heyday are no longer with us. This week, I will be attending two of their memorial services – of the corporation’s former chairman Sir Christopher Bland, and of Christopher Morahan, the director of Talking to a Stranger and Granada Television’s wonderful Jewel in the Crown. Anything the BBC claims credit for now will have been outsourced . . . even to its own staff.

No place for ethics

My sadness is personal: the BBC’s religious department is being gutted of its talent and expertise, which in the past sustained me in making informed, challenging programmes with a moral, sometimes theological significance. Many of those programmes had questions of contemporary ethics as their bedrock. In the Nineties, Heart of the Matter questioned the rights and wrongs of the Bosnian War, female genital mutilation and the treatment of gay priests, not from a point of view of expediency or popular opinion but from an ethical standpoint.

Where will ethics go now? Who will be setting out the arguments for a television audience to understand the conflicts around non-invasive prenatal testing that the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is keen to confront? Which programme will tackle it? Do such discussions hold the place they once did in our social values? Certainly not at the BBC. As the world’s most wayward sociopath would put it: “SAD”.

UK v world: an academic choice

In recent days, I have been handing out ­degrees at Birkbeck, University of London, where I am president. It’s a delight to stand on the platform with an array of gowned ­academics behind me, looking out at such a diverse body of graduates. About 40 per cent of our students are BAME, 54 per cent are women, 14 per cent have a disability and 57 per cent are studying part-time. That’s because Birkbeck was created to give working people a chance, and we still do. People do paid jobs during the day and come along in the evenings for lectures. The students’ ages range from 18 to 89. Many of our academics and students are European-born. What will happen after Brexit?

One of Britain’s great strengths (and a powerful earner for the economy) is the prestige of our universities. Students flock here from all over the world. I know that because, as they come up to the podium, I greet students from Nigeria, Indonesia, Ukraine, Greece and Romania. Right now, EU students can apply for grants to help them study, and the government has pledged that this will remain the case for the next two years. But after that, what? Looking out at the sea of happy faces – all colours, genders, ages – I wonder what it is that makes the world resist knowledge, friendship and enthusiasm, wherever it comes from.

Damned spot uprooted

Lady Macbeth is a very fine film indeed. But the title put me off – I initially resisted the suggestion of friends to watch the adaptation because of it. I’m glad I relented and went to see it. Its story is taken from the novel that inspired Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but it doesn’t help to know that. The screenwriter, Alice Birch, and director, William Oldroyd, have transformed it into something entirely removed from its Russian roots. It is set in the north of England in the 19th century and is a story of cruelty, frustration, passion, crime, discovery and retribution. All the best stories are.

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This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning