Protesting the Proms
izmir scripting israel philharmonic

Protesting the Proms

What would you do? You’re Roger Wright, Controller of the BBC Proms. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, you’ve booked the band for the penultimate week of the festival. A few weeks ago you were tipped off that opponents of Israeli policy in the occupied territories have planned a demonstration during the concert. The contracts are signed, the hotel rooms are reserved and the press releases have all been issued. The front of house staff at the Royal Albert Hall have been alerted and bag searches have been put in place at all the entrances. But all demonstrators need is passionate opinions and loud voices. They can walk into the hall carrying nothing but conviction. If they disrupt the music, there’s not much you can do except ask the evening attendants to eject them. And there’s another quandary. You’re also Roger Wright, Controller of Radio Three, which broadcasts every note played in the Albert Hall, the Royal College of Music and the Cadogan Hall during the Proms. Any protest will be heard not only in the UK but also in partner territories across the globe. The BBC trustees will be listening and chewing their fingernails. So what do you do?

Well, following the time honoured example of the old Irish joke, if I were going there, I wouldn’t have started from here. For six years I looked after the televised Proms as Executive Producer and then as TV Head of Music, so I’m not unfamiliar with such decisions. I’d probably have considered the likelihood of trouble when completing the schedule and weighed it up against the value of the event. I’d have wondered whether a seventy fifth anniversary was that significant. I’d have looked at the programme offered and tried to evaluate its interest to the audience and I’d probably have remembered the rather undistinguished performance they gave in London on the anniversary of the founding of the Israeli state. And on balance, I might have decided that there were other equally attractive and less disruptive events on offer. Or I might have hunkered down and said that I wouldn’t be pressurised by threats from radicals. I might have said, as Roger Wright did, that music is music and politics is politics and the Proms are about the former not the latter. That is his prerogative and I respect it.


But there’s something I hope I would not have done. I would not have tried to ignore the volatile chemistry of the event. I would not have had the presenter toss a few words of apology into the airwaves and then hand back to continuity at Broadcasting House to substitute CD recordings of the evening’s repertoire. I would not have stuck with a less than relevant interval talk and then tried and failed to resurrect the live relay. Given that the concert was followed by the repeat of a feature on Mahler by Norman Lebrecht, well known as a supporter of Israel, I might have invited him to comment on the controversy and argue the toss about art and politics in Israel with Sir David Hare or Ian McEwan. I don’t know how often Roger Wright has visited Israel, but in thirty years of making films and radio programmes in the country, I have never known a time when music and politics were not intricately entwined. After all, Daniel Barenboim has been a frequent contributor to the BBC, both with his Jewish-Palestinian West-East Divan Orchestra, as an interviewee and as a Reith lecturer. So why the jittery retreat to the CD player?


I read that the concert went forward in the hall despite the interruptions and that Zubin Mehta stoically conducted the entire programme. I would like to have heard the whole evening’s content including all the boos, screams and slogans. The BBC is not EMI or Universal Music, packaging great classical performances for repeated consumption. It is the world’s greatest broadcaster and engraved over the entrance to Broadcasting House are the words “Nation shall speak peace unto nation.” Isn’t that exactly what was happening in the Albert Hall? I have serious reservations about artistic and academic boycotts. They rarely achieve their objective. But that’s not the point. As a programme maker, I believe in transparent dialogue and that means admitting opinions and – yes – demonstrations of belief with which I disagree. By walking away – literally – from the ruckus in the Albert Hall, Radio Three has denied something of great importance to its audience. When I was televising the Proms, I sat in the truck while the radio presenter John Holmstrom improvised for thirty minutes to cover a breakdown in the piano lift. His description of the valiant promenaders winching the Steinway on to stage by hand made it on to Pick of the Week. If it’s good enough for a piece of defective machinery, then it’s good enough for one of the world’s most troubling conflicts.


But something happens to the BBC whenever Israel is on the agenda. Not bias – the Corporation has remained pretty even handed about the issue over the past sixty three years. Zionists continue to accuse the BBC of anti-Semitism in reporting events in the West Bank and Gaza. Radicals insist that it is the slave of Jewish and American interests. That probably means it’s getting the balance about right. However, from Suez in the 1950s, through Sabra and Shatilla in the 1980s to the shooting of the Turkish blockade busters last year, the BBC has consistently had fits of the vapours whenever lobbies from either side exert pressure on the Trust. I have no doubt that the decision to abandon the live broadcast will be defended on the grounds that the listeners tuned in to hear Bruch not barracking. If I know the Radio Three audience, they probably all have several CDs of the Bruch first fiddle concerto on their shelves. Gil Shahan and Zubin Mehta would have been better served by their interpretation being relayed across the nation and beyond, extraneous noises notwithstanding. It’s the broadcaster’s job to reflect reality in all its ugliness. That includes Radio Three, which is as much part of the real world as the Today programme or Five Live. I sometimes wonder whether its mission is slipping away from being a mirror of reality into providing an escape from it. But that’s another story…….

One Response to Protesting the Proms

  1. Chris Hale says:

    This is a very good blog Dennis – you are right: It’s the broadcaster’s job to reflect reality in all its ugliness. That includes Radio Three, which is as much part of the real world as the Today programme or Five Live.

    This was timidly handled. But ugly is a good word to describe the protest. I am not sure now what other ‘national’ orchestras have played at the proms this year – but protests of some sort might be considered at a number of them perhaps.

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