Saturday, December 15, 2007

Music censorship at the BBC

Yesterday The Independent ran a fascinating article by Spencer Leigh about the censorship of popular music at the BBC between the mid 1930s and 1960s. Here are a few nuggets:

In 1942, the BBC's director of music, Sir Arthur Bliss, along with other luminaries, had written wartime instructions for the committee and had allowed the banning of songs "which are slushy in sentiment"....

...Bliss, as might be expected, was staunchly against tunes borrowed from classical works. The application of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu for the melody of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" prevented it from being played. The instruction led to surprising bans: sometimes whole albums by Liberace, Lawrence Welk and Mantovani were prohibited. The score of Kismet was seen as suspect as it borrowed from Borodin, and so "Baubles, Bangles And Beads" was not played....

...The most unlikely record to slip through the net has to be B Bumble and the Stingers with their 1962 chart-topper, "Nut Rocker". The committee deliberated hard about it and concluded: "This instrumental piece is quite openly a parody of a Tchaikovsky dance tune, is clearly of an ephemeral nature, and in our opinion will not offend reasonable people."

Auntie's little committee appears to have been functioning in a faintly similar vein to Hollywood's Hayes Commission, which wrecked countless film scripts (though not for the sake of eliminating the 'slushy in sentiment').

I wonder whether these files may help to clarify a matter that has split the British musical community for years. A number of composers, some of whom are no longer with us having died in possibly unwarrented obscurity, insisted that their music had been rejected for broadcast by the BBC in the days when William Glock was controller of Radio 3 because it did not toe the establishment line on what was acceptable in new music. Others insist this was not true: no censorship, no party line, just a clever man refusing to broadcast bad music. As far as I'm aware we don't know, yet, what really happened. What's evident is that many composers had fallen foul of something or someone, and had their lives and careers wrecked by it.

Welcome to Little England, as was. Some day the truth will out, one way or another.

For the moment, prurience lives on in the very air breathed in the ivory towers of this green and pleasant land.

I can't help remembering all those critics blustering that Heliane was 'blasphemous' and 'degenerate' - dearie me, it has tunes, it has harmonies, it is intensely emotional and it advocates the divine approval of a loving sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Apparently this makes it horrific, and worth restoring Nazi terminology for. Yet today we're contending with Gangsta Rap glorifying across the airwaves extreme violence both racial and sexual. Maybe awareness of such cultural trends has never got past the college gates, the formal halls, the cellars of vintage Bordeaux. A sense of perspective has gone missing, no?

My high horse is going to pasture for the day now, while I head for the library to look up someone who became virtually the voice of the BBC in a totally different way...