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As my houseguest keeps making demands on me to download this, tell her about that or write something about the other, I might as well share some of the fruits to save the trouble of writing a blog per se

London’s West End

London’s ‘Theatre Land’ is the area known as the West End (the East End being found in the financial City of London and beyond).  Although companies in Shakespeare’s time had played at venues in less central parts of London, the first permanent theatre in the district opened in 1663 on Drury Lane (where the Theatre Royal now stands).

The West End is now the largest theatre district in the world, covering more than a square kilometre and containing about forty venues.

All types of theatre are performed, from classic drama to modern plays and stand up comedy. The West End also boast two of the World’s top opera houses, the Coliseum and the Royal Opera House (home to the Royal Opera and Ballet companies). But the area is best known for its musical theatre, from the Classics like Oklahoma and South Pacific to modern favourites like Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Blood Brothers and Les Miserables. Another popular genre in recent years has been the ‘juke box’ musical, where a story is constructed around the songs of a famous band or singer, such as We Will Rock You (Queen) and Mama Mia! (Abba).

Going to a West End show is now a feature of many tourists’ visit to London, and the area sells over 14 million tickets every year.


BBC Radio 3

The British Broadcasting Company Limited was founded in 1922. It was a private company, owned by a consortium of radio equipment manufacturers. In 1927 this became the British Broadcasting Corporation, a body under the ownership of the UK government but largely independent of their control.  The main source of funding was a fee paid by all who bought a license to use a radio receiver (and later a television).

By 1946 the BBC had two radio channels (and one television channel, the only one in the UK). The Home Service was mainly speech programmes (factual and drama) and the Light Programme provided ‘light entertainment’ (popular music, comedy, quiz shows etc). The Third Channel was formed to carry ‘serious’ music, drama, poetry, prose and discussion, a more intellectual content than the other channels or television. Leading philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin as well as historians and other academics were regularly featured.

It was involved in the first broadcasts of some major works, such as Dylan Thomas’s ‘Pay for Voices’, Under Milk Wood, and many of the compositions of leading British and International composers, such as Britten and Shostakovich.

In 1967 the BBC made major changes, not only introducing a second tv channel, BBC2, but also responding to the challenge from commercial (and illegal) stations transmitting pop music for a younger audience, by introducing Radio 1. As part of this shake-up, the Light Programme became Radio 2 and the Home Service became Radio 4. Logically, the Third Programme became Radio 3. It still broadcasts predominantly classical music, with some programmes specifically dedicated to ‘early’ music (Bach and before), contemporary music, both mainstream and radical, Jazz and ‘World’ music. It has weekly drama programmes and opera broadcasts, and a nightly hour of debate, discussion or talks on a range of cultural subjects. Its main, commercial ‘rival’ for classical music is Classic FM, but this has a more mainstream agenda, concentrates on the less ‘demanding’ repertoire, and doesn’t often play whole symphonies or operas.

The Proms

The BBC Proms, or Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, are a music festival that goes back over 120 years. The idea of ‘promenading’ or strolling around while listening to music began in the mid eighteenth century. It was a regular feature of London’s ‘pleasure gardens’, public parks where orchestras or bands would play on the covered bandstands. Such stands, usually dating from the nineteenth century, can still be seen in many UK parks.

From the 1830s, indoor Proms, where seats were removed and the audience was free to move around were popular. In 1895, the conductor Henry Wood was invited by the impresario Robert Newman to begin a series of such concerts with the aim of ‘training the public by easy stages’, introducing them to classical music with popular pieces at first, then longer, more complex and modern works. Because there were no seats, larger audiences could be accommodated, and thus tickets could be much cheaper.  This meant a wider section of society could have access to top quality performances.

The Concerts were originally held in the Queen’s Hall, next to the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London, just north of Oxford Street. In 1927, after the death of Newman, the BBC itself took over the running of the concerts. At this time, Monday concerts were usually of music by Wagner, Fridays, Beethoven and a mixture of other works, especially by living composers, on other nights (no concerts on Sundays).

During the War, the BBC withdrew support and concerts continued with whoever was available under private sponsorship, until German bombs destroyed the Hall in 1941. The BBC resumed ownership and Sir Henry died in 1944, and the Proms moved, first to the Royal Albert Hall and then to the town of Bedford for a while.

After the War, the returned to the Albert Hall, where they have stayed eve since. A significant event was the appointment of Sir Malcolm Sargent as chief conductor, a post he held until 1966.  A very flamboyant man, he was nicknamed ‘Flash Harry’ He always wore a carnation in his buttonhole and made speeches to the audience, full of humour. As he was born a few months before the first Proms in 1895, he claimed that Henry Wood heard of this and invented the Proms, “to give me something to do when I grew up”. His speeches on the Last Night of the Proms, the big, fun concert, full of patriotic songs and silliness, set the standard for all conductors who have followed. When a critic accused him of making concert audiences act like football fans, he replied, that this was a good thing!

So now the Proms run for about eight weeks each summer and the number of concerts has steadily grown. This year there are 75 concerts, at least one a day for 58 days. As well as those in the Albert Hall, there are regular chamber music concerts in the nearby Cadogan Hall and, for the first time, a Proms in another city, as an extra concert comes from the UK City of Culture 2017, Hull. Concerts still concentrate on the ‘core repertoire’ of Western classical music, composers from Bach and Vivaldi to Shostakovich and Britten, but there are plenty of more recent (and earlier) pieces; the Proms commissions a number of new works from living composers each year and gives the UK premieres of many more. In recent years, the content has become even broader, with special concerts of film music, music for Children or based on popular tv series, like Dr Who. Pop bands, jazz and folk musicians are also featured, with special concerts dedicated to performers like David Bowie or Scott Walker. Some say this is ‘dumbing down’, others claim that it brings a whole new audience to the experience of concert-going, which is what Henry Wood and Malcolm Sargent intended to do in their times.