The Electric Proms - RIP?

04 Feb 2011

Whilst Mark Thompson’s decision to exceed the original target of a 16% saving in BBC costs imposed by the freeze in licence fee funding was no doubt met by resounding cheers from rival commercial operators, boos and jeers are more likely the order of the day from a broad spectrum of fans and artists mourning the loss of the Electric Proms, which was announced on Monday.

That the BBC can’t be immune to cutbacks is inescapable yet there is a wider issue that plays to the heart of the BBC’s remit that makes this particular decision all the more puzzling.

Launched in 2006 as a modern music equivalent of the Proms, it promised to provide a “celebration of new and innovative musical styles” and that year featured James Brown, Nitin Sawhney and Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad & the Queen.

This series went on to absolutely deliver what the BBC does best – quality niche broadcasting that provided a platform for unique combinations of talent that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have happened.  This is exactly the kind of activity the BBC should and must continue be involved with.

As a concept, the programme had no rivals and ticked many of the boxes on the Reithian checklist of principles that underpin the BBC’s core values –  “the BBC should appeal to listeners of any age seeking to expand their cultural horizons through their engagement with the world of music and the arts.  In addition, programmes should exhibit all of the following characteristics: high quality, original, challenging, innovative and engaging and it should nurture UK talent.”

So whilst the axing of any live music programming is lamentable, it’s interesting to note that it’s the Electric Proms being axed and not, for example, Radio 1’s ‘Big Weekend’ which surely more directly competes with existing large-scale music festivals, featuring as it does a raft of artists simply doing the touring circuit and appearing at any number of festivals across the UK and Europe in any given season.  And whilst not questioning in principle the BBC’s coverage of Glastonbury, could not the scale of the BBC’s Glastonbury’s operation be better balanced in order to keep EP?

Although there is no reason to doubt Radio 2 chief Jeff Smith’s assurances that it remains “committed as ever to live music programming”, the issue here is that EP was a significant brand that made for great TV thanks to imaginative programming, top-notch production standards and the sheer spectacle of large-scale music performance set against the fabulous setting of the Roundhouse.

That such a rich, vibrant and culturally significant music brand is to be dropped from the TV schedules is truly disappointing and would appear to be counter to the very ethos of the BBC.

What other TV platform produces such treats as Elton John teaming up with Plan B, an exclusive Robbie Williams night with a special string and horn section, Dizzee Rascal performing with an orchestra for 1Xtra or Oasis on stage with the Crouch End Festival Chorus?

Here’s hoping that rather than simply killed-off, EP is being cryogenically preserved and will be brought back to life to further inspire, educate and entertain.

Jonathan Robinson, MusicTank

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