DAB+ turning up the broadcast quality?

Listeners to Classic FM will have recently heard adverts advising them that the digital broadcast of the station is going to switch from DAB to DAB+ from January. We are told that they are “turning up the broadcast quality” (by the mellifluous tones of John Brunning, no less, who is no longer regularly on the station, but that’s another issue).

I have to admit, I was expecting the new DAB+ broadcast to have anything but a superior sound quality. Classic FM’s parent company, Global Radio, do not have a great track record. I think when Classic FM started broadcasting on DAB radio, is was at 160 kb/s, but this was gradually reduced. Rival company Bauer recently switched their stations, including classical station Scala Radio to DAB+, and these have very low bitrates; some as low as 32 kb/s. Scala gets off lightly at 40 kb/s, but this still has artefacts that can clearly be heard, and it makes everyone sound as if they are speaking with a lisp. (I have taken to calling the station Sthcala Radio!) The reason is that they want to free up space in the digital radio multiplex in order to squeeze in even more radio stations.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised today to find that that Classic FM is being broadcast at 64 kb/s on DAB+. This makes it the highest bitrate DAB+ station in the UK. Opinions may vary as to how this compares to the sound of the previous 128 kb/s DAB broadcast. It may even sound slightly better now, but it certainly isn’t any worse. The bandwidth freed up has been used to increase the quality of some of their other stations that were already in DAB+, with a small amount left over where they could fit in an additional station.

For once, Global have done something right. I just hope they aren’t tempted to pinch some of Classic FM’s bandwidth in the future in order to add further stations, in the way they did with the original DAB broadcast some years ago.

Carl Davis and “Safety Last!”

Carl Davis. Pic by: Ramdzan Masiam (CC BY 2.0)I was very sad to hear last week that we have lost the film composer Carl Davis. He produced an amazing body of work, composing for film and TV, conducting, and writing concert works, including several ballets in recent years. Among his scores and soundtracks are The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the acclaimed documentary series The World at War and the ’90s BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth). He was also an accomplished conductor, presenting many popular concerts, usually wearing one of his brightly coloured, sparkly jackets. Although he was American, he had lived for more than 60 years in Britain and contributed more to the cultural life of the country than most British people will ever do; indeed one of his favourite jackets worn at concerts around the world featured a union jack design. Unusually perhaps for someone so talented, he seemed to have been a pleasure to work with, with no-one having a bad word to say about him. Paul McCartney posted a touching tribute to “his friend”, having worked together on his Liverpool Oratorio. And I think Carl was summed up perfectly by fellow composer David Arnold as simply, “a class act and a gentleman.”

One of the more unusual aspects of Carl’s composing career was the music he wrote for silent films. This started after he was commissioned to write music for several series on silent film for Thames Television in the 1970s and ’80s. He both wrote original scores, and later reconstructed music that Charlie Chaplin had written for his own films but which was lost.

Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in "Safety Last!"

Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in “Safety Last!”

Harold Lloyd’s silent comedies tend to be overshadowed by Chaplin’s work, but they were given a new lease of life by the music Carl Davis wrote for them. In 2006 I booked a ticket to see Carl conduct his own music to a live screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival at the city’s De Montfort Hall. The film actually celebrates its centenary this year. I knew little about the it at the time; the attraction was seeing Carl Davis conduct his own score. It was the Philharmonia Orchestra, who still to this day have a residency at the hall. In the first half, he wore a bright green tailcoat, and a red waistcoat with black spots to look like a ladybird. Music included Richard Rodgers’s Carousel waltz. The second half was the film. The lights on stage were dimmed, and the players instead each had a light clipped to their music stands. The film and the music were brilliant. If you have never seen it, I do recommend it. It is at times funny, and other times nerve-wracking, whether it’s Harold nearly being late for work, or the climactic scene where he scales the outside of a building. Apparently, when it was first shown 100 years ago, some people fainted as they found the sequence so scary. The final moments have actually inspired many films, anytime you see someone hanging from a clock face (most notably Back to the Future, which opens with a Harold Lloyd novelty clock among those in Doc Brown’s workshop, and ends with the Doc hanging from a clock during a storm). The music seemed to fit the period of the film perfectly, scored for a jazz orchestra including saxophones and a banjo. Afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking the film wouldn’t be the same without Carl’s music. Happily, I was to discover that the music has featured on every release of the film since.

Carl Davis was apparently a film composer who worked in the traditional way, using his intuition and timing as a conductor to match the music to the pictures, rather than using a click track and headphones as many film composers do. In 2007, I saw him conduct live music to a series of Chaplin short films in London. At one point during the performance, the projector suffered a fault causing the picture to freeze. After a moment, Carl brought the orchestra to a halt, turned to the audience and said something must have happened, and was met with loud applause. We then went to the interval early. Afterwards, we saw the conclusion of the interrupted film. It was most interesting because they started to run the film to complete silence. Suddenly, it was just a silent film, fairly dull and two dimensional. Carl stood with his hands raised, and then at the right moment, brought the orchestra in. The film came to life again. It just showed how the film was nothing without the music – his music – and emphasised how skilled he was at synchronising the score to the pictures.

I could go on at even greater length about what a fantastic composer and showman Carl Davis was. But I’ll finish with an amusing anecdote I once heard him tell, trying in with the aforementioned Carousel. He had a long association with Liverpool, as he was married to Jean Boht, star of the ’70s sitcom Bread. For many years, he conducted big, outdoor concerts in the city. In the early days, perhaps when he was yet to become quite familiar with the city, he decided to end the concert with the local football team’s song. That would be a great way to end, with everyone joyously singing along. In the event, he was surprised to see that half the audience was happily joining in, while the other half seemed to be there in stone-faced silence. The song was of course You’ll Never Walk Alone, and for anyone like Carl who is not so familiar with English football, there are two teams in the city…

Classic FM scrap the Evening Concert after 30 years

It’s been a while since I wrote about Classic FM, but the latest news about changes to the schedule and presenters from next week needs commenting on.

Some people, particularly those who prefer Radio 3, look down on Classic FM as it is perceived to be lightweight, downmarket even, and not a station anyone who is serious about classical music would listen to. I have always argued against that point of view, making the case that if you listen to the right shows, there is some good content, and there are actually many opportunities to learn more about classical music.

Ever since the station launched 30 years ago, it has featured an Evening Concert every weekday, where they play whole works in full without interruption, for example a full symphony or concerto. It has had a few name changes, becoming the Full Works Concert, and most recently simply the Classic FM Concert. I believe the first presenter was the writer and historian John Julius Norwich. He was controversially replaced after a couple of years, provoking cries of protest from listeners, by Richard Baker, a former newsreader (and since then there has been a common theme as far as personnel changes on Classic FM have been concerned). The Evening Concert is the main example I have always used as to why Classic FM is a station worth listening to. Far from low brow or dumbed down, I have discovered new composers (for example Kurt Atterberg or Alan Hovhaness) and rarer works by well known composers. An example of the latter is Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana. I specifically chose to go to a BBC Prom concert in 2019 in order to hear this played live after first discovering it on Classic FM. All of the Radio 3 listeners at the Prom exclaimed, “I’ve never heard that before,” or “What a lovely piece”. Perhaps they should listen to Classic FM!

However, from next week, the Evening Concert will be no more on Classic FM. Instead, they are going to extend the preceding Smooth Classics at Seven to fill the full three hours. Smooth Classics is itself a long-running programme of around 25 years. I have no issue with an hour of so-called smooth classics in the evening before moving on to the concert. In fact, at various times in the past, Smooth Classics at Seven lasted for two hours with the concert on later. The trouble is, from next week, there will be no concert, and instead, Smooth Classics at Seven will be followed by… Smooth Classics. That’s right: six hours of smooth classics in a row. How imaginative.

Ever since it started, Smooth Classics at Seven has been presented by John Brunning, a presenter whose voice is made to present this show. He has the most wonderful, deep and calming voice, and even then he moves it down a gear when the hour of smooth classics begins. When John is on holiday, it simply is not the same, whoever stands in for him. (In fact, there was a brief period where John did not present the show, after the fiasco where Classic FM’s parent company decided to close some of its digital stations, and redistributed the presenters whose contracts still had time to run. Fortunately, this particular aspect was corrected before too long, and John Brunning restored to his rightful place.) Sadly, John announced yesterday that he will no longer be presenting Smooth Classics at Seven from next week, handing over to BBC Radio 4 newsreader and announcer Zeb Soanes. Now, to be fair to Zeb Soanes, his voice seems far more suited to Smooth Classics than any of the previous stand-ins, so it could have been much worse. Let’s face it, John Brunning would probably want to retire one day in any case. The show won’t be the same without him, though.

A bigger issue is that the changes have come in due to John Suchet standing down from presenting the Classic FM Concert. John Suchet, a former newsreader, took over the concert two years ago, after deciding to leave the morning show. Instead of replacing him on the concert, they have clearly decided to take the opportunity to scrap the programme completely to leave a three hour showcase for their new Smooth Classics presenter. I can not see this as being anything other than dumbing down. They could have had Zeb Soanes present Smooth Classics for an hour and then the Evening Concert. Or they could have had the extended show, and then replaced the 10pm show with a new concert programme (the Evening Concert did run until midnight at one stage) even keeping the same late evening presenter, Margherita Taylor, if they must. However, they have chosen not to, and decided to dumb down the evening schedule instead. Given that they already failed to renew the contract of the extremely knowledgeable Rob Cowan at the end of 2020, and cut the equally excellent David Mellor’s show from two hours to one, I have to come to the conclusion that Classic FM no longer wishes to be considered a serious classical music station, even by those of us who previously would have defended it.

So what are the alternatives? There is a new commercial rival to Classic FM in the form of Scala Radio. Several presenters are actually former Classic FM presenters who left involuntarily during previous changes, most notably Jamie Crick and Mark Forrest. They play a slightly wider range of music, pushing the boundaries of what may be considered “classical” and veering into “crossover” music. They don’t currently have an evening concert programme on weekdays, but it still offers an alternative for anyone who wants to listen to something other than “smooth” music. In the late evening, they also have their own version of smooth classics called The Space, which features far more contemporary, ambient and electronic sounds, similar to The Chiller Cabinet that was once on Classic FM late at night, if anyone still remembers that. It could be worth a listen for anyone who is tired of the usual smooth tracks that play on a loop on Classic FM, particularly after hearing them for six hours a day. On Sundays, Scala have a show at 8pm called Sunday Night Scala which indeed is a concert of full works, very similar in format to the Classic FM Evening Concert. Finally, I do strongly recommend Mark Kermode’s film music show on Saturday lunchtimes, which is one of the best things currently on the radio.

The other alternative, of course, is BBC Radio 3. They have their Radio 3 in Concert in a similar slot to the Classic FM one. However, unlike Classic FM, this is a broadcast of a real concert (live or recorded). The concerts can vary from very mainstream to less so, but it’s worth looking at the schedule. My main issue with Radio 3 is that there are too many gaps and too much talking, as they tend to broadcast concerts as live. On the plus side, there are of course no adverts.

Classic FM and its management should understand that if they change the station and scrap long established programmes (or presenters), even their most loyal listeners will look elsewhere. It’s not too late to think again and bring back the Evening Concert, which has been a fixture of our evenings for the last 30 years.

Smartphones require smart people

The other week, the BBC ran an item on their various news outlets about people who are giving up smartphones in favour of “Nokia-style” phones that can only make and receive calls and text messages. I have seen similar articles before, but this one started with a young mother who had noticed how many parents at the local park spend all their time looking at their phones rather than interacting with their children. This is something I have increasingly noticed, too. I am frankly fed up with the antisocial way that so many people behave in general when it comes to smartphone use. You are trying to have a conversation with someone, but they are more interested in looking at their phone. You are talking to someone when their phone notifies them of something or another, and they immediately have to look at the screen, a reflex action like Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of a bell. Whatever happened to manners? I just can not understand why a message on a phone is considered by so many people to be more important than interacting with the person who is physically there with you.

I have a smartphone, but it spends 99% of its time in my pocket if I’m out and about, or on a shelf or table at home. Smartphones are very useful, for example for checking bus or train times, for looking at a map when trying to get somewhere, for finding that piece of information from your e-mail account, for displaying a QR code at the post office to send a parcel without having to print a label. The list goes on. The “solution” to the problem of people’s addiction to and antisocial use of smartphones does not have to be to switch it for a Nokia.

Here are some suggestions. Disable or silence almost all notifications. Most things are not so important that you need to look the second they occur. Messages and alerts will be there waiting when you next look at the phone. Smartphones have very sophisticated and fine-grained control over sounds and alerts, so use them. Uninstall all social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) so as not to waste time obsessively scrolling through inane rubbish. If you must use social media, use a web browser either on your phone or a computer and do so at a set time in the evening when there is genuinely nothing else to do. Uninstall proprietary messaging apps such as Whatsapp. If a message is really important, someone can send an SMS, otherwise most messages are likely pointless. And finally, put the phone in your pocket. Manufacturers do not help here, as they seemingly make their phones bigger and bigger each year, without really offering small phones as an option.

It’s not the type of phone that’s the problem, it’s the user. It’s perfectly possible to have a smartphone and use it for all sorts of useful purposes, but to not let it rule your life and make you antisocial and rude towards people who are with you: including your own children.

Queen’s Platinum Jubilee an opportunity for newly named honours

Order of the British Empire Insignia, by Robert Prummel (CC licence)With the recent publication of the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, we yet again have voices calling for the word “Empire” to be removed from the name of those honours.

I addressed this issue back in 2016, and do not have much else to add to what I said then. In summary, you can not rename an order of chivalry like that. Now to be fair, some of the better informed people are suggesting a new order called the “Order of British Excellence” be instituted, rather than renaming the existing one. The trouble with that is that you can’t have the same sets of postnominal letters referring to two different orders. Plus there is still then issue that the “Order of British Excellence” sounds likes a prize awarded by the local Chamber of Commerce.

In 2016, I did suggest my own solution, which was to create a new Royal Elizabethan Order in honour of the Queen. This could contain ranks such as MRE, ORE and, CRE. People would soon get used to these new designations, and no-one would consider the old or new awards to be inferior, just as people in Australia and New Zealand coped when they switched from the Order of the British Empire to new orders of chivalry.

It does strike me, however, that the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee next year offers a great opportunity to establish the new order. What better way to mark the reign of our longest serving monarch than to name an order of chivalry after her? The advantage is that the change could be sold in this way to traditionalists unhappy at retiring the old honours. People who object to the name of the current order would be satisfied, so everyone would be happy. Any takers?

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