Last night's BBC Four TV programme Paul Tortelier at the BBC told us more about today's BBC than it did about Tortelier. Of course it was good to see priceless footage from the archives of the legendary cellist instead of the Perry Como and Andy Williams Christmas specials, the documentary about Abba and the re-screening of Mary Poppins that have filled recent schedules of the BBC's flagship arts channel. But, with big savings to be made to pay for all those executive golden handshakes, this was television on the cheap. For sixty minutes prime time TV the budget ran to no more than a quick trawl through the archives plus half a day in an empty radio studio for Petroc Trelawny to record the links. Yes, the programme was billed as 'Paul Tortelier at the BBC'. But there were no interviews with those who actually worked with Tortelier (he only died in 1990), no mention of - yet alone samples from - Tortelier at BBC Radio where his distinguished career Proms career stretched from 1948 to 1989; in fact there was nothing other than archive TV footage and links from a presenter who had no connection with, and little affinity for, the great cellist. And the programme budget didn't even stretch to technical competence: the links by Trelawny were recorded with noticeable bass cut on the sound which meant the quality of the 2014 commentary was worse than on the archive material. Rather more seriously, the high resolution colour links were juxtaposed insensitively with the monochrome archive material and even crashed the last notes of an extract from the Elgar Concerto.
But under all this shoddiness was something rather more unpleasant. Towards the end of the programme Petroc Trelawny explained that in his later years Paul Tortelier became pre-occupied with topics such as the power of corporations, globalisation and - nuanced raising of eyebrows - the perils of television. Then he informed us that Tortelier became increasingly eccentric as he grew older, so, without further exploration of the alleged eccentricity, the programme ended with some harmless Chopin recorded in the 1950s and introduced by an unctuous TV presenter of the period who, if she is still with us, must be a perfect candidate for a presentation job on today's BBC Radio 3. In a thoughtful tribute elsewhere Tortelier was described as "a social idealist and peace activist". Do we really live in an age when someone holding views that challenge the orthodoxy on topics such as the power of corporations, globalisation and the perils of television is considered an eccentric? What classical music needs is more mad geniuses like Paul Tortelier in his later years, and less bland corporate media executives and presenters of the kind who in last night's BBC programme threw away an opportunity to make compelling and distinctive television.
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