Pen that proves sharper than the axe to grind

Tainted by Experience
September 29, 2000

Known for his strong views on the arts and their contribution to a civilised society, John Drummond has campaigned vigorously for their support in each of the organisations and roles in which he has found himself, most notably with the BBC. In these lively and provocative memoirs, Drummond, one of the most influential figures of the arts scene in Britain in recent decades, recounts the key events of his life, beginning with his childhood and teenage years during the second world war. By 18, when questioned about career aspirations, he had already identified running the Edinburgh Festival, the BBC Third Programme and the Proms as his "ideal jobs".

In Drummond's case, adolescent ambition became reality. It was these three jobs that formed the peak of his professional career. After joining the BBC as a general trainee in 1958, he rose to become executive producer for BBC2 arts features in the 1970s, from there joining the Edinburgh Festival, where he succeeded Peter Diamand as director in 1978. Returning to the BBC in the mid-1980s, he became controller of Radio 3 and director of the Proms, retiring after the centenary celebrations, which spanned the 1994-95 seasons. While each career phase is given due weight, it is inevitably the BBC that looms largest: experience gained in the variety of BBC roles that Drummond fulfilled occupies well over two-thirds of the volume. It is not surprising that it was also the BBC that helped to provide the title of the book, "tainted by experience" being the dismissive phrase applied to the author during John Birt's regime. Turning the taunt to ironic purposes, Drummond provides a comprehensive riposte to the charge. Tainting or not, the life in the arts that he describes has a richness that many would envy.

Drummond is known for his commitment to the arts as a whole, and their interconnections. These memoirs provide eloquent testimony to both: John Betjeman, Terence Rattigan, Jean Cocteau, Marlene Dietrich, Martha Graham and John Gielgud are just some of the many distinguished 20th-century artists encountered by Drummond in the course of his professional life who are captured in memorable vignettes. Drummond writes fluently and well. Blessed with the gifts of the good raconteur, he has the ability to capture the essence of events with light, deft strokes, strong in their evocation of mood and atmosphere. It is, however, music and musicians that dominate: Drummond's experience of working with composers, conductors, instrumentalists and singers provides a rich mine of stories. His recollections of working with artists such as Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze, Witold Lutoslawski, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, John Tavener, Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, Gunter Wand, Sir John Pritchard, Paul Tortelier, Martha Argerich and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf offer insights into the world of professional music-making. It is, Drummond admits, a book that some advised him not to write, concerned that he might appear embittered, or become disheartened on realising how much of what he had strived to achieve was being unravelled. Fortunately, he disregarded the advice. Drummond has much to offer, and despite his "unlimited capacity for indignation" - an apt observation by David Attenborough, one of his friends - the tone of the book is warm and the outlook guardedly optimistic.

Looking back, Drummond regards himself as having been "incredibly lucky" to have been able to work in areas of the arts to which he is deeply committed. He recounts setbacks without rancour or resentment. Looking forward, he professes himself encouraged by the signs of a desire to move beyond "the whole-hearted materialism of the past two decades" as well as by the depth of the emerging talent that he sees across the arts. Music in higher education nevertheless attracts its share of censure: while Drummond acknowledges that there have been some improvements in recent years in these "bastions of conservatism and musical jingoism", he deplores the fact that too many music graduates are limited by their lack of knowledge of anything outside music.

Given the author's reputation for hard-hitting comment there will be some skimming of the pages, or thumbing of the well-prepared index, to see whether names appear and how respective contributions have been represented. Not all will like what they read, since the author's pen portraits tend to focus on memorable moments rather than attempting to provide balanced pictures. But these memoirs, though never less than direct, do not read as though written to settle old scores. Where individual colleagues are concerned, there is a good deal of generosity, notably to some whose contributions - artistic and administrative - have been significantly undervalued.

For those engaged in the arts, wishing to understand more of the forces that have influenced developments in the performing arts in Britain in the past four decades and the personalities who have helped to shape them, this is an important publication. Over this wide canvas, Drummond ranges with discernment and a well-formed grasp of the whole picture. In this lies much of the book's value to a wide readership: while people and performances populate the foreground, the underlying commentary - on priorities for the arts, on the role of broadcasting, on funding and national policies - is at least as telling. This is a valuable source book.

But above all, Tainted by Experience is a good read. Drummond communicates his enthusiasm and his passionate commitment to the transforming power of the arts and to scholarship in all its guises. Never is he truer to himself than when he writes that "failing or refusing to differentiate between the good and the indifferent, while sheltering under a cloak of spurious democracy, is simply not good enough". These memoirs are a testimony to a lifetime's uncompromising commitment to the pursuit of quality.

Janet Ritterman is director, Royal College of Music.

Tainted by Experience: A Life in the Arts

Author - John Drummond
ISBN - 0 571 20054 0
Publisher - Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 478

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