At 7:30 last night, nothing happened in the Royal Albert Hall.’ Thus wrote the London correspondent of the New York Times, in an article dated Saturday 19 July, 1980.


What should have happened the previous evening was the opening event of that year’s BBC Promenade Concerts, an all-star presentation of Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles with soloists including Felicity Lott, Robert Tear and John Tomlinson. Instead, a gramophone recording of the work was played on Radio 3, and the famous 5,000-seat auditorium remained cavernously empty. What had happened?

In short, The Apostles was cancelled because no musicians were available to play it. Two months earlier, the Musicians’ Union had announced a strike at the BBC, protesting plans to shut down five of the corporation’s 12 orchestras – 172 employees, a third of the in-house musical workforce, would be made redundant.

It was, cultural commentator Philip Schlesinger thundered, a ‘massacre of the musicians’. While claiming it merely wanted more ‘flexibility’, the BBC was, Schlesinger alleged, actually seeking ‘the casualisation of its musical labour force’, and a wholesale shift to freelance hiring practices. The language is strikingly similar to that still used today, most recently in the proposed disbandment of the BBC Singers and the scaling-down of regional orchestras.

In 1980, though, BBC managers undoubtedly faced serious financial issues. UK inflation was nearing 20 per cent, and successive governments had failed to raise the licence fee sufficiently to match the ever-rising cost of the corporation’s extensive output on both radio and television. Sharp economies were needed, the BBC insisted, and not just in the musical department.

It was, however, the musical cuts which truly gripped the public’s attention, not least because the annual Proms concerts were due to start in mid-July. Having this ‘national institution’ cancelled was, the BBC’s controller of music Robert Ponsonby argued, literally unthinkable. ‘I believe we have a clear moral obligation to try to secure the Proms as public concerts,’ he wrote. ‘We would rightly be blamed if we did not make every effort to save them for the concert-goer.’

But talks proved unproductive, and amid widespread bitterness against the BBC, photos of musicians carrying a coffin marked ‘The 5 BBC Orchs’ appeared in the papers. The impending Proms cancellations even attracted the attention of a UK parliamentary committee, which heard evidence about the impasse on 18 July, the day the season was supposed to open.

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The evening before, in a gallant display of traditional eccentricity, a bunch of loyal Prommers had arrived at the Albert Hall to queue for the best standing places in the arena. ‘Nine of them slept in the rain on the steps of the Albert Hall Thursday night,’ the New York Times reported, ‘just as they would have done to be first in line for tickets had the Proms opened on schedule.’

It was three weeks more before the 1980 season actually started on 7 August, with a programme of Mahler, Berlioz, Ravel and Messiaen conducted by John Pritchard. Twenty concerts in total had been cancelled, and the BBC was forced into reprieving three of the five threatened orchestras.

So while the strikers’ victory was anything but total – the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra and BBC Midland Radio Orchestra were both disbanded – it was still, Musicians’ Union leader John Morton believed, a considerable triumph. ‘No one will claim the final settlement is perfect,’ he wrote. ‘But it only has to be compared with the BBC’s original proposals to see that the effort was worthwhile.’


Main images © Getty Images


Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.