The passionate, vicarious snowboarding commentary should be embraced across the BBC – Radio 3 included

Andrew MellorWed 5th March 2014

The unorthodox Winter Olympics snowboarding commentary gave us a glimpse of the culture of the sport – we should try that more for music

It’s ironic that a sport as colourful and nonconformist as snowboarding should have delivered a controversy so anatomically predictable. The furore over the BBC’s lively commentary to the womens’ slopestyle final – a gorgeous, exhilarating display of skill and cool – was textbook: first the sackful of complaints, next the media labelling of the complainants as ‘purists’ and finally the flurry of columnists attempting to re-boot their own ‘cred’ by saying how much they enjoyed the free-style verbalising from the commentary booth. Radical!

First you have to take issue with the labelling of the whingers as ‘purists’. We often get this in the arts: the idea that a person has so much historically-informed integrity that they simply won’t hear a Mozart symphony adapted or talked over, conveniently overlooking the fact that Mozart might well have expected both. I happen to think you can’t get much more ‘purist’ than Aimee Fuller and Ed Leigh commenting on a sport they know inside-out and have copious experience of practising themselves in a competitive environment.

And boy did that show against some real ‘bluffers guide’ commentary at other Winter Olympic events. I don’t watch a lot of snowboarding but I thought Aimee Fuller’s words were informative and wholly engaging, not least her ability to capture a particular snowboarder’s key stylistic attributes so succinctly and with such genuine, focused respect – a little like the late Gramophone critic John Steane on operatic voice types.

More importantly, though, Fuller’s commentary allowed anyone to step for a moment into the distinctive world of snowboarding in all its informal and creative brilliance. This is an alternative sport that grew, after its cousin skateboarding, from the urban soil of rebellion and alternative culture. What we got from the BBC was a vicarious reflection of those qualities offered up with total, all-embracing passion. OK, it wasn’t perfect, it bordered on the bawdy (mostly from the men) and it wouldn’t have worked for golf. But it was the reason, along with Jenny Jones’s humble accession to the medal podium, that the commentators wound up in tears and took many of their viewers and listeners with them.

It put me in mind of the final moments of the Gotterdämmerung broadcast from this summer’s Proms, when Sarah Mohr-Pietsch (if I remember rightly) told us, after the cataclysmic end to a monumental Ring cycle, that this was ‘one of the greatest musical experiences of my life’ (I paraphrase). Personally, only a human reaction like that could have topped what I’d just heard – totally elating when you could have legitimately expected a bland ‘Wagner’s Gotterdämmerung there, conducted at the Royal Albert Hall by Daniel Barenboim with the Berlin Staatskapelle…’

The snowboarding controversy has direct relevance to Radio 3, which found itself explaining a decrease in its audience recently to below the 2 million mark. Controller Roger Wright penned a sound defence of his editorial policy in The Telegraph, refuting the allegation that he’s got one eye on Classic FM's listeners. All well and good: the last thing Radio 3 should be doing is chasing Classic FM's listeners (though listening to the village fete quiz questions on Breakfast, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s writ large on the station’s action plan). What Radio 3 can learn from Classic FM, though, is that a radio station needs a sound – an atmosphere – and inconsistency in said atmosphere is a significant turn-off (literally).

Listening to Fuller, Leigh and Warwood getting so excited about Cab Double Corks put me in mind of Andrew MacGregor and friends and their weekly Saturday morning chat about new recordings on CD Review. Now, obviously Gramophone remains the number one destination for guidance on new recordings. But CD Review is an example of how, if information is imparted with integrity, passion, and a disregard for ‘coming across intelligent’, it becomes accessible and engaging by default – however obscure and complex the subject matter or intelligent and technical the observations therein.

MacGregor is often behind the microphone at live concert broadcasts including the Proms, as are other presenters who know precisely how to convey that sense of atmosphere – smiling through their voice, reflecting the wonder of what’s happening in the room using more than just the words they choose. But in my experience that’s on the decline. On the up is a routine, one-step-removed concert commentary that favours highly accurate pronunciation (so ‘accurate’, in fact, that it often becomes highly inaccurate in a realist sense) over any chink of enthusiasm or a sense of communion, of hand-holding, across the airwaves. There was a time when you’d even get excited by the slightly hushed, whispered-in-your-ear introduction to Choral Evensong – as though you were poised behind the choir-stalls, the announcer beckoning you to come closer. These days, presenters tend to rattle through the music list as if they’ve got a train to catch (slowing to emphasise their perfect pronunciation, naturally).

Anyone who claims the Sochi snowboarding commentary wasn’t expert or analytical enough is posturing – on occasion it was downright highbrow in its bandying-around of interior terminology. What those commentators proved – when the males ones weren’t appearing like sex-starved teenagers – was that the best form of live-event commentary seeks to embrace the world in its passion with the side effect of rubbing-off its expertise almost unconsciously. That’s what enchants audiences – not quizzes and ‘demonstration’ pronunciation. Those things only serve to reinforce how much we, the hoi polloi, don’t know, to confuse our own sense of enjoyment and our surrendering to the supernatural, super-human, jaw-dropping and yes, tear-jerking spectacle that is an incredible performance of a great piece of music…or an exhilarating bit of slopestyle snowboarding.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014