Classic Compton Mackenzie put-downs

Compton Mackenzie: Gramophone's first editor (photo: Tully Potter)Compton Mackenzie: Gramophone's first editor (photo: Tully Potter)

Reading Compton Mackenzie's editorials from the 1920s and 1930s in the Gramophone Archive can be immensely entertaining, particularly as he wasn't one to suffer fools, as the extracts below gleefully demonstrate.

1) To a correspondent of the Radio Times 

'I read in the current number of the Radio Times the following letter: "Love songs, love songs, that's what I want...it is love that makes life worth living. I enjoy all the programmes except Chamber Music. That, I think, is beastly".

'This sort of opinion may be merely the bray of a jackass heard over a hedge as we pass along a country road, but there is no reason why we should tether jackasses alongside public thoroughfares. The jackass may think his braying melodious, and our present attitude of fulsome indulgence toward idiots may end in our coming to think so ourselves. The word "idiot" is derived from a Greek word which means "a private person". I need not stress this point further. I have no wish to persecute people who do not like chamber music so long as they realise that their dislike of it indicates a lack of something in themselves. I have no desire to persecute or torment or jeer at or sneer at any human being who suffers from a mental or a physical deficiency; but when these abnormal creatures advertise their deficiencies, then persecution becomes a public service.' (Gramophone, July 1929)

2) On Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto

'Personally, I should call it Tchaikovsky's greatest work. It never conveys an impression of exacerbated nerves, and while it is full of lovely melodies, it never degenerates into sentimentality, or into that odious whining to which the composer became so prone.' (Gramophone, January 1927)

3) On the singer, Melville Gideon

'I can no longer enjoy Mr Melville Gideon in a sentimental mood. He reminds me of one of those lost children one occasionally meets in a park sobbing to himself. At first one is touched and wishes to help the poor little boy, but when in spite of one's sympathy he continues to cry one feels that perhaps his parents intended to lose him and that it may be unwise to interfere in other people's domestic affairs. I really believe that Mr Melville Gideon is dreaming of his sweetheart and I readily believe that he cannot do without her, but that is his affair not mine. If I could find his sweetheart I would restore her to him on the chance that he would once again sing to us those charming and cheerful little songs he used to sing so delightfully instead of this whining American rubbish.' (Gramophone, September 1928)

4) In defence of the BBC

'I do not profess to understand what lies behind the present campaign of the popular press against the BBC. But I presume that, like most outbursts of moral indignation, it arises from jealousy. It is the duty of every reader of this paper to use any influence he may possess to combat the barbarian attack which has suddenly been launched all along the line. Here is a hee-haw from a jackass with exceptionally long ears who calls himself "A Listener" and whose brays are published on the chief page of the Daily Mirror of January 15th: "Instead of bright musical comedy selections that always appeal we are treated to an excess of the symphonic, and modern English composers have been crowded out by ancient Germans, Austrians, and Russians...If the BBC can regain the intimate human touch it had when broadcasting began and make our evenings bright with English songs and melodies, instead of the excessively intricate compositions of ancient foreigners, a boom in wireless will come again". 

'Quite what a "boom in wireless" means I do not know, but I presume it means that a hundred thousand cretins like the author of this article will waste their money in buying new gadgets to deal with the selections from modern English musical comedy, which are to fill the ether when dance music is not being played. The action of the popular press in arming these criminal lunatics to help them in a campaign against the BBC is, with the exception of the vile personal attack on Venizelos in 1922, the most cynical abuse of power in which it has hitherto indulged itself. The BBC has had to contend with hostility on all sides and that at the present moment it is able to offer every day a programme of such remarkable variety, interest, and utility, must be regarded as an unqualified triumph. I have hardly ever read in the press a tribute to what it has achieved, outside, of course, the pages of the Radio Times, and even there the BBC has shown itself extremely sparing of self-praise.' (Gramophone, February 1927)

5) Criticizing the critics

'I wish those estimable gentlemen who write criticisms of the wireless programmes in the various daily papers would not lick the boots of the more ignorant part of the public by taking every opportunity to sneer at chamber music when it appears in the wireless programme. There is no more contemptible spectacle than that of a critic fawning on what he imagines is a popular taste. If these spaniels must howl when chamber music is being played, let them go and howl in their own kennels, not in the public thoroughfares of the press. If the quartets of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven are unpopular with the majority of wireless listeners, the only reflection is upon those listeners. We do not congratulate a man because he has a boil on the tip of his nose. The poor fellow cannot help it, and all we can do is to hope it will soon burst. But the wireless critics spend their time congratulating listeners on their stupidity and obstinacy and lack of taste. Jack may be as good as his master nowadays, but he is not so good as an old master yet. I should like to send some of these flunkeys of democracy up to Lancashire to talk to "A Working Lad". He is the sort of chap that restores one's faith in human nature after reading some of the nonsense which passes for wireless criticism. These critics seem awed by the attentions they receive from the public; but nowadays if a jackass brays on the other side of a hedge, I wager some passer-by will go home and write him a letter.' (Gramophone, November 1931)

6) On the BBC's change of tone at the outbreak of the Second World War

'I shall not expatiate this month upon the breakdown of the BBC. Mercifully, with our gramophones we can be independent of its vulgarity, of its amateurish incompetence, of its synthetic cheerfulness, and of the deplorable attempt by the announcers to put their voices into khaki.' (Gramophone, November 1939)

7) On the first radio broadcast of the football match

'The first description of a football match in progress was given on Saturday, January 15, and I hope that it will only be the first of many, for a pleasanter way of spending an afternoon in bed than listening to a football match I cannot imagine. I couldn't help being very much amused by the different ideals of the two describers. One of them was determined that at all costs the section map of the Twickenham ground issued by BBC should be utilised by listeners; the other forgot all about the map and communicated most successfully his own excitement. "Corbett has just collared Roberts. No, he hasn't, Roberts is away again," one describer would cry, and then with a solemn, almost a macabre relish, the other would add "In section two". "That was a fine bit of play, wasn't it?" the interesting describer would ask excitably, and like a funeral bell there would come the reply "In section four". At half time the interesting describer went off for a drink, which he deserved as much as the players deserved their slices of lemon, and the academic describer, having matters all his own way, indulged in some antidiluvian humour of his own during the interval. During the second half either the interesting describer was beginning to tire, or else the other had had a couple of drinks without saying anything about it. At any rate, during the second half the sections were allowed to interfere far too much with the description of the play. 

'I suggest that for the next match a couple of describers of the same kind are used so that we shall get the effect of two excited spectators rather than of a heavily built uncle trying to suppress his nephew from time to time.' (Gramophone, February 1927)

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