Why should I sit on my sofa and watch the Proms?

Jan YounghusbandMon 15th July 2013

That's what the person running the Proms on TV asks herself when planning broadcasts – here's her answers

The Proms are underway and beginning their first full week, and this year I am super excited because we have reshaped how the BBC Proms work on television for our audiences and there is more coverage than ever before. With every concert already live on BBC Radio 3 the question for TV every year is how can television best encapsulate the season for the audience at home? Our audiences on TV, as on radio, enjoy context but adding the pictures is a totally different way of experiencing a concert. On radio the presenter has to conjure an image of the hall for the listener, who is imagining being there; television shows the pictures and asks the audience to watch the concert as if they were in the hall. What the pictures are actually delivering is as important as the script and not many people know that every director can read music so that they can make appropriate directing decisions. The quality of sound is also crucial to what our audience will see. New for this year is that we have added a stereo TV sound mix so it should be an even richer sound experience for our viewing audience than ever before. To get this sound the audience will just need to check the settings on their television to ensure they are set-up right to receive it.

The first step this year in our planning was to think of how we could shape the concerts on TV, so that they did more than just pop up each week, but had a real sense of narrative, in the same way that the Proms season is a musical journey in the Royal Albert Hall. What’s the 'take out', that terrible TV phrase, or more brutally, why should I sit on my sofa and watch this performance for 2 hours? This year we thought we would shape the concerts as mini-TV series on regular nights to make them hopefully easier to find and also to give them an interesting narrative shape. 

The sense of the programmes needing a shape came from my own research last year, when people asked me 'how do you choose which Proms go on TV?'. Well of course I don't choose them on my own, but the question raised the idea of the rationale for choosing. I should qualify this by saying, we can't film every concert, for a variety of reasons ranging from rights to TV slots. So making sense of the choice was this year's challenge, and I hope the audience will enjoy what we have come up with. 

This year we will have three nights of concerts per week on BBC Four, themed as series: Thursday nights' series is called Orchestras of the World, presented by Katie Derham; Friday nights are individual treats to enjoy at the end of a long week; and Sunday nights are a series of 20th-century masterworks presented by Tom Service with a documentary about new classical music both at the Proms and in the wider classical world. In the past the new compositions at the Proms have been in the main TV concert coverage but this year we wanted to have enough time to talk about these new works and the composers, which is why they will form their own strand on Sunday nights. I wanted to give these works enough time to be discussed in detail. 

To help our audience navigate the Proms, we are also adding a weekly highlights show on BBC Two Proms Extra, to look at the great moments of the week, meet the artists and look ahead to the treats in store. We are all busy people and not able to watch or listen every night, so we hope it will help the audience catch up and plan ahead. The iPlayer carries the concerts through the week so you can always catch up when you have time. Making the concerts available is key. 

We work very hard to deliver the atmosphere of the Proms and to deliver a sense of being at the Royal Albert Hall on the TV screen for the viewers at home. A lot of thought goes into the camera positions, lighting, and the look of the hall, with every concert painstakingly scripted to capture exactly the right instrumental solo in the orchestra, or that special look as the conductor comes on stage. Actually it's the best view in the house, and we want the audiences at home to feel there is an advantage to that and not that they are missing out by not being at the hall.

There are a number of decisions that need to be made when pictures come in to the frame. For instance, the Royal Albert Hall is an incredible building but a camera looking close-up at masking tape on a stage floor can be a distraction from the wonderful music making and so we paint the floor. You can also lose the sense of scale and majesty of the hall if the lighting’s not right. The aim of the pictures is to translate the sense of being at the concert to the screen. Lighting and careful camera angles capture the scale and warmth of the building. The Proms TV department is a very experienced team, and every year we refresh what we are doing, looking for new ways, and embracing new technology. The LED screens at the back of the stage for example, are not only an environmentally friendly source of light, but also create a fantastic ambience around the musicians, giving a filmic quality on screen.

We do a lot of large-scale performance, so this year in addition to clarifying the rest of our TV offer, we wanted to capture a season of chamber music from Cadogan Hall. It's the first time we’ve done this. The concerts will be available online during the summer and next January they will also form the spine of a new four-part series about chamber music presented by Petroc Trelawny.

Some say the Proms signals the start of summer and I truly believe that. There are so many riches this year I couldn’t choose just the one favourite moment, but I can run off a few things I can’t wait for: Tony Pappano and Santa Cecilia, the United States of America Youth Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, actually, too many to list. I wish our audience a really great summer at the Proms and hope you enjoy the broadcasts.

The BBC Proms runs until September 7: for broadcast details, visit the Proms website. For full coverage of this year's Proms season, see the July issue of Gramophone, on sale now

Jan Younghusband's picture

Jan Younghusband

Jan Younghusband is Commissioning Editor, BBC Music & Events. Since joining the BBC in 2009 her commissions include the BBC Proms coverage, Howard Goodall’s Story of Music, The Sound and the Fury – A Century of Music, and Starkey’s Royal Pageant. Prior to joining the BBC, Jan was Head of Arts & Performance at Channel 4 (photo: Charlotte Steeples)

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