A special musical memory of John Humphreys from 2004

Thursday 19th September was the day John Humphreys retired from the BBC ‘Today’ programme. When someone who is such a familiar voice, a legend in his time, is suddenly ‘not there’ any more – at least in the form of a voice emerging from the little plastic box on the table each morning whilst eating fruit and muesli – it really is quite a loss. John Humphreys is such a legend, infuriating at times, but for me always very thought-provoking in his questions and constant search for the truth, rather than settling for the message that interviewees would like to put across.

His interests are wide-ranging, not least in music and the arts. When I was setting up an event in Manchester called ‘Beautiful Bassoons’ in 2004, I decided to send a press release to the ‘Today’ programme – on paper, in the post. As I posted it, I felt certain that it was the waste of a postage stamp, but I did it anyway. To my astonishment, I received a phone call from one of the researchers on the programme, saying that they wanted to me talk to John Humphreys! I really could not believe my ears… They were interested in my project, as it was a part of the ‘Endangered Species’ Government project set up by Estelle Morris to promote musical instruments that were not being taken up and played in sufficient numbers by young musicians.

If I was surprised (and of course delighted) by their positive response, I was even less prepared for the mini-drama that led up to the live broadcast. On Saturday 14th August 2004, I was working at Dartington Summer School in Devon, and the BBC had booked a local Devon taxi firm to take me to BBC Radio Plymouth where I was to talk to John and play the bassoon live on the programme down the BBC line – the slot was just after the review of the daily papers at 8.40am. They booked a taxi for 7.30am, leaving plenty of time to get to Plymouth and set up in the microscopic studio they had there. I waited at the entrance to Dartington College – 7.30 came and went, no taxi arrived. I received a call on my mobile from the BBC researcher to check that all was well, and the news of no taxi was clearly a big worry – they chased the taxi firm,. but still no taxi arrived. By 8.10am I decided that the only way to get there was to drive. I had half an hour before the broadcast, and it takes no less than 20 minutes to get to Plymouth from Dartington – I had no Satnav and didn’t know where BBC Radio Plymouth was located! Somehow – I’ve no idea how – I found my way, arrived at this tiny studio in the city suburbs, and shot into the room with a single microphone with 90 seconds to spare. They were just reviewing the papers as I hastily put up my bassoon, soaked the reed, blew a couple of notes to give the London engineers a sound level check, then 10 seconds later I was ‘on air’ with My Humphreys himself! Trying not to sound too breathless, I explained to him that my event was for anyone who played the bassoon, or for anyone who might be interested in discovering the bassoon. Of course, a more experienced interviewee than me would have anticipated John’s next question “But if they are not interested in the bassoon, why would they go, and therefore what effect will it have?” Luckily, part of the answer lay in the fact that I had been given the chance to talk and play on the ’Today’ programme, which of course did get through to a huge number of people. I then played a short Hungarian folk melody (which was included in a piece I had performed at Dartington that week) – despite the total absence of a warm-up, and having to play in a dead studio roughly the size of a small bedroom, I think it came across OK!

John was of course very kind in his questioning – I’m glad I was not a politician in that position! It was clear that he was genuinely interested in the subject, and indeed his wide-ranging interest in and support for music and the arts is well documented. The result was that the event, 2 months later, had a huge response with nearly 100 people coming to this free-admission event at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, either playing the bassoon or trying it for the first time. My colleagues Anthea Wood and Peter Wesley joined me in leading this event, and the BBC were there again (Radio 3 this time) and recorded someone who played their very first note on the bassoon – now that is one interesting way to get yourself on the radio! They also recording the 58-player bassoon ensemble assembled for the event, and the result was a 15-minute programme on ‘endangered species’ broadcast during the interval of a Radio 3 evening concert a few weeks later.

I cannot imaging that he will remember this moment in his long career, but I will say it anyway – thank you John for all your fantastic work, and especially for helping in the cause of promoting the bassoon to young musicians. It’s a cause very close to my heart, as those of you who know me are very well aware, and to have a boost of this kind is so valuable.

By the way, the taxi eventually turned up at Dartington College – exactly one hour late!

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