Michael Oliver: a personal memoir by Lewis Foreman
The well-known broadcaster and critic Michael Oliver died suddenly and
unexpectedly from a cerebral aneurism on 1 December 2002 at the age
of 65. The funeral, at Golders Green Crematorium, on the morning of
Sunday 8 December was attended by many familiar names from the world
of music and records.
I first met Michael Oliver on BBC Radio London in 1973
where under the sympathetic and far-seeing eye of Tom Vernon (later
celebrated for his ‘fat man on a bicycle’ programmes) a variety of later
familiar radio voices cut their teeth at the microphone, including Chris
de Souza and Piers Burton Page. Michael’s broadcasting was then very
much a ‘moonlighting’ activity and I remember him rushing out of the
studio at the end of one interview, possibly in 1974, to catch a plane
to Sweden to represent his company selling industrial heating and air
conditioning equipment. Quite how much Michael actually knew
about industrial heating equipment I never found out – but his air of
authority which would later be familiar to all whom heard him on the
radio – was already formidable.
Never having been on the radio, one day in 1973 I was
phoned by Tom Vernon who said he understood I knew something about Bax
and would I be willing to be interviewed on air as an introduction to
BBC Radio London’s broadcast of one of Leslie Head’s concerts with the
Kensington Symphony Orchestra. (Radio London made a feature of broadcasting
local concerts and operas which programmed interesting and unusual repertoire.)
I agreed and on arrival at the studio (in Hanover Square) met Michael
for the first time. He said they were expecting a power cut (it was
during the "three day week" period of the Heath government)
and this would curtail the programme, but we might be on for 10 minutes.
No need for a script – we had a pile of records and if I would give
Michael the first question he would feed it to me and then I could respond
illustrating my point with a record. While that was playing we could
go on to the next question, and so on. Being Michael, of course, it
was not quite as casual as it seemed and he had already briefed himself
formidably about our subject and every question was actually put with
an authority and an edge that transcended my hastily scribbled notes.
Of course the expected power cut never came and as a consequence I found
myself on air live with Michael for some 40 minutes, without a script!
He threw it off with characteristic aplomb – he was already the seasoned
This was a topical music programme and Tom Vernon with
Michael as his front man used it to bring the musical good and the great
to the microphone as they arrived in London for concerts at the capital’s
concert halls. Here Michael honed his radio technique, and rapidly became
known for his relaxed yet searching style, and most significantly made
his number with The Powers that Be in Broadcasting House. Although he
had no formal musical qualifications his knowledge was already formidable.
Soon he began to be heard on the BBC’s national networks.
Michael Edgar Oliver was born in Hammersmith on 20
July 1937, the son of a plumber who was able to pass his enthusiasm
for music on to his son. Michael was fortunate to live in Hammersmith
one of the few west London boroughs in the 1950s with a record section
in the public library, a section which also fed my own teenage obsession
for music. Michael attended St Clement Danes Grammar School, then in
Du Cane Road next to Hammersmith Hospital, and was in the fifth form
when I arrived there in the Autumn of 1953. Michael did not shine at
School, did not participate in the very cliquey Danes music scene, and
left before the sixth form. He later worked in a public library and
took a course in Librarianship though I fancy he never chartered. Later
he switched to the London School of Printing. He was just caught by
the final years of National Service and as a conscientious objector
opted to work in a hospital, both in the mortuary and the kitchen. Later,
as a member of CND he was arrested during a demonstration, and refusing
to pay the fine found himself in Brixton Prison.
During the 1960s and early 70s Michael had a variety
of jobs to keep body and soul together while vigorously pursuing his
musical interests, and these gradually brought him to the notice of
the musical world, a typical example being Bryan Fairfax’s Polyphonia
orchestra of which Michael was a Board member. He was thus intimately
involved with Fairfax’s pioneering Percy Grainger Festival on London’s
South Bank in 1970 and the Festival Hall concert performance of Bliss’s
opera The Olympians in February 1972, for which Michael also
wrote the programme notes. On the latter Michael could keep one in stitches
with his deadpan recollections of the committee meetings, particularly
when remembering Bliss’s peppery discussion of cuts to the score.
Three longstanding appointments gave him the canvas
on which to establish himself to a national audience – first he started
writing for Gramophone magazine in 1973; in 1974 he became a
presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope, a role that lasted for 13 years;
while most influential of all, in 1975 he took over as presenter of
BBC Radio 3’s longstanding Sunday morning programme Music Weekly which
he made an essential part of the musical week, his distinctive voice
and style seemingly unchangeable until summarily ended in the face of
‘dumbing down’ after 15 years.
Michael first met Tony Pollard, then owner of Gramophone
magazine, when he interviewed him live on Radio London in 1973 at the
time of the magazine’s golden jubilee celebrations. This was one of
those Radio London interviews which ran on, and it must have lasted
nearly an hour. Pollard was impressed by the trouble Michael had gone
to researching their interview and tried him out as a reviewer writing
for Gramophone’s then new magazine Cassettes & Cartridges.
Michael soon migrated to Gramophone, at first publishing
interviews with artists then in the news. Not the least success of Michael’s
was the way in which, with no academic musical qualifications, he quickly
secured the regard of the old guard among Gramophone’s reviewers
Michael was remarkably thorough and did not accept
a commitment if he could not deal with it promptly. In 1974 I invited
him to contribute a chapter to my book British Music Now in which
I asked him to discuss some nine living British composers. On calling
at the British Music Information Centre a few days later I found him
sitting there, headphones on and surrounded by boxes of tapes, listening
to every available work of the composers involved. His chapter is still
cited where the composers covered are concerned.
Given his head Michael not only refreshed the BBC’s
Sunday morning Music Magazine, but in time he made a number of valuable
innovations of which the most striking was the occasional programmes
when the whole hour was devoted to one topic which started with his
feature on The Frankfurt Gang (Cyril Scott, Percy Grainger and their
contemporaries) broadcast in October 1977. Later came "The Land
of Lost Content" on John Ireland (October 1979), "The battle
against Philistinism was won on the playing fields of Eton", a
programme on Parry broadcast in March 1980, and best of all "The
Golden Age Has Passed", his portrait of Arnold Bax (6 November
1983). Not only did these programmes thoroughly explore the existing
archives but also included newly recorded interviews, thus creating
new archives. Yet without Michael’s remarkable editorial skills and
links the programmes would not have had the impact and authority which
they had. Later he developed this with features such as "Mr Handel
of Brook Street" exploring the eighteenth century world of Handel
from the perspective of the composer’s surviving house in London, now
the Handel Museum. Subsequently he presented the radio series Soundings
which ran for three years.
Michael’s passion was opera – and he contributed memorable
assessments to the Radio 3 Saturday morning feature Building a Library
– and was at work on Massenet’s Werther when he died. Unfortunately,
despite achieving his last Radio Times billing for it on 21 December,
he died before he could complete it. A new prospect seemed to be opening
for him when he was invited to edit Gramophone’s new quarterly
magazine International Opera Collector which started in
1996. "I want to encourage good writing" he said, and
certainly was able to do so until the magazine was closed after only
13 issues, as a consequence of the sale of all the Gramophone
magazines in July 1999. Michael’s letter to contributors announcing
the closure was muted and almost despairing.
On Gramophone he was often given less well-known
repertoire to review, which he dealt with with sympathy and authority.
His particular area of interest was twentieth century music. Michael
only turned to writing books after Music Weekly ended, and in the mid-1990s
he produced two volumes in Phaidon’s "20th-Century Composers"
series, on Britten and Stravinsky, both showing his characteristic style
and sympathy with the music. Later he edited the transcripts of the
series "Settling the Score" the documentaries that accompanied
Radio 3’s enormous project Sounding the Century with the subtitle "A
journey through the music of the 20th century".
Michael could be generous in support of good causes.
When in 1990 I was organising the British Music Society’s seminar on
the problems of music publishing and archives (the transcript published
as Lost and Only Sometimes Found) at the British Music
Information Centre, Michael immediately undertook to be the chairman,
refusing a fee. In his opening remarks he confessed "I tend to
be a bit of an optimist in these matters. I am absolutely convinced,
for example, that all those missing Monteverdi operas are going to turn
up. They are in a library where no one would dream of finding them.
They are either mis-catalogued or they are not catalogued . . . I have
a confession to make here . . . I don’t imagine anyone in this room
has ever heard a performance of Sullivan’s masque Kenilworth.
The reason that you have not heard it is that the only source of the
orchestral material was, until recently, languishing in a private library
– mine! And the reason it was languishing there is that I am an ignoramus
as far as Sullivan was concerned. I did not know it is the only source."
An essentially simple man, despite his enormous knowledge
– he could always cap any story - his friendly manner always had a slightly
reserved air about it. I never heard him raise his voice. Once after
recording Music Weekly the topic of conversation was money, and Michael
admitted that he could not understand how people could get themselves
into debt – he had always been terrified of not being able to pay his
way. And during such discussions a faintly amused smile would play on
his lips as he performed his regular virtuoso ritual of rolling a cigarette,
often with one hand. Michael gave an aristocratic flourish to this essentially
Michael’s other enthusiasm was Italy, whence he escaped
with increasing frequency. While enjoying his BBC radio successes in
the 1980s he had been able to buy a small rural apartment near Perugia,
and without the pressures of weekly broadcast deadlines it became a
distant refuge, where he wrote his more extended publications.
The last of his reviews are still appearing. The January
2003 issue of BBC Music Magazine has five classic Oliver
pieces covering composers as varied as Bax, Crumb Dutilleux and Depraz,
Ibert, Ligeti and the quite unknown Gideon Lewensohn. Michael opened
his review of the latter by remarking that his subject "is an agreeably
rum customer" and ending "Very odd indeed . . . but at the
moment I’m hooked". Sad indeed that Michael’s enquiring mind and
eloquent pen have been stilled so soon.
obituary by Garry Humphreys
Picture courtesy of Gramophone. Photographer: