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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 pro.

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 panel.

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 humble activity.

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.


See also obituary by Garry Humphreys

Picture courtesy of Gramophone. Photographer: Bayley

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