Treachery, thy name is Edmonds. After decades in which his hairy chops have been clamped about the hind teat of the BBC, Noel Edmonds has announced that he will not pay the licence fee, and I can imagine that some people will declare him a hero.Never mind that he has spent much of his adult life wallowing in the golden Pactolus of BBC light entertainment; no matter that all his grand homes were funded with the proceeds of characters such as Mr Blobby, which the BBC paid him to inflict upon the nation.
In spite of his rank ingratitude, I know that many people will spring to his defence. There will be those who think the BBC is bloated with 20,000 taxpayer-funded journalists, intrinsically likely to take a Left-liberal view of the world, and they will lift a glass to the former laird of Crinkley Bottom.
There will be many who agree with his fundamental point, that the Beeb has become bullying and intemperate in its demands for the licence fee – persecuting innocent householders with demands for £139.50, threatening to distrain their goods and send them to prison when they have never even owned a television.
To everyone who resents this state tax, when the BBC can no longer supply such basic programming as Test match cricket or rugby, Edmonds will be classed as a martyr, a Gandhi, a landmark exponent of civil disobedience.
But not to me, amigos. I think Edmonds is quite wrong, and I speak with all the vehemence of one who spent last Friday evening in a state of ecstatic rapture at the Proms. Take away the licence fee and you take away the Beeb’s ability to spend £6 million on the world’s greatest festival of classical music.
Get rid of the licence fee and you lose the vast red velvet drapes in the Albert Hall saying BBC Proms; and without the BBC Proms there would have been no frenzied Italian conductor, his spasms barely contained by the polished brass of the stand. There would have been no white-jacketed trombonists, no bare-armed female violinists.
There would have been no choir, their silvery hair like magnesium balls of fire in the TV lights, belting out Beethoven’s Ninth, the Ode to Joy, with so much crumping explosive power that it made my neck tingle.
The more I rhapsodise, of course, and the more I expand on my love of the BBC Proms, the louder I can imagine the protests.
But why do we have to pay for this, I hear you say. Why can’t it be funded by Coca-Cola, or Sky, or private subscription of some kind? To which I can only say that yes, I suppose it might be so funded. But then again it might not be. Civilisations can decline. Culture decays. The market is an imperfect preserver of heritage.
There are many moments in history when human beings have lost the understanding of some great art form, and in some cases lost it for centuries.
I want our children, my children, to know and appreciate the Ode to Joy not because it has been admired by every eccentric and demagogue from Hitler to Ian Smith (who made it the national anthem of Rhodesia) to the authors of the Lisbon Treaty on European Union.
I want children to hear it because it is – or so I assert – one of the greatest masterpieces produced in the last two centuries, a beautiful if slightly bonkers poem that gives rise to an even more beautiful melody.
Schiller’s poem is all about Joy, the lovely god-sparked daughter of paradise helping men to become brothers – obviously a good idea, on paper – and with the help of Beethoven these words are elevated into a vast, sublime manifesto for mankind.
The music lifts the poem, the poem infuses the music, and I have to admit I realised for the first time last Friday evening what proper music folk must long since have understood, that there is a complete coincidence of poetic stress and musical beat – so Beethoven must have had those words shooshing around inside his wavy-haired head before he hit on the tune.
The poem actually made the melody, I concluded, and I wished I had been taught more about it at school.
Indeed, I wished there were more music in schools generally, and that our children were taught the heart-breaking story of the Ninth Symphony, how after the first performance the composer was so deaf that he had to be turned by a violinist to face the cheers of the audience.
You can only appreciate that story if you understand the genius of Beethoven, and that means being exposed to him. That is what the Beeb is for. That is the purpose of public service broadcasting.
The BBC Proms laid on the Ninth Symphony last year to huge acclaim. They performed it again this year, and for all I care they can play it again next year.
But I accept that they can’t fill the air with nothing but classical music, and ask everyone in the country to pay for it, when there are probably quite a few people in Britain who think Beethoven was a cuddly dog in a film by Walt Disney studios.
We can’t ask the whole nation to pay for Beethoven, when some licence-fee payers really don’t give a toss about classical music. That is why the BBC has to reach out to the whole nation.
That is why it has to chase ratings and pay for Noel Edmonds and his gang. Mr Blobby, the Tweenies, Iggle Piggle, the Teletubbies: these are the essential sherpas who keep Beethoven on his summit; and by the same token, the BBC could not justify the buying and showing of a load of light entertainment that could be equally well produced by the private sector: hence the Proms, and Radio Three, and the World Service.
That is the essential symmetry. That is the best defence of the licence fee we can muster, and I think it is pretty good. Mr Blobby and Beethoven are yokemates of broadcasting destiny.
As he sits on his millions Noel Edmonds should also reflect that Mr Blobby could never have been created, and the BBC could never have paid for it, had the corporation not also invested in Ludwig van Beethoven.
[Ed: This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 16 September, 2008 under the heading, ‘Noel Edmonds is wrong to say get rid of BBC licence fee: remove it and you lose the Proms’]