There is a growing trend at the Proms for “cross-channel”, if you will, programming: concerts which are based on popular BBC television programmes such as Dr Who, Sherlock and Life Story with Sir David Attenborough, or in collaboration with BBC radio stations other than Radio 3. Thus this year we have had the uber crowd-pleasing Radio 1 Pete Tong “Ibiza” Prom and the rather less successful BBC Asian Network Prom. The final Prom in this genre was Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights Prom, based on his quirky late-night Radio 4 programme.

Jarvis Cocker presents the BBC Radio 4’s Wireless Nights Prom © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Jarvis Cocker presents the BBC Radio 4’s Wireless Nights Prom
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

I have enjoyed Cocker’s radio programmes, in which the former Pulp frontman-turned-national-treasure explores the human condition after dark, with stories of night people and the strange things people get up to after dark (it’s not what you think!). A chronic insomniac himself, Cocker admits to using music to help himself drop off to sleep, and there is definitely something soporific about his programme – his mellifluous softly-spoken narration and the unusual subjects interspersed with music. The medium of transmission, by radio, often (perhaps) at the listener’s bedside (this is certainly how I enjoy this programme) is intimate and cosy, regardless of the subject matter being explored. And he has explored some strange stuff, from lurking on an allotment waiting for badgers to appear to Richard Nixon’s dead of night voice memoranda, in which the president’s favourite Rachmaninov recordings can be heard playing at full volume in the background.

This late night Prom promised to take the audience on an underwater journey, and to help set the scene, the auditorium was bathed in rippling blue-green light, while the panel behind the orchestra played an unobtrusive montage of marine images. Jarvis Cocker rose into the middle of the arena prone on a bed, dressed like a librarian in a brown suit, and introduced the evening’s entertainment as “recorded testimonies of real people who have had real life and death experiences below the ocean”. These recordings were interspersed with music, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Maxime Tortelier. To get us in the mood, and as a reminder perhaps that this format normally resides on BBC Radio 4, the first musical interlude was Sailing By, the tune by Ronald Binge which precedes the late-night Shipping Forecast.

The Prom then proceeded with the “recorded testimonies” from two men, both called Roger, trapped in a submersible, a free diver, and a man on the hunt for the giant squid, together with languid interjections and commentary from Cocker. All of the music performed had a watery theme, from “Aquarium” from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals to Ocean Rain by Echo and the Bunnymen (in an interesting arrangement for orchestra, choir and vocals, provided by Cocker himself) and Debussy’s La cathèdrale engloutie, in a turgid arrangement by Colin Matthews, which lacked nearly all the drama of the original piano version and added very little by its orchestration. Maybe the orchestra wasn’t really into it, but the playing was by and large enjoyably bland. The Overture to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman had potential, but the orchestra never really took flight and the music lacked the requisite drama. The soundtrack to the film Jaws was toothless, despite the potential offered by the score for a menacing and exciting rendition. The audience was, however, afforded a wonderful opportunity to hear the Royal Albert Hall organ in action, and if Cocker’s voice didn’t really have enough power or interest for that cavernous space, those audience members who had come specifically to be in his presence were probably satisfied by what they heard.

As an “entertainment” it worked, up to a point – that being the one where radio has an advantage over a live presentation: you do at least have the option of the off switch when the proceedings become too languorous. And if the Wireless Nights Prom encourages those who have not heard live classical music before to sample more, then it can be considered a success. But for me the intimate format of the original radio programme did not translate successfully to the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall, nor were the musical excerpts sufficiently interesting to hold my attention.