Give John Suchet a date between December 1770 and March 1827, and he’ll tell you what his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven, was doing on that day. He could probably even say what he had for breakfast.
So mad is Suchet on Beethoven that when he was an ITN news reporter, he travelled to a war zone with the Eroica symphony playing on a Walkman to comfort him. He’s retraced Beethoven’s journey as a teenage washer-upper on a barge up the Rhine. LVB was his specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind (he came second). Furthermore, it wouldn’t go too far to say that Beethoven has, in effect, saved his life.
Suchet, 67, a TV journalist and broadcaster for over 40 years, is now a man who wholly defines the affectionate phrase “silver fox”. No longer the news anchor, he sits in his studio at Classic FM where he has hosted his own show since January.
We start off by tidying up a few wrongly held beliefs. “At Classic FM, we never cut music up into chunks. We never fade out. And, yes, we play music written for movies. But don’t you think Mozart would be writing for the movies today? Or Beethoven be using a synthesizer? Do you know that Für Elise is one of the most popular downloads ever for mobile phones?”
So in love with Classic FM is Suchet that he carries a copy of the all-time Hall of Fame in his briefcase. He does! He loves this seemingly never-ending survey of the top 300 pieces of classical music, as voted for by listeners. What really gets him going is the epic struggle between Wolfgang and Ludwig in the list. “At the moment, there are more Mozart pieces in the top ten.” Boo. “But I can tell you that Beethoven ranks higher with his Emperor piano concerto.” Yay!
A couple of years ago, things were not so good. They were terrible, in fact. Suchet had retired from television, but instead of enjoying time with his beloved wife Bonnie, he was in the horrendous position of watching her decline into the twilight world of Alzheimer’s disease.
At first, he cared for Bonnie in their London flat, but as the dementia progressed he was obliged to arrange a care home to look after her. Alone and grief-stricken, Suchet was at probably the lowest ebb of his life. “I thought, ‘What shall I do?’ Shall I write another book on Beethoven [he’s just finished his sixth] that three people will read? And then, out of the blue, bof!”
It was a phone call from Classic FM managing director Darren Henley. Would Suchet like to host his own show? “I nearly fell over,” says Suchet. “It could not have come at a better time in my life; I needed to be helped to move on. It’s given me a reason to get up in the morning, it really has.”
There was only one caveat. Not too much about Beethoven. Well, that’s OK, because Suchet also has a soft spot for Wagner. And Strauss. And everyone else who’s ever picked up an instrument, it seems. “Suddenly, I’m broadcasting about classical music.” Suchet smiles. There’s a lot of twinkle in the room. “It’s as if I have died and gone to heaven.”
Of his wife, there is no doubt her condition is still the heaviest of loads. She has now been in a home for two years. “All I will say about the wretched disease is that it is taking its course,” he says sadly. “You don’t expect things to get better. They will only get worse. Her eyes light up when she sees me, but I have no idea if she knows who I am.
“But without diminishing it, or putting her to one side in any way, I am building a life. I’ve moved house. I’m now a ten-minute bike ride from my brother David [TV’s Hercule Poirot], of whom I now see a lot. And I have a job.” He looks at me squarely. “The two important things are: what would Bon want for me? And secondly, if I give in and wallow, then dementia has another victim, hasn’t it?”
He’s had a lot to learn. He admits that as a TV reporter, he used to be sniffy about radio. “I’ll never be sniffy again! It’s much more immediate and intimate than television, and boy, is it difficult. I have an experienced producer who tells me when it’s a good idea to say something, and when not to. It’s a real challenge to be learning something new.”
It’s fun, too. No prizes for guessing who wrote Suchet’s favourite piece of classical music (Piano Sonata, Opus 110, which he says tells the entire tragic story of Beethoven’s life), but he seems to want to wrap his arms around the whole classical world. He loves the fact that Classic FM is much more, well, personable than Radio 3.
When we meet, he’s hopping up and down, having ushered in a new idea: classical music for animals. “I went down to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home the other day and learnt they have classical music on in the kennels, 24/7. Apparently, it calms the dogs down! So I mentioned it on air and was I overwhelmed!” He even had a listener who plays Classic FM to herds of cows.
“So we came up with Pet of the Day. Half the office said that’s a terrible idea, the other half said why not? So we put it to the listeners. Which way do you think it went?” He nearly jumps off his chair with the pleasure of telling me. “100 per cent yes!” he says, slapping his thighs.
“So we think we might do it! You won’t hear that on Radio 3!”Border collies listening to Bach. Cows getting into Chopin. Yes, it’s cheesy and it will affront the purists, but it would be an ungenerous person who would deny John Suchet the delights of this late-career switch, Pet of the Day and all.
John Suchet can be heard on Classic FM weekday mornings from 9am