BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg’s brilliant musical tributes have been cheering us up during lockdown

His day job is to report from Russia, but the BBC's Steve Rosenberg has a "superpower" of his own...

Steve Rosenberg at the piano

You may well have seen his brave and humane bulletins from Moscow, confronting President Putin over the Salisbury poisoning (“The Kremlin were not amused”) but also sharing personal stories such as that of Valentina, the news vendor and grandmother whose papers haven’t arrived for her to sell.

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But what you may not know is that Steve Rosenberg, since 2003 the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, has a sideline – one that has provided cheer, the odd tear, and a warming rush of nostalgia to his 84,700 Twitter followers during lockdown (@BBCSteveR). A brilliant pianist, Steve is able to capture a zeitgeist, offer a moving tribute or play a selection of TV themes in the space of a few minutes, often with a slavic slant.

“I was seven when I started taking private piano lessons,” he tells Radio Times. “I had a lovely piano teacher. Her name was Mrs Clenshaw… a delightful old lady, kind and patient. She’d always have a mug of Robinsons Lemon Barley Water ready for me when I pitched up after school!

“I read music but I play mostly by ear. I can usually pick up a melody by listening to it a few times. And I enjoy the challenge of performing well-known pieces in different styles. For example, the Postman Pat theme tune in the style of the Russian classics, the Teletubbies theme as a tango, the theme from Fawlty Towers as a bossa nova…”

As inspiration, he once even picked up a copy of Radio Times from 1983 and interpreted a listings page on the piano… (Fantasia on a TV Schedule).

Steve has made around 300 of these in the past three years, and fans will know what little works of art they are. He creates them all himself on his smartphone, then edits them together on his laptop. He’s quite the polymath, I suggest, but he just replies, “Sounds like a parrot that’s good at sums!”

The feedback he receives underlines just how important music is to people. “Especially now. In a world that feels like it’s been turned upside down, music offers a distraction, a refuge, a chance to remember happier times. There’s a big element of nostalgia, too. Especially with theme tunes: they spark all sorts of childhood memories with people. My medley of British TV sports themes has become one of my most popular music videos.

“It can also be deeply moving. Among the videos I post are musical tributes to celebrities who have passed away. I have received several messages from families and friends of the deceased saying they found the music a comfort.” Among those to whom he’s paid musical tribute are Tim Brooke-Taylor, Diego Maradona, Doris Day, Terry Jones and Barbara Windsor.

So, what were the TV shows he loved as a youngster? “Swap Shop, Rentaghost, Play Away, Fawlty Towers, Morecambe and Wise and Eurovision.” And can he narrow down his favourite themes to just one? “Grandstand!”

These days he enjoys programmes like Luther, Silent Witness, Casualty… as well as Eurovision of course. As for what’s big in Russia, Steve says their version of Strictly Come Dancing (Tantsy so zvezdami – Dancing with the Stars) and The Voice (Golos) are very popular. “And a Russian game show called Field of Мiracles, now into its 30th year, which is a combination of several Western TV quiz shows.”

Among his well-known fans is the singer/songwriter Mike Batt (of Wombles and Bright Eyes fame). “We did an impromptu collaboration on Christmas Day,” says Steve. “I posted a version of Wombling Merry Christmas in the style of the Russian classics – and, unexpectedly, he recorded some vocals for it!”

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Right off the Batt! The Wombles – as they appeared on a Radio Times cover in May 2014, and for the very first time in February 1973 – whose theme was composed by Mike Batt

Steve grew up in Chingford, north-east London, and first became interested in Russia aged 13, when the BBC broadcast a Russian language course on TV. “It provided a rare glimpse behind the Iron Curtain and a song from the series really stuck in my head – Goodbye Summer. I became fascinated with the place during Gorbachev’s perestroika when the USSR began to open up and Gorby dominated the news on British TV.”

After graduating from Leeds University in Russian Studies, he went to Moscow to teach English in 1991. “Four months later, the USSR collapsed. Not my fault – honest! Time flies. I can’t believe I’ve lived more than half my life in Russia.”

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Makings of a reporter: Steve as boy, and on a visit to Moscow in 1989. Photos Steve Rosenberg

Steve worked for CBS News, became a BBC producer then reporter, and took up his current position in 2003, though he diverted to Berlin between 2006 and 2010 to become correspondent there. He’s now 53, and he and his Russian wife have a daughter (22) and son (19), both of them living in the UK.

But it was while working at Russian TV in 1996 that Steve secured a Eurovision gig. “I was being given a tour of the building and we wandered into a studio where they were rehearsing Russia’s Song for Europe contest. I got chatting to the director and told him I was a Eurovision fan. ‘Why don’t you come on the show then?’ he said. So that night I was ‘presenter’s friend’ live on Russian TV for the Song for Europe! Funny the things that happen to you in Russia…”

He went on to cover the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest staged in Azerbaijan by playing an excerpt from every Eurovision winning song on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show. And in this Twitter post he plays bits of every UK entry to up to 2020.

But back to that high-pressure day job. What have been his biggest stories to date? “The Kursk submarine disaster and getting reaction to the Salisbury poisoning.” The scariest? “The war in Chechnya.” And the story that’s given him the most pleasure to report on? “Laughter Yoga in Russia!”

But it’s not just laughter that has broken the possible tension of his job… “There are moments when music has helped with my reporting. After an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev a few years ago, I ended up accompanying him on the piano as he sang some of his favourite Russian songs. Very impromptu. But I learnt more about the man in those five musical minutes than in the whole interview: he came across as a very warm, sincere and emotional character.”

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An interview with the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ends in a singsong in 2013

The best aspect of living and reporting in Russia, he says, is the people. “I’ve met some amazing Russians in my time here – I’m proud to say I married one of them! – the range of stories is also incredible, from the serious political to the sublime. I once did a report about a company that had invented a talking vodka bottle top that announced toasts. Each time you took it off the bottle, it became progressively tipsy. What frustrates me, though, is the increasingly anti-Western rhetoric of officials and the state media here.”

One of the styles of news presentation for which Steve wins both admiration and followers is the human touch of his reports – about kiosk owner Valentina, for example. “Personal stories, the experiences of ordinary citizens, can tell you so much more about a country and its people than reports about presidents, prime ministers and geo-politics. The audience really relates to them. When I posted about Valentina’s problems, it was so touching to read the messages of support to her on Twitter.”

The responsible journalist always follows up a story, and only last week, Steve posted an update on Valentina. Her newspapers had arrived, she spoke fondly of her four children and nine grandchildren (“This granny’s got a lot”) and for that one shining moment at least, all was right with the world.

A selection of Steve’s musical tributes is now available on YouTube – top photo of Steve taken by Matthew Goddard. 

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