The thinking man's musical linoleum

Edward Pearce tunes into the Third Programme; The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3 by Humphrey Carpenter, Weidenfeld, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Radio Three, Network Three, the Third Programme - the earnest channel of the BBC is a topic at once exhilarating and melancholy, indispensable and insufferable, a thing created by the old shirt-fronted, nostril-arching BBC which was yet a better thing than the Murdoch-sensitive axis of John Birt, Mr Blobby and Chris Evans. Radio Three is an irritant and a delight, the Third a folk memory of remote and loftily announced ancient names: "Produced by Douglas Cleverdon, devised by D.G. Bridson, music written by P. Racine Fricker and performed by Noel Mewton-Wood, parts played by Carleton Hobbes and Stephen Murray." Oh my Herbage and my Tiller long ago... Humphrey Carpenter, in a brief vacation from a busy life annoying the Church of England, has produced a history of an organism only 50 years old this year, but with all the archdeacons, factions and scandals you could ask for. William Haley the ur-founder wrote a memorandum under the heading "Title": "Many suggestions have been made, simple and recondite: Arts Programme, Programme C, Droitwich Programme, Minerva Programme... I think we are not likely to do better than to adopt the already publicly adopted The Third Programme."

During a commercial panic at the rise of television in the late Fifties, it became "Network Three" and lost a lot of time. (Though not Radio Minerva, it flew by night, with its start put back to 8.00 pm). It also had drawn up for it a memorandum of the hobbies and other useful scraps which could be substituted for Sir Wllliam's high culture, addressed to "persons of taste, of intelligence and of education". The memo listed the following as suitable subjects: "5. Decoration of walls/ floors/ cellings, i.e. mosaics, frescoes, murals, etc. This might make three programmes. 6. Specialised cooking. 7. Indoor gardening, e.g. Window boxes, pot plants, Japanese gardens etc."

The BBC coming to terms with commerce is never a pretty sight. But fortunately the Bonsai-and-cake-decoration period was a mere interim between Haley's high culture (which no-one in the Chris Evans era should deride) and the thinking man's musical linoleum of today. Perhaps Radio Three will be sold to Stagecoach and required to advertise bras and fish fingers, but as with Covent Garden, the friends of a public good have a way of rallying round, writing to the Times and getting non-accountancy treatment. The bankrupt, sterile Garden isn't worth the unfairness it enjoys, but some of us would pay a higher licence fee to have Tallis and Tippett or (a recent pleasure from Three) a sensitive documentary play about the short sweet life of the English composer, Gerald Finzi.

(What may undermine Radio Three as a music programme might just be the best small recording companies. If commerce can give you, as Naxos does, 17th-century Portuguese liturgical music or the flute quartets of Fredrik Kuhlau - both delightful - for a fiver, it treads on the heels of Three.)

On music, Carpenter is interesting and gossipy, but agnostic. He charts neutrally the rise of William Glock and a regime of sub-Soviet prescriptions, of compulsory Boulez, non-optional Maxwell Davies. He also records the response to this of Hans Keller and Robert Simpson. Keller had written in 1956, of the avant-gardist claque, "they have never yet discovered a bad work written in it. Every single dodecaphoney piece is praised for some reason or other; apply to Webern and you can't go wrong." Sir John Drummond at his last Last Night of the Proms, commanding a filling-jangler of random noise from Birtwistle before coming on stage to accept a piece of bent metal which he described as significant modern work, is the logical fulfilment of Keller's judgment and a reminder that nobody working for money would do anything so silly.

Simpson, a real composer, sent Glock a memo after a grotesque overun of a Maxwell Davies piece - "What kind of composer is it that can miscalculate the length of his own work by some 45%?" - and discounting "an almost featureless mass of squashed Schoenberg". People had not left the hall in shoals because of bizarre effects, he added. "It was pure tedium engendered by lack of invention and lack of genuine motion that drove them out." It remains a sad illustration of the weakness of public service broadcasting that the Glock-and-after regime excluded so much and imposed so much from the 20th century and that Simpson, who had focused Bruckner and practically discovered Nielsen, walked away. Ironically, after a recorded cycle of Simpson's nine symphonies have been acclaimed, Radio 3 characteristically marked his 75th birthday with silence.

The avant-garde was made a magnificent monkey of in the brilliant drama series of the Fifties which, starting with A Very Great Man Indeed, was wrung from the tragic Henry Reed. He immortalised Elizabeth Lutyens, discordant in conversation and composition, as "Hilda Tablet", composer of the all- women feminist opera, Emily Butter. She nearly sued. A glorious memo on Reed's difficultness chunters "He is naturally lazy like most writers, finds working for the BBC the easiest way of making an income and takes a peculiarly malicious pleasure in writing as close to the deadline and to the decency line as he can...On the other hand, there is no doubt that over the past ten years, Reed has been the outstanding individual contributor to the Third Programme...''

But though the Third chuntered, it wasn't a bad old stick. The scientist Fred Hoyle who had fascinating things to say, had, after one talk on the Home Service, been delated. He must not be used again, the science editor had written, because of his strong Yorkshire accent. Peter Laslett, then moonlighting between Cambridge and a BBC producership, listened to him in a Cambridge tea shop, got him back through the Third and won unprecedented public attention for the expanding universe.

Radio Three has its faults - self-love, an almost clerical intrigue - but an organisation which commissioned Hilda Tablet and Under Milk Wood and hired Peter Laslett has a lot to be said for it. So has the present Three under a decent, uneccentric controller, Nick Kenyon. Good luck to it. In our rising sea of anti-culture, we need all the elites we can get.