Third but not seen

THE ENVY OF THE WORLD: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3 by Humphrey Carpenter, Weidenfeld pounds 25

"LET IT often become dull; let it make mistakes," pronounced Sir William Haley, the BBC Director-General, of his brain-child, the Third Programme. He was anticipating, even before the channel began broadcasting in September 1946, the charge of irrelevance and obscurity that has been levelled at it on and off ever since and which has adversely affected the broadcasting policy of later controllers made of stuff less stern. From the first, the service was a by-word for esotericism and the butt of many jokes. Sir Thomas Beecham once called an over-enthusiastic producer to the Savoy and told him he wanted to do Maillart's opera Le jeune sage et le vieux fou: the hapless producer was already trying to cast it when he discovered it didn't exist.

The ideals behind "the Third", as meticulously documented in Humphrey Carpenter's 50th-anniversary history, were so high as to leave any contemporary radio-listener (or producer) green with envy. The first head of the network, George Barnes, encouraged his programme makers to thing big and put on complete works or complete oeuvres whenever possible. The Third did a notable service in promoting the work of contemporary composers, especially Britten and Tippett, and through Barnes's close if rather narrow connections with Oxford and Cambridge, recruited the best minds of the day to radio: Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, G M Trevelyan, E M Forster, Iris Murdoch. The decision not to have "fixed points" of news and weather proved pivotal, and in another of his Jovian speeches, William Haley laid out the principle behind what was probably the most pro-artistic policy ever to come out of a public body: "if they want five nights to do something in, then have five nights ... There'll be no cuts."

Well, as this 400-page book indicates, we've come a long way since then, through the fuel crisis of 1947 that took the Third off air for 15 days and the drastic cut-backs in 1957 that reduced the service by 40 per cent, to the watering-down effect of fatuous "Network 3" (a channel using the Third's frequency for broadcasts about leisure activities, nicknamed "the fretwork network") and on to the major restructuring of BBC radio which resulted in the creation of Radio 3 in 1970. Each of these upheavals has been motivated by the need for economy in the face of various threats to the Corporation, first from independent television, then from commercial radio. The highbrow end of the output was always the first to be axed, despite vociferous and articulate campaigns against every major change away from the original licence to be "dull", and despite the fact that "certain types of higher brow material" are "relatively cheap".

Most recently, controllers of Radio 3 seem obsessed with reaching a "wider audience", though the early programme makers thought in purely qualitative terms. The very first broadcast in September 1946, a mild satire by Stephen Potter called How to Listen, prescribed what sort of listener the Third expected: in a reversal of the audience channel-hopping in search of suitable entertainment, the producer is depicted tuning in to a variety of households, trying to find the perfect listener. The ignorant Mrs Moss won't do, nor the bridge-playing middle classes, nor the young technophile showing off his audio equipment to a girlfriend. The ideal listener calmly and earnestly settles down to give his full attention to the programme ahead. "Selective not casual" was how Haley envisaged the output, aiming to enlighten this one man rather than allure any of the others.

What he would have tuned in to (once he had conquered the interference from Soviet Radio Latvia, which shared the same frequency) was a truly astonishing array of material. Fred Hoyle's talk on his theory of "Continued Creation" in 1949 pre-dated the publication of his revolutionary research and produced "a shock to the imagination" in one reviewer. Other landmark productions in the early years were Bertrand Russell's debate with F C Copleston on the existence of God, the first British broadcast of all Mahler's symphonies, the world premiere of Albert Herring, and a magnificently extravagant invitation to the Vienna State Opera to visit Britain and perform five works. "It was a standard of performance people hadn't heard here for years," said Etienne Amyot, the Third's first director of music. "It set London aflame." The Third was cosmopolitan in a way that simply would not be recognisable now, putting on a production of Beckett's Fin de partie in French because no suitable translation yet existed (the first unscripted speech programme, an interview with Matisse, was also in French, with no translation).

It is an index of the demoralisation of the intelligentsia that the writer John Spurling, interviewed for this book, depicts his vision of what cultural broadcasting could be in purely utopian terms: "My millennial dream is to see the Third restored, not just to its old excellence but to a new glory ... tough, experimental, elitist, scholarly, argumentative, unmissable ... [not] chat about fiction or poetry, science, history, whatever, but the latest stuff itself plus serious discussion and evaluation. Impossible, of course." Radio 3 still provides an admirable live music broadcasting service, but drama output is woefully reduced, there is no longer a poetry editor and the old style mind-stretching talk programmes have been replaced by documentaries and the occasional interview. Yet Humphrey Carpenter, a regular presenter of Radio 3, claims that if his book has done its job, "it will have shown that there was no golden age of the Third Programme". Well, I'm sorry, but there was.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it