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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.