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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London