Radio review

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The Independent Culture
You might think of Radio 3 as just a music station, but you'd be wrong. Radio 3's mission has been defined for some years now - since Nicholas Kenyon took over, in fact - as "Music Plus". Plus what? Well, plus, you know, sort of cultural and artistic, um, thingies. Just "Plus", really.

The fact is, Radio 3 doesn't know quite what it's supposed to be. The shadow of the old Third Programme, a literary magazine of the air, hangs over it and gives it a vague but ennobling idea that it should be a treasure- house of all that is best in the great Western cultural traditions. Not surprisingly, this wobbly sense of obligation manifests itself in some peculiar ways, such as reading out titbits of arts news during the morning drive-time slot - I've seen it suggested that anybody who is not interested in arts news is interested in music only as wallpaper and not in its context; but really, it's hard to see how jocular stories about unusual museums in the West country or editorials about lottery funding provide any context for a Brahms string quintet. You think, surely the old Third Programme was better than this?

Every so often, though, you get a glimpse of what the old Third Programme might have been, sometimes in the shape of a Sunday afternoon feature - the quality is variable, but that slot provided four or five of my favourite programmes of last year - and sometimes an old-style literary talk in a concert interval. There was a good example of the genre last night - Richard Cohen's investigation of "The Strange Case of the One-Novel Novelist" .

Cohen started out from the coincidence that he was reading Elias Canetti's Auto da Fe at the same time that his daughter was reading Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. He noticed that each was the author's only novel (though Canetti produced lots of other writing - Sewell never wrote anything else at all), and went on to make a list of significant single novels (Wuthering Heights, Doctor Zhivago, The Leopard, To Kill a Mockingbird, and so on), and to try to identify any common features.

He produced five categories: novelists who died before they could write a second book; novelists who preferred other forms; novelists with writer's block; novelists who just had one good idea; and another which I didn't get. Interesting stuff, but also a little bit pedantic and with some unsuccessful flashes of humour. And you realise, that's probably exactly what the old Third Programme was like. Maybe the wobbly plus is as good as it gets.

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