Haley’s Comet

Paul Driver

  • The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3 by Humphrey Carpenter
    Weidenfeld, 431 pp, £25.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 297 81720 5

If a serious radio channel is a success it can define the state of a culture. Looking back over old copies of the Radio Times, one realises with a keen nostalgia the extent to which the national identity has been embodied in daily sequences of radio and television programmes. Those at the more serious end of the broadcasting spectrum, and their manner of presentation, afford an ideal barometer of cultural health – better, for example, than any study of reading habits.

Called in today to construct a serious radio network, which criteria would one adopt? How to ensure a balance of programmes at a level neither hopelessly specialised nor afraid of intellectual challenge; how to decide on their length and placement; how to determine the tone of the presentation, the rhythm and contrasts of each evening’s schedule? Humphrey Carpenter’s detailed account suggests that the mandarins of the mid-Forties got the Third Programme right straight off. The BBC’s Director-General, William Haley, credited himself with having created the network by two decisions. Programmes should take as long as they needed to, and not be curtailed to make way for, say, a fixed news bulletin. Schedulers were urged to be as creative as they liked with an evening’s programming (the Third went out only in the evenings). That principle seems ideal, and still underlies Radio 3’s evening transmissions. Haley’s other pet idea, of a cultural ‘pyramid’ into whose rarefied apex the broad base of listeners to other channels would gradually be drawn, does not seem so terrible either, less élitist than idealist.

Under Haley’s enlightened rule, the triumvirate of Etienne Amyot, Leslie Stokes and George Barnes built an inspirational Third Programme that had initially to withstand a number of technical troubles – among them, the appropriation by Soviet Latvia of the waveband originally assigned to it – before it became the ‘envy of the world’. Composers, conductors, dramatists, poets, philosophers, historians, politicians with something to say, said it on air, without undue constraint though never extempore – even supposedly spontaneous conversations were carefully scripted. Music was balanced with talk in a six-or-so-hour sequence each weekday night. You could sit and listen to one programme after the other: variety was assured, and so was quality.

These were times when musicians like Bruno Walter and Artur Schnabel, deprived of other opportunities by the war, were eager to broadcast, and came correspondingly cheap. As Amyot says, ‘that was the luck of the Third Programme. It came at the moment when you could have anybody, the very, very greatest’. The entire Vienna State Opera decamped to London at the Third’s behest in 1947. Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Tippett, Betjeman and Fred Hoyle became familiar voices. Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas made a poet’s living in what Thomas called ‘the thin puce belfries’ of the Third. Guided by the producer Douglas Cleverdon, Under Milk Wood and Beckett’s All That Fall came into being; and drama thrived – the careers of N.F. Simpson, Pinter and Stoppard were nurtured there. Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote in the New Statesman that ‘the whole musical landscape’ was ‘likely to be transformed by the arrival of the Third Programme’; Edward Sackville-West in Picture Post thought that it could ‘well become the greatest educative and civilising force England has known since the secularisation of the theatre in the 16th century’.

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