In 1989 it would occur to nobody to invent the Third Programme. It probably couldn’t have happened at any time except when it did. The war seemed to have shown that the public for music and books and culture generally had been thrillingly enlarged. The Forces had developed a keen appetite for education, cultural and civic, some of it pretty subversive, for the service vote is known to have had a lot to do with the election of the Labour Government of 1945. Among my few wholly happy memories of the war years are the stricken faces of fellow officers when they heard the news: only the evil of Education, they felt, could explain it.

The immediate past had been so horrible that everybody supposed the future could and must be made better. There was a general desire, even inside the BBC, for adventurous change. Vague plans for more broadcast culture had been made as early as 1943, when the networks were still heavily committed to their appalling war work, but now the chains of the Home and Forces Programmes dropped away, and for a while miracles seemed possible. In the heady first weeks of the new service the producers revelled in their freedom, and élitist programmes ran over far into the night. But that carnival was soon stopped. Even in its more chastened form the programme didn’t last long. After a few years its air time was reduced, and it suffered amalgamation with something called Network Three, or the Fretwork Network, at which point it would have been safe to bet on the abolition which followed in 1970. It may be that future Whiteheads will see this not as an event final in itself, but rather as a step towards the now threatened total dissolution of the BBC.

At the time, the process of diminution and final abolition seemed catastrophic, a matter for organised protest. But it all happpened a long time ago, and devotees of Radio Three who are under 40 can have very little idea of how it felt. What they probably feel sure of is that the Third reeked of the Forties and Fifities, a monument to the deluded cultural presuppositions of its day.

Kate Whitehead, who is now a Radio Four producer – to judge by her book, a shrewd choice of channel – hit upon the Third as a topic for research in institutional history.* Her prose, efficiently trawling the bureaucratic facts, would serve equally well for a history of some multinational corporation, treating it not without respect but concentrating on all the disagreements and power plays that went on inside the organisation. A study of this kind can’t be expected to offer any real sense of the ambition and gaiety of the whole enterprise, which was not so much a matter of infighting or even of po-faced educational endeavour as a highbrow’s dream of entertainment come true.

Third Programme producers, though naturally to some extent hampered by bureaucracy, were often gifted, bold and at times rather flighty. Whitehead is understandably less interested in flightiness than in the bureaucracy, so much more amenable to research: the giddier flights, of which she might have discovered something by interviewing, say, Donald Carne-Ross, are largely ignored. P.H. Newby, under whose patient aegis many splendid irregularities were committed, appears here, as no doubt he preferred, in the guise of a quietly embattled bureaucrat, with no indication that he was in his exiguous spare time a very good and prolific novelist as well as, in office hours, a defender of the faith and wise in the ways of Broadcasting House.

It was William Haley, the Director-General of the time, who got the Cultural Programme going by persuading the governors to back it. Its original aim was to reach an audience of taste and intelligence: it ‘need not cultivate any other audience’. Thus it defied Reith’s doctrine of a BBC-unified culture, and Sir John was heard to protest. For less exalted reasons, it also irritated most of the press. But for a time it survived the traumas of its birth, and under George Barnes and Harman Grisewood there was a reasonably permissive, though it would now also be called an élitist regime, which people like Douglas Cleverdon and D.G. Bridson found congenial enough. In 1958, with the cutbacks already under way, the enigmatic Newby took over.

The money had to be watched, but what the planners had a lot of was time. Hence the unprecedented supply of music, to which Whitehead gives too little attention: she points out that it cost a lot, but not that it transformed the repertoire. Hence, too, the output of drama, hampered though it was by squabbles with the existing Drama Department; it is now best remembered for the work of Giles Cooper and Beckett’s great radio play All That Fall. Equally important, and more autonomous, was ‘Features’. We learn that Rayner Heppenstall as a Features producer could call Angus Wilson, Henry Reed, Laurie Lee and Muriel Spark ‘exclusively mine’, and there were staff stars like Louis MacNeice and W.R. Rodgers (stars at the bar of the George as well as in Broadcasting House). It was in some ways a clique, but a distinguished one.

Who listened? At the outset, perhaps fortunately, there was no reliable way of estimating the numbers, which the popoular press, no doubt accurately, described as exceedingly small. Moreover, there were signs that even so it soon began to dwindle. Proposals for refined imaginary conversations between Abelard and the Pope or whatever were henceforth scanned by more anxious and responsible eyes. Writers who had come to rely on the Third began to feel that they were navigating the wrong channel.

The advent of television, perhaps surprisingly, considering the lofty character attributed to the original Third Programme audience, made matters worse. I remember a rather depressed Howard Newby saying that, to judge by the figures, a lot of people who had grown accustomed to listening to Ibsen on the Third must now be watching conjurers on television instead (conjurers were big in those days). It was hard to avoid that conclusion, and it is said that the Third’s share of the audience was probably closer to 2 per cent than the 10 per cent originally expected. But Newby soldiered on, as this book well demonstrates.

Harman Grisewoood is on record as claiming that his audience was made up of the cognoscenti, completely au courant with what the programme put out, plus any aspirants who would like to be. It would be quite wrong to dilute the programme for the sake of the latter, whose business and desire it must be to work for enlightenment. One can imagine the outcry such opinions would now provoke. A survey of the time candidly concluded that ‘interest in the Third was closely correlated with social class,’ a conclusion Whitehead records with her customary benign contempt for the whole doomed enterprise. Efforts were made, listener panels established, but within four years of the launch plans were being made to cut the Third down to size.

Whitehead collects much inevitably interesting material – for instance, on the way the Third dealt with writers. One problem was the need, as it seemed, to represent new writing on the programme, which in practice meant starting a little magazine of the air. This was tried, with John Lehmann and then John Wain as editors. Perhaps the project was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the medium: at the time, there were more literary magazines than there are now, and with much larger circulations, but it was still felt that there was need for another, and that its aural presentation would not be a fatal disadvantage. To understand why this belief failed to strike everybody concerned as questionable one needs to make an almost unimaginable leap backward into the episteme of the Forties. Whitehead reports Newby as saying the magazine was given up because of a developing perception that writing for the ear and for the eye required incompatible techiniques. And there were not sufficient inducements for the writers who would have to learn the aural styles.

It would certainly have been surprising had such inducements been made available. The Third was born in the time of Attlee and austerity, and perforce continued to be austere in such matters as payments (Whitehead gives some useful figures, all handily translated into 1988 money). When it died at the end of the Sixties far more people were getting a university education than ever before, the counter-culture was thriving. The mourners, though deeply sincere, were rather few. Like the programme itself, their sorrow now represents an odd and interesting episode of cultural history.

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