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’.

The impression given by Carpenter’s book is that the Third Programme was exemplary, both as a place to work – ‘there was cheerful, productive anarchy; everyone did what they loved best,’ the composer and one-time producer, Alexander Goehr remembers – and as a medium for listening to. Peter Maxwell Davies recalls how, as a boy on a council estate in Swinton, he would listen ‘every evening, more or less from the moment it started till the moment it shut down, while I was doing my homework. And it was the best education I could ever have got.’ Fun was inevitably poked at it in the press, though it had already sent itself up in its inaugural programme, How to Listen, by Stephen Potter and Joyce Grenfell – the first of many satires, including Henry Reed’s high-camp Hilda Tablet comedies and Third Division, the comedy show that turned into the Goons. But mostly the press response was respectful. The social and political consensus that had created the welfare state had no fundamental difficulty in accepting a radio station devoted to intellectual and artistic excellence, paid for by all.

This could not last. Perhaps the channel’s spirit was too rare, its freedoms too audacious. Carping about the small, often statistically insignificant size of its audience began soon enough, and has never abated. Stephen Hearst, Controller of Radio 3 in the early Seventies, suggests that ‘1946-55 had probably been the heyday of the Third Programme as a cultural institution,’ a period safe from competitors – television, LPs and a technology that now extends to digitalised cable and telephone music services. Because the BBC’s public consisted predominantly of radio listeners, the Third’s ideal of a balanced evening not only made sense but could be regularly achieved. Even so, it would only have been the bed-ridden, say, or students doing their homework, who had a sense of each evening’s output as a totality. And this is the enduring problem of radio planning: how do you put on a convincing Act I when there is no guarantee that the audience will stay for Act II? The Third’s integrity underwent the first of a series of compromises with the arrival in 1957 of Network Three, a hobbies-and-study service that was given 40 per cent of the Third’s hours and sought to widen the audience by courting every minority from jazz-fanciers to motoring nuts. It was instantly nicknamed ‘the fretwork network’, a sobriquet more gruesomely applicable to today’s Classic FM, with its endless discussions of gardening, cooking and bridge, relieved by commercials, motoring news and snatches of safe classical music.

The affront that this ‘rude truncation’ (Henry Reed’s phrase), with its threat to the network’s cherished freedom from ‘fixed points’, gave to many members of the intelligentsia, among them T.S. Eliot, was repeated seven years later with the advent of daytime broadcasting on the Third’s wavelength. The Music Programme was steadily expanded, until in 1965 it occupied the whole of each weekday before Network Three’s successor, Study Session, came on; it occasioned much controversy about ‘musical wallpaper’, though the exchanges quoted here between David Drew (deploring it), Hans Keller (finding paradoxical good in it) and Shawe-Taylor (thinking of benefits to the elderly) centre on the transmission of Haydn’s complete symphonies. Worse was to come, including Mainly for Pleasure. In the years leading up to that first full incarnation of the now inescapable ‘drive-time’ programmes, the network underwent a series of convulsions that meant the demise of the Third, threats to disband BBC orchestras, the creation of Radio 3 and the gradual acceptance of the ‘generic radio’ principle by which the Third’s wide-ranging and intellectually cultivated ideals would give way to ‘an almost continuous service of good music’.

Not that the changes were immediately obvious. The description of the new network’s inaugural evening (5 April 1970) given by its Controller, P.H. Newby (a spare-time novelist and winner of the first Booker Prize), reads like an epitome of the Third Programme at its most high-minded. Music, musicology, philosophy and modern architecture each had a place. And whatever criticisms are made of the network in its supposed decline, it pays to remember that marvellous things were always cropping up on it; and still are. In the wake of Broadcasting in the Seventies, the report that had led to the loss of several orchestras and the start of Radio 3, Pierre Boulez was appointed as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and embarked on a series of revelatory discussion concerts at the Round House – although they failed to impress Newby’s successor, Stephen Hearst. Hearst wished, on the whole, to take Radio 3 back towards the Third’s speech-based breadth of appeal. He introduced such programmes as Your Concert Choice, the earliest of DJ slots; Man of Action, with its debt to Desert Island Discs; the first of Radio 3’s theme days (French Sunday); as well as the admirable Critics’ Forum. Poetry and drama flourished and, despite Hearst’s general antipathy to it, so did contemporary music, in Promenade seasons programmed by Robert Ponsonby and in the regular Music in Our Time series produced by Stephen Plaistow. Jointly, they commissioned a string of masterpieces.

To my memory it all seems a golden age; an age of golden voices, too, of announcers whose soothingly impersonal eloquence never failed to convey a sense of real personality, quite unlike the present confections. The anecdotes printed here from Tom Crowe, Patricia Hughes, Tony Scotland, Cormac Rigby and the rest (many of whom were brusquely dismissed at the start of the present regime) conjure up a vision of lost civility, erudition and slightly anarchic wit. Rigby, who, oddly, was not the first announcer to leave the BBC for the Catholic priesthood, offers a telling evocation of his first night on the Third: ‘I had to leave a full minute of silence between one programme and the next. The idea was to discourage people from casual listening. They were expected to look at their Radio Times, choose what they wanted, listen to it, and then go away and do all the other interesting things that their lives were full of.’

This was not the spirit of the future. Concern about presentation and ‘accessibility’ was increasingly imposed under Ian McIntyre’s controllership, largely thanks to the bullish Managing Director of BBC Radio, Aubrey Singer, who insisted that the tasteful drive-time sequence of Homeward Bound be rejigged as Mainly for Pleasure in the search for larger audiences. The Director-General, Alasdair Milne, wondered if Radio 3’s style of presentation wasn’t ‘too stodgy and old-fashioned’; and, before they got rid of him, McIntyre was told by David Hatch, Director of Programmes, Radio, that Radio 3 staff were regarded within the BBC as ‘off-putting, exclusive and unwelcoming’. McIntyre, something of an intellectual Reithian (not that Reith had been any friend to the Third) who rejected the idea of ‘wall-to-wall muzak’, usefully pointed out that Radio 3 was the only national network ‘whose share of the audience has remained rock-steady’. But to those at the top, size, not constancy, of audience was the thing. As Hans Keller, remembering his first decade (1959-69) at the BBC as ‘paradise’, wrote in the Spectator in June 1979, ‘at this stage in the history of broadcasting, the BBC’s radio philosophy is determined by fear ... At the time of the Third Programme, it was considered downright indecent to talk about audience figures ... whereas our present Radio 3 ... fears every listener that isn’t listening.’

McIntyre’s successor, John Drummond, a more robust sort of Reithian, resisted populist pressures as much as anything by sheer force of personality, but a real cultural turning-point had by now (1985) been reached. In the prevailing Thatcherite contempt for élites the postwar consensus withered away. The age of high-mindedness exemplified by the Third Programme had changed into an age of publicity and, as far as Radio 3 was concerned, of apologetics. The idea that you would consult your Radio Times, choose and listen, then do your other interesting things, was risible to the new administrators. The network had to be made ‘user-friendly’. The current Radio 3 Controller, Nicholas Kenyon – instigator of this book – was appointed, with a brief to bring as many listeners in as possible, take the ‘stuffiness’ out of presentation, and generally follow the ‘correct’ and commercially accountable line. Carpenter, who doesn’t shirk these sensitive issues, quotes Kenyon in a newspaper interview calmly meeting Aubrey Singer’s requirement that programmes should not exist in the kind of creative isolation that was the Third’s distinctive feature. ‘A lot of people say that they don’t know where to find what they want on Radio 3. So it’s important to have a focused approach to the schedules. I want lots of fixed points.’

Thus Third Programme heresy is replaced by the cult of approachability. Classic FM went on the air in September 1992, six months after Kenyon took up his post, and Radio 3, which now also broadcasts exclusively on FM, has since been perceived as too readily influenced by its supposed rival in filling the frequency with an excess of chat, traffic news, interviews, previews, quizzes, On Airs, In Tunes and sundry other turn-offs. Turn-offs, at least, for many of that ‘rock-steady’ core audience, whose collective patience was particularly tried by the American accent and approach of the former presenter Paul Gambaccini. For myself, I found him less ingratiating than some of the other newcomers, and at least he wasn’t put in the position of the Musical Encounters compères who have to tout the musical wares of the region they are broadcasting from. Even when they seem knowledgeable – following a Radio 3 diktat about ‘owning’ your words, they are actually the producers of their own programmes – the obliging new generation of presenters sound less authoritative than their predecessors did when reading other people’s copy; or, indeed, than Tony Scotland still does on Classic FM. Theirs is a phoney first-personism based on the doubtful belief that an audience for classical music can be wooed at all.

Ingratiation is the essence of a cultural dispensation under which any public display of intelligence is beginning to be seen as presumptuous. So rampant have utilitarian and self-satisfied populist attitudes to art become that the very idea of devoting air waves or column inches to an aesthetic view of things seems almost offensive. When, in a Listener attack on Mainly for Pleasure in 1980, Hans Keller asked, ‘is unbilled car-radio utility what Radio 3 should devote more time to ... than any specific artistic purpose?’ he meant the question rhetorically, but it would scarcely be taken that way now. The BBC no longer has an organ of self-criticism like the Listener, but in 1980 one could still (just) look to Radio 3 itself to deliver or embody a defence of the artistic life.

All is not yet lost, however. Much of distinction has lately been achieved: the year-long series of British music, Fairest Isle; Saturday opera from the Met; ambitious themed days; weekends broadcast live from Tanglewood and other outposts; and now Sounding the Century, a survey of 20th-century music. Nor is Radio 3 interested in such big ideas only because they are sellable. In the best of its traditions, it has just made a costly studio recording of Maxwell Davies’s neglected early opera Taverner. Modern music has been promoted under Kenyon, even if consigned to a late-night (Friday) ‘fixed point’; and he has saved and stimulated the threatened orchestras.

The classical repertory needs to be available for discovery by each rising generation, as well as for serendipitous rediscovery. Certainly, Radio 3 is a better place for ‘butterfly-hunting’ cultural surprises than Classic FM. But mightn’t we still demand more of a cultural network than a 24-hour inundation of music? While it is true that Radio 3’s evening schedules remain basically self-adjusting and committed to a balance between speech and music, the newly winsome presentation works against any idea that it is tone, or ethos, that lends structural cohesion to a radio network. It is legitimate to wonder whether there isn’t too much music on Radio 3 and whether, given the vastness of the repertoire available on CDs, an adventurous restraint isn’t worth more in broadcasting terms than, say, the maintainance of BBC orchestras, with their endless musical cascade.

Radio 3 should return to the unapologetic approach of the Third Programme, while at the same time expanding its base and scale in ways made possible by modern technology. This is to think big on behalf of a network seeking to call itself ‘the envy of the world’; but it is vital, too, that it should sometimes allow itself to think small, to concern itself not only with grands projets, composer anniversaries, ‘artists of the week’ and so on, but also with what our composers, philosophers, poets, historians are currently up to. Radio 3 has a duty to represent all cultural disciplines, even the visual arts, though music is bound to be first among equals and the popular-cum-highbrow Prom season the jewel in its crown. There are signs that it is moving along such a path, and Humphrey Carpenter’s cautious optimism at the end of his book seems well-founded, though the risks, too, are terrifyingly clear.