The Birth of the Third

This article was commissioned by Boosey & Hawkes for publication in their annual pocket Music Diary for 1996. AH

The Birth of the Third

29th September 1946 was a major milestone in the evolution of what we now know as radio 3. On that day a new, literally third, network started broadcasting at 6.00 pm and ran until midnight. Before then the existing BBC networks, the Home Service (now radio 4) and the Light Programme (radios 1 & 2) had included plenty of music, the first Director-General, Lord Reith, believing that culture should be programmed side-by-side with more popular entertainment.

Indeed, there had been ‘good’ music broadcasts from the very beginning. In 1922, one of the first to be invited to the studio was the tenor Lauritz Melchior. As he thought that the louder he sang the further his voice would carry – perhaps even to his native Denmark – his first note shattered the microphone and shut down the generator. The first live relay was in 1923 – of act I of The Magic Flute from Covent Garden, in 1927 Reith arranged with Sir Henry Wood to broadcast the proms on radio and in 1930 the BBC Symphony Orchestra was founded with Sir Adrian Boult in the dual role of principal conductor and BBC Music Director. Music on radio has thrived from the start.

That network which opened in 1946 as the Third Programme was the brain-child, some said the love-child, of Sir William Haley, the second Director-General of the BBC. His dream – which came true – was for an on-air space with no fixed framework, unlike the other two networks which had set times for news and other regular programmes. It began somewhat tongue-in-cheek, with one of the ‘How to…’ satirical series by Stephen Potter and Joyce Grenfell, ‘How to listen’ including `How Not To, How They Used To, and How You Must’. More seriously, the whole of Shaw’s play Man and Superman – lasting about five hours – was broadcast a few days later. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine it today, but in that first week of the Third people were reporting total suspension of normal life as they all gathered around the wireless: ‘the doorbell went, but we couldn’t get up to answer it’. The Third was an immediate success – in that post-war mood people were ravenous for Art.

With its 50-50 proportion of music and the spoken word, the Third provided cultural nourishment to a whole generation. To such luminaries as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Harold Pinter and Sir Peter Hall – all from working-class families – and myriad others it was a brilliant vision of a hitherto unavailable artistic world, and as such it undoubtedly had an enormous influence – as Hall says in his memoirs: ‘I feasted on music and drama, nothing widened my horizons as much as the Third Programme. It was frequently demanding and difficult, but it challenged and I was stimulated and entertained’.

Sir William Glock, then a young critic and pianist and later Controller of Music, was sent on a talent-scouting tour of occupied Europe early in 1947, soon after the Third had opened. He was astonished by the sheer quality of what he found – Britain had heard no foreign musicians since before the war. An early head (later called controller) of the Third Programme and another fine pianist, was Étienne Amyot. He built valuable post-war bridges to world-class performers – and very soon the Radio Times offered star-studded casts. The critics wrote of a revolution in music as the Third brought in a vast wave of repertoire that wouldn’t otherwise have been heard. And it wasn’t only contemporary; the early music movement, then called pre-classical, began immediately largely thanks to the labours of Denis Stevens; the likes of Machaut, Dunstable and Monteverdi were also gracing the waves.

The famous features department was the distinguishing hallmark of the Third and the source of some of the BBC’s best-remembered programmes. Louis MacNeice, the literary polymath who had joined the BBC in 1940, had already written more than 70 features for them during the war. His most famous contribution was The Dark Tower, a fantasy-parable about a spiritual quest with music by Benjamin Britten, broadcast in 1946. Another imaginative producer, Douglas Cleverdon, commissioned Under Milk Wood from Dylan Thomas and, after a tortuous gestation during which the script inevitably got left in a pub, finally and famously managed to get it on air on 25th January 1954.

Talks, another prominent and Reithian feature of the network, were given ample space – the American critic, Lionel Trilling, once spoke for 65 minutes non-stop. In 1951, when Fred Hoyle announced his famous ‘steady state’ theory of the universe on the Third, listeners were stunned to hear that the creation didn’t involve God – the theory being based on an assumption of atheism – and despite Hoyle’s engaging delivery, didn’t take him very seriously because he had a Yorkshire accent. The ratings varied; Bernard Williams the philosopher, was told after his first broadcast in the 1950s that so few people had listened that it would have been cheaper to telephone each of the listeners individually.

Though things had changed somewhat since unseen men in evening dress read the news, Oxford accents were still de rigeur – and extremely so to Richard Baker when he joined the Third as an announcer in the 1950s – and the network seemed bound to cause satirical merriment if not downright criticism as ‘dons talking to dons’. But it was able to laugh at itself too as it did in Henry Reed’s series of satirical plays about a fictional composer called Dame Hilda Tablet. Not surprisingly she combines Dames Ethel Smyth and Elizabeth Lutyens (who almost sued) but also Britten, because she lived with a soprano called Elsa Strauss. Her first opera to be performed on the Third Programme was originally to be titled Milly Mudd, but it was prudently renamed Emily Butt before transmission.

In the mid-1950s, when the competition of ITV began, the BBC cut back radio; despite public outrage the Third lost one third of its air time. When Glock became Controller of Music in 1959 he refused to compromise standards despite limitations, and one of his brainwaves was the Thursday (later Tuesday) Invitation Concerts – these adventurously programmed events ran until the early 70s. The first, on 8th January 1960, offered Janacek’s Diary of a Man Who Disappeared (sung in English) and Berg’s Chamber Concerto with the weekly arts review, Comment, in the interval. The following week Yvonne Loriod gave a piano recital of music by Debussy and Messiaen. Incidentally that evening continued with typical Third Programme fare – the UK premiere of a radio monologue The Dark Valley by W.H. Auden with music by Matyas Seiber and the fifth in an early music series, Masters of the Late Renaissance, by the Deller Consort.

On 30th August 1964 the BBC, trying another way of parrying commercial competition, began to use the third network for music throughout the day on Sundays (the separate Third Programme took over in the evening as usual). Then from 12th December 1964 weekday mornings and Saturdays were filled with music too. Finally from 22nd March 1965, with the addition of music all afternoon, apart from sport on Saturday afternoons and one hour of further education – Study Session – on weekdays from 6.30, the new Music Programme ran through every day. It combined popular programmes from the Light Programme such as Bandstand and Your Midweek Choice with higher-brow favourites brought in from the Home Service such as Record Review, Talking About Music, This Week’s Composer and Music Magazine, with its immortal signature tune – Schubert’s An die Musik.

The Music Programme aimed to attract a large audience, but there was a definite uncertainty between the notion of ‘good’ music and what ‘good’ music actually was. There have always been sceptics to argue that music is not ‘wallpaper’; it must be listened to. In the 1920s Sit Thomas Beecham saw the growing popularity of broadcasting as a sign of moral decay in the British people. Cassandra-like he thundered, ‘We – the laziest nation in the world – are becoming comatose… people are having their music brought to them.’. Even Glock was uneasy about the ‘popular’ nature of the Music Programme (though a glance through the Radio Times for the 1960s is to glimpse an exciting catholic variety) and Britten too, in his 1964 Aspen award lecture, called the loudspeaker, despite its obvious usefulness, ‘the enemy of music… not part of true musical experience’.

In 1969 the McKinsey report Broadcasting in the 70s proposed that the evening Third Programme be abolished due to low audience figures. In fact the figures hadn’t changed much since 1946 – the maximum was never more than a quarter of a million and it quite often dropped below measurable levels. As a result Radio 3 began and the Third Programme faded away. John Drummond, appointed Controller of Music in 1985 and of Radio 3 in 1987 was the first to combine the task of running both the Music Programme – previously organised by the Home Service music department – with the former Third Programme.

Nicholas Kenyon, now controller of radio 3, sees today’s network as part of the continuing evolution and change that began in the 1920s and grew through the heady post-war days and all-day music in the 1960s to the radio 3 of 1970 and beyond. In this Third Programme 50th anniversary year some archive oldies will be re-run – reminders of the programmes that are some of the rather distant ancestors of today’s rather different cultural climate.

The late Humphrey Carpenter helped me with my research for this article. The history of the third network was the subject of a book by Humphrey: The Envy of the World – Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, which was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 1996. AH