The month of April 1970, if remembered at all, is remembered for two landmark moments in modern cultural history that made front pages around the globe – the drama of Apollo 13’s aborted moon mission and the news that Paul McCartney had ‘quit’ The Beatles; the former represented the apogee of the world’s fascination with the American space programme, whilst the latter served as pop’s final severance with its age of innocence. However, that month also saw another ending as significant in its own humble little way. April 1970 was just four days old when a controversial yet passionately cherished British broadcasting institution disappeared from the airwaves forever – the BBC Third Programme.
I was born a couple of months after the Light Programme and the Home Service were replaced by Radios 1, 2 and 4, so have no first-hand memory of them or their esoteric sibling, the Third Programme. Radio 3 may also have debuted on the same day as 1, 2 and 4, but contrary to popular belief (not to mention numerous online sources), the Third did not join the Light and the Home on the same shuttle service to the wireless necropolis in September 1967. It clung onto the evening hours for another two and-a-half years before time was finally called on a radio station unlike any other before or since. That the Third managed to receive a stay of execution when the rest of the BBC’s radio network underwent the most radical transformation in its history is testament to the friends it had in high places; but much in the same way that the sixpence survived the cull of £sd coinage in 1971 and remained legal tender for a little while longer, the Third Programme’s days were permanently numbered for the last couple of years of its existence. The far-reaching conclusions of the report ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’ (published in 1969) failed to envisage a future need for the kind of service the Third had provided since its inception in 1946.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War there were many reflections on what precisely the Allies had been fighting for, and some concluded culture ranked high on the list of western civilisation’s worthwhile achievements. Such a view had also flourished during the war itself with the formation of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts, which was renamed the Arts Council of Great Britain following the end of hostilities. As well as heavy government investment in public events such as exhibitions, opera, ballet, the theatre and the 1951 Festival of Britain, there was a widespread belief that the most widely accessible medium of the era, radio, also had a part to play in this promotion of culture. Despite the opposition of the BBC’s ex-Director General Lord Reith – who had always been against segregation in broadcasting – the BBC Third Programme was launched on 29 September 1946 with a specific remit from the start. The opening night included a 45-minute Bach recital on the harpsichord, an address by the Prime Minister of South Africa, some Monteverdi Madrigals ‘on gramophone’, a concert of choral music from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a discussion that promised to contain ‘issues of current interest as well as recurrent abstract problems’. Quite a contrast with the likes of ‘ITMA’ and ‘Variety Band-Box’ over on the Light Programme that same evening, but a clear message of intent that here was something brave and deliberately uncompromising in British broadcasting. When the legacy of the post-war Attlee government is discussed today, it is mostly the social reforms that are focused on, but belief that the Arts mattered was also key to the Left philosophy; Education Secretary Ellen Wilkinson even spoke of a ‘Third Programme Nation’.
The Third Programme may have featured traditional ‘classical music’ as part of its schedule, but it also gave airtime to the increasingly experimental and avant-garde strain of contemporary classical that would have caused British industry to grind to a halt had any of it interrupted the jolly soundtrack of ‘Music while you Work’. It also facilitated the birth of the iconic BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose influence can still be discerned throughout electronically-based music to this very day. Yet it was the spoken word that the Third revelled in – and not in the Talk Radio sense of giving disgruntled gobshites in love with the sound of their own voices an opportunity to host phone-ins about immigration or the EU. Lectures and discussions from the likes of Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus and other heavyweight intellectuals of the day were crucial to the Third’s identity and reputation, but so was giving exposure to the works of radical playwrights such as Beckett and Pinter, and poets who had no other broadcasting outlets such as T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath; Dylan Thomas wrote ‘Under Milk Wood’ for the Third, such was the station’s standing within the artistic community, not to mention that it was the prime source of copyright payments for poets.
Of course, it didn’t take long for accusations of elitism to be levelled at this unashamed highbrow presence on the nation’s airwaves, despite the fact that it was catering for audiences (albeit small ones) that hadn’t been catered for by radio before. Similar accusations are often levelled at BBC4 today. Who do these cultural types think they are – demanding that their own erudite tastes be funded by the licence fee? The fact is that devotees of the Third paid the same amount as devotees of ‘Housewives’ Choice’, regardless of the vast chasm between listening figures, and were just as entitled to have radio representation. However, some of the criticisms aimed at the Third predictably had an impact when the BBC instigated one of its occasional pruning exercises. After eleven years of transmitting between 6.00pm and midnight, 1957 saw the Third cut in half, with the early evening segment taken over by the wonderfully named Network Three, an educational strand sounding more like a clandestine government department. Then, in 1965 the BBC Music Programme began broadcasting classical music during the day on the Third’s frequency, paving the way for Radio 3.
When the BBC belatedly woke-up to the need for music radio to reflect the dramatic changes in listening habits during the 60s and recruited a crew of pirate station DJs in time for the launch of groovy Radio 1 in 1967, it also decided to rebrand the Light Programme and the Home Service as Radio 2 and Radio 4 respectively. The Third Programme was a trickier proposition. Its audiences may have been small, but its place at the heart of the nation’s cultural life was so beloved that attempts to axe it met with fierce opposition. A compromise was reached that saw the Music Programme become Radio 3 during the daytime hours whilst the Third and Network Three continued to occupy the evening hours. However, as many began to express dissatisfaction with the rebranded radio stations, the report that came to be known as Broadcasting in the Seventies was commissioned and its findings resulted in a clearer division between the functions of the respective stations that have more or less defined them ever since. For the Third, the writing was on the wall and it finally disappeared for good in April 1970; plays, documentaries, discussion and education were shunted to Radio 4, and classical music overtook the majority of Radio 3’s extended airtime.
Even now, over 40 years after it was laid to rest, those who remember the Third Programme maintain Radio 3 is a poor substitute for its predecessor, a station that prefers the easy option of a music schedule with occasional spoken word interludes rather than the more challenging and adventurous remit of the Third. Perhaps the Third Programme was destined to be a short-lived heroic failure, a product of a period when the Arts were regarded as important to the nation’s wellbeing as health, housing or education, an admirable concept that now appears quaint to the defiantly philistine, anti-intellectual ear of the 21st century, when culture is viewed as more suspect and more elitist than ever before. Maybe the Third Programme was elitist, but as Paul McCartney once said of ‘Silly Love Songs’, what’s wrong with that?