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Culture and Classical Music: The BBC's Third Program in Post-War Britain

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When the third program first aired on 29 September 1946 at 6pm, the BBC appeared to have dramatically abandoned one of its core ‘lysian’ principles. The company’s “founder”, John Reese, has always maintained that the station’s aim is to make “all the best” available to the “greatest number.”

However, the third generation appeared here, and it seems to have become a threat to enclose the minority high culture. Reese, who had already stepped away from the role of Executive Director, thundered from his sidelines. Indeed, the first item on that first Sunday’s schedule was accessible enough. how to hear was a “Satirical Review” that took the opportunity, before anyone else, to gently tease the 3rd program’s pretensions of hype.

However, the output for the rest of the night was a little more grim.there was bach Goldberg Variations, played on a harpsichord, quite unusual for the time, followed by ‘Reflections on World Affairs’ by South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Then there was a Monteverdi madrigal conducted by Nadia Boulanger, a live concert featuring works by Hubert Parry and Vaughan Williams, and a festival overture specially commissioned by Benjamin Britten.

The next few days included new music by composer Michael Tippett, original modern French poetry, lectures on James Joyce and atomic energy, Sartre uncensored, a nearly four-hour appearance by Bernard Shaw, and ancient Greek music. The work of the playwright Aeschylus was promoted. Agamemnon.

Officially, the BBC describes this highly ambitious new service as aimed at “agile and receptive” listeners. George Burns, the first head of the Third, put it quite bluntly. He warned that there would be few props. Listeners have to “try”. Few people within the company had any illusions about the scale of the challenge they set themselves or how overblown it seemed.

For, as one senior official put it, the British have long exhibited a widely held prejudice “against people being too smart.” But William Beveridge, in his famous wartime welfare state plan, included ignorance alongside want, disease, filth, and laziness as one of the giants to kill. The post-war Labor government has since embraced the idea that culture and learning are key elements of the “New Jerusalem” it seeks to build. This view is inspired by Victorian poet Matthew Arnold’s famous “sweetness and light” in Across the Land.

The British have long exhibited a widely held prejudice “against people being too clever”. But William Beveridge, in his famous wartime welfare state program, included ignorance as one of the giants to be killed, along with want, disease, filth, and laziness.

The BBC had other, more strategic considerations to face in the years after 1945. His two wartime radio services, Home and Force, were widespread popular. However, Executive Director William Haley continued the military’s easy-listening tradition in the form of the Light Program without creating a separate service for what insiders called the “really intelligent part of the masses.” It was feared that doing so would unbalance the BBC’s overall peacetime output.

Haley also wanted to further enhance the company’s reputation abroad with its extraordinary success broadcasting critical information to occupied Europe.

new interpretation

When the Third Plan was finally announced, Haley thought it could have the greatest civilizational impact in the post-war world. Talks, concerts and plays all got the time they deserved. And after years of relative isolation, a special attempt is made to reconnect Britain with the best of world culture.

Critics drooled. Ration may still be a dire reality on the high street, listener Declared, the country’s broadcasts will see a leap “from frugality to affluence”.

In the years that followed, there were certainly some amazingly original treats for avid listeners.Vergil’s Aeneid It may have been 2,000 years old, but for its 1951 production, Thad commissioned Oxford University poetry professor Cecil Day-Lewis to come up with a new translation. Its producers so powerfully shaped the myth of Rome’s foundations as a civilization, the story of war refugees crossing the perilous Mediterranean to reach the shores of Italy in the years of post-World War II reconstruction. I felt it was a story. – especially resonated.

The adaptation, designed with so much emphasis on speaking rather than reading, was enormous in scale. I praised him aloud as he took me into the sunshine.

Occasionally, Saad was mentioned in news headlines as well as in critics’ columns. For example, when his solution to one of the great archaeological mysteries of the 20th century was announced live. At the turn of the century, while excavating the remains of a palace in Knossos, Crete, archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed a clay tablet that was over 3,000 years old.

Despite the best efforts of generations of scholars, the tablets remained unreadable – the language behind them and the entire Minoan civilization they represented could never be known.

But one evening in 1952, Third Program producer Prue Smith happened to be visiting Michael Ventris’ home in Highgate. Michael Ventris is a young British architect with a precocious interest in ancient writing. Ventris had been trying to decipher Knossos’ tablets for years. “I am very sorry to keep you waiting,” he said.

Smith and Ventris agreed to publish his key findings on radio rather than obscure magazines and national newspapers. When he took the mic on Tuesday, July 1st, Ventris completely changed our view of Aegean history. He also marked the Third’s reputation as being the first to hear when new ideas entered the public realm.

Focus: How under milk wood Realize the potential of the third program

At 7:25 pm on January 25, 1954, Program 3 was a 90-minute radio program. The show will go down in history as one of the creative pinnacles of broadcasting. Its opening words were destined to become one of the most famous lines in English poetry.

“Introduction: It’s spring, moonless nights in small towns, starless bible black, quiet cobbled streets, forests of hunched suitors and rabbits limping, slow black, slow, black until invisible. , black as crows, a sea with swaying fishing boats.”

under milk wood Ogan Morgan, Polly Garter, Captain Cat, and many more characters take the listener on a salacious journey immersed in night dreams and day-to-day work in the fictional small Welsh village of Lyalegb. rice field. Its author was Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who was also to be the drama’s narrator, but died before it was ready for what he called a “miserable script.”

or under milk wood It went on the air largely thanks to the BBC’s infinitely patient producer Douglas Cleverdon. It was Cleverdon who persuaded the authors to abandon the early overly elaborate storylines when Thomas seemed to be bogged down by the threads around the mission.

It was also Cleverdon’s inspired last-minute decision to cast film actor Richard Burton as a stand-in narrator after Thomas’ untimely death.

Not all critics were impressed under milk woodKingsley Amis viewed Thomas’ work as “sentimental and ignorant piss”. Most reviewers, however, were thoroughly mesmerized by the rhythm and texture of the dialogue, joyfully delivered by the production’s all-Welsh cast.

Between them, Thomas and Cleverdon delivered on one of the show’s key promises. It was to provide a radio service that not only shared highlights of established ‘high culture’ with listeners, but also created entirely new art of its own.

quality or quantity

Music had yet to dominate the Third’s schedule. there was a lot. modern jazz; rediscovery from the lost early music of the Renaissance; Deliberately provocative programming, Stravinsky and Bach cheek to cheek.

Mahler’s 10th Symphony premiered in 1960. It remained unfinished by the time of the composer’s death in 1911, but BBC producer Derrick his Cook returned to the original score, enough to lay the foundation for the version that is still widely used today. We did some “compensation by guesswork”.


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Such wealth did not guarantee a large audience. Haley believes that what he sees as a “pyramid” of his three radio services, the third, which occupies the glittering apex, probably attracts his 1 in 10 of all listeners. I was calculating. He also hoped that this number would increase over time with the BBC’s efforts to foster public taste. Alas, it didn’t take long to find out that he was the only one in 100 listening.

everyday mirror Immediately, some within the BBC playfully reported that the new service was being called ‘Haley’s Third Symphony for Orchestra and Two Audiences’. It turned out that some compromises to the Sard’s strict schedule were necessary. In 1951, the season of “Wright His Orchestra Concerts” began. Six years later, a drastic cut in airtime made room for “Network 3,” a potpourri of hobby shows. Many of them are quickly forgotten.

The Daily Mirror was quick to playfully report that some within the BBC were calling the new service “Haley’s Third Symphony for Orchestra and Two Listeners”.

Such measures sparked a high-profile campaign by Britain’s cultural elite. Michael Tippett, Vaughan Williams and TS Elliott helped launch the ‘Sound Broadcasting Defense Society’ and EM Forster told the BBC that The Third’s mission was to pursue quality, not quantity. , typically eloquently spoken.

But the reality is that the BBC service has always had a sensitive policy. It’s about staying ahead of popular tastes, but never so far ahead that people don’t comply. The third was no exception to this rule. Yet, in the 1950s, Hai remains distinctive enough in his approach to culture, for he inspired foreign broadcasters such as Italy’s RAI to launch radio services on a very similar model. was. It seemed to have become “the envy of the world,” as William Haley always wanted it to be.

David Hendy is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sussex.his latest book BBC: People’s History (Profile, 2022)

This article was first published in the June 2022 issue. BBC History Magazine