Thursday 29 September 2016

The Third at 70 - Part the Third: The Intelligent Chuckle

The BBC Third Programme offered listeners a rich diet of drama, classical music, concerts and talks but there was little in the way of a light repast. "Is it too much to hope," asked Alan Pryce-Jones writing for the BBC Quarterly in 1951, "that to all the other pleasures of the intelligence may be added during the next five years a more frequent experience of the intelligent chuckle?"

Comedy on the Third offered nothing in the way of belly laughs and recordings with a live audience. Indeed, as the then Controller, John Morris, observed in 1956 "it has been known for a listener to complain of the introduction of humour into the Programme".

But humour there was, mostly of the "intelligent chuckle" kind. Trawling through the BBC Genome site it is possible to pick out a number of comedy programmes that graced the schedules of the Third Programme and Radio 3. 

How to Listen

I've already written about the programme that launched the Third Programme on 29 September 1946 and the occasional series of How to programmes that followed.

Hilda Tablet

The Private Life of Hilda Tablet (1954) was a supposed investigation into the life of composeress Hilda Tablet from the pen of Henry Reed. Hilda had first appeared in Reed's 1953 play A Very Great Man Indeed billed as a mock-solemn account of a critic's research into the life of an imaginary novelist named Richard Sherwin.

Hilda Tablet, played with masculine gusto by Mary O'Farrell and her companion the soprano Elsa Strauss (Marjorie Westbury) were supposedly a spoof, all played deadly seriously, on the composer-singer ménage of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. However, is seems that Reed modelled them on composer Elizabeth Lutyens. So obvious was the connection that Lutyens and her novelist husband Edward Clark talked of suing Henry Reed.

The part of Henry Reeve, the critic whose voice is central to each of Reed's plays, was taken by Hugh Burden. Other characters were played by members of the BBC Rep including Carleton Hobbs, Norman Shelly and Deryck Guyler. Subsequent plays were: Emily Butter - An Occasion Recalled (1954), the occasion being the first performance of Hilda Tablet's opera; Through a Hedge - Backwards (1956); The Primal Scene, as it were (1958); Not a Drum was Heard (1959), being the war memories of General Gland as played by Guyler; and finally Musique Discrete (1959).
Recordings of all the Henry Reed plays are on YouTube.    

The Third Division

This is one of the great missing radio series as sadly no recordings exist. This 1949 comedy, a follow-up to the 1948 Home Service comedy Listen My Children, had a pre-Goons line-up that included Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine as well as Benny Hill, Robert Beatty, Benny Lee, Patricia Hayes and Carole Carr. The scripts were by Frank Muir and Denis Norden.

Interviewed recently about The Third Division Norden said: "We weren't given much guidance what the BBC wanted except that it shouldn't be like the Light Programme or the Home Service. It was a revue, to use a slightly old-fashioned term: we had two bands to provide the music."

Frank Muir, writing in his autobiography A Kentish Lad, recalls that he and Denis Norden "wrote a spot for Peter in Third Division; he played all the street traders in what we called Sellers' Market. We also used his extraordinary gift for character voices in sketches, one of which was a parody of those Fitzpatrick Traveltalks which seemed to be a part of every cinema programme in those days ('...and as the sun sinks slowly in the west we bid farewell to Bali, Isle of Enchantment...'). We called our version Bal-ham, Gateway to the South.

Peter was very quickly taken famous and was persuaded by George Martin (whom later produced the Beatles' records) to record a comedy LP. Peter asked us if he could include three of our sketches which he had enjoyed performing: the mad headteacher of a progressive school talking to a timid potential parent, an interview with a moronic pop star and his gaoler/manager ('Come back here! I've told you repeatedly, where the carpet starts, you stop!'), and Bal'ham, Gateway to the South".

Muir goes on to say how some forty years later a group of Balham businessmen decide to spruce up the centre of the neighbourhood and, in the belief that the sketch had put Balham on the map, decided to erect a statue in the likeness of Peter Sellers. Anxious to affirm their copyright Muir and Norden wrote a light-hearted letter of retort staking their claim and suggesting that the group would now "involve itself in the expense of putting up two statues". Offering a compromise they said that "for a trifling sum, we would be prepared to go along to the new shopping centre and stand there personally".  

In Third Gear

This was a one-off programme on the Third Programme's tenth anniversary in which Peter Jones and Peter Ustinov "pay homage to their betters". Based on the successful Home Service series In All Directions.

Hardluck Hall

This is the other Third Programme comedy that has failed to survive. Tantalisingly it's a 1964 collaboration between David Nobbs and Peter Tinniswood - at the time both submitting scripts to That Was the Week That Was - set in a "somewhat stately home somewhere in England" called Hardluck Hall

Nobb's, writing in his autobiography I Didn't Get Where I Am Today, has only a little to offer in the way of enlightenment about the series: "Peter and I achieved two other distinctions. We wrote the first comedy ever to be on BBC Radio's Third Programme. We also wrote the last comedy series ever to be on BBC Radio's Third Programme. You've guessed it. It was the same one.

Hardluck Hall - shades of my beloved Thomas Love Peacock - was satirical. The names of the characters - Priscilla Houseproud, Sir Sidney Servall, Tom Ology, Robin Robot, Doreen Nylon - fill me with dismay now, but it was better than it sounds, expolited radio techniques inventively, and was great fun to do. A splendid cast, including Valentine Dyall, Hugh Burden and Stephen Moore, seemed to enjoy it hugely. Peter, of course, went on to do a lot of marvellous radio work. The producer, Richard Thomas, emigrated to new Zealand, but I don't think it was as a direct result of the series".

David Nobbs may have been wrong on one account but he did, to my knowledge, write the last comedy for the Third as Radio 3 came along in 1967, though the label for the evening's listening still stuck until April 1970.

Tribute to Greatness

The Third/Radio 3 seemed to relish the cod biography, see Hilda Tablet above and The Atkinson People below. This three part series, tucked away on Monday nights in November 1969, was written by Myles Rudge and starred Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims and John Moffatt. The script for the second programme, a tribute to that fine thespian Plantagenet Runciman, is available online.

For once Kenneth Williams was not too scathing about this show. In his diary entry for 11 September 1968 he records: "To the Gratfon for this radio production. John Simmonds directing. It is called A Bannister Called Freda and again Myles has written a brilliant script and Ted Dicks two marvellous songs. Joan Sims & me playing all the parts & John Moffatt doing the Narrator - superbly. Of course this is a pilot show & we've yet to see if the powers approve it".

The Half-Open University

More send-ups, this time of the Open University, in these two comedy shows that were the precursor to The Burkiss Way. Airing in August and November 1975 it was written by Andrew Marshall, David Renwick and John Mason. Burkiss cast members Chris Emmett and Nigel Rees appeared alongside Timothy Davies and Christine Ozanne. According to Rees "Burkiss derived some of its half-academic, half-popular tone from the Radio 3 series".

The Atkinson People

This 4-part 1979 series saw the pre-Blackadder pairing of Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis as they took  "satirical and wry investigations into the lives of fictional great men". Unlike most of the programmes in this list this series is available to buy and gets repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra.


There'll be more on one of my all-time favourite comedies - this an 8-part tale of a university lecturer in English Literature struggling with his students and his marriage - in a future post. 

Broomhouse Reach

This 'suite in six parts' detailed "the adventures of a hapless young musicologist, who discovers some lost music by a composer 40 years dead but still living on as a malign influence, a sardonic witness to our hero's scholastic endeavours."

The series was written by Colin McLaren, at the time the Archivist and Keeper of Manuscripts to the Special Collections department at Aberdeen University, as well as the author of a number of novels, radio monologues and short plays - including the series 39 and Counting (1981) with Michael Hordern, Dinsdale Landen and Hannah Gordon. 

This is the first part of Broomhouse Reach as heard on Radio 3 on 23 November 1984. It stars David de Keyser as the composer Martin Mendl with Timothy Davies as Timothy Liripet, Cyril Luckham as Sir Hubert Fiske, Fanny Carby as Mrs Wix and Mark Jones as Nigel Scrote. The series was directed by Piers Plowright. This is my recording of that programme, not heard since its first outing.

A Selection of Plays

I won't attempt to list all the comedy plays that appeared on the Third and Radio 3 and I can't vouch for the comedic value of most of these productions; the only one I've heard recently is Outpatient.

Amongst the works of Rhys Adrian are: No Charge for Extra Service (1979) with Elizabeth Spriggs and Nigel Stock, Watching the Plays Together (1982) with Rosemary Leach and James Grout, Outpatient (1985) with Michael Aldridge and Andrew Sachs, Toytown (1987) with Peter Vaughan, Upended (1988) with Norman Bird and Eva Stuart and Why Leo? (1988) with Richard Briers.

Cartoonist Mel Calman wrote The Big Novel (1986) with Richard Griffiths and Peter Woodthorpe. Griffiths was also in the surreal Sweet Tooth (1987) in which Calman "wrote parts for a collection of cakes and pastries" and then in 1989 Rabbit Man with Jim Broadbent playing a taxi driver who grows rabbit's ears. 

One of Wally K Daly's earliest plays was also on Radio 3: Priest and Confessor (1975) starred Richard Briers and the priest and Tony Haygarth as the man making his first confession for many years.

Why Bother?

This 1994 series of five programmes was Peter Cook's swansong in which he again donned the persona of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, "the complacent aristocrat who'd wasted his whole life trying to teach ravens to fly underwater". Like the BBC2 series A Life in Pieces (1990/91) the premise was that Sir Arthur was reminiscing in a two-way interview; on TV it was Ludovic Kennedy but for the radio series he was more evenly matched with Chris Morris. According to William Cook, editor of a Peter Cook anthology, Morris "left Cook enough space to land his punchlines, but Morris also created a proper character of his own". All five editions are on YouTube. 

BBC Genome website
Various editions of Radio Times
The Envy of the World by Humphrey Carpenter (Phoenix 1997)
A Kentish Lad by Frank Muir (Bantam Press 1997)
I Didn't Get Where I Am Today by David Nobbs (William Heinemann 2003)
Tragically I was an Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook edited by William Cook (Arrow Books 2003)

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Choral Evensong

Next week one of BBC radio's longest-running programmes will mark its 90th year on air. Choral Evensong was first heard on 2LO on Thursday 7 October 1926 billed (see below) simply as '3.0-3.45 Evensong relayed from Westminster Abbey'. Today at 3.30 pm on Radio 3 the programme makes a return to Westminster Abbey.

Choral Evensong (it was mostly billed as just Evensong until 1945) has been broadcast on various days of the week since 1926 on the National Programme, Home Service, Radio 4 and then, from July 1981, on Radio 3.

There's a large archive, approaching one hundred, of Choral Evensong recordings on the YouTube channel of the Archive of Recorded Church Music. The earliest surviving recording, taken from BBC Transcription Service discs, dates from 7 September 1948 (Radio Times billing shown above)    

Note: the BBC describes Choral Evensong as "the longest running outside broadcast" programme. In terms of programme duration it's only beaten by The Week's Good Cause which started in January 1926, though that's been known as Radio 4 Appeal since April 1998.   

Tuesday 27 September 2016

The Third at 70 - Part the Second: Through the Mirror of the Third

The introduction of the BBC's Third Programme in 1946 can be seen as part of a movement in post-war British society to expand the range of 'culture' available to the masses. Rationing might mean that people would still go hungry but they could at least seek intellectual nourishment. The culture on offer was 'high culture' and the tone was decidedly highbrow. The Third demanded of its listeners that they actively listen as if attending an evening concert. This was not background noise.  

Writing the introduction to the tenth anniversary anthology John Morris, the then network controller, hammered home the fact that the Third was not easy listening:  

"It was decided from the beginning that the Third Programme should not compromise; it should make no concessions to popular taste. Sir William Haley, who was at the time the Director-General of the BBC, was asked if the Third Programme were to live up to such ambitious motives, might it not often become dull? 'Yes', he answered, 'let it often become dull. Let it often make mistakes. Let if often under-run and over-run. Let it always remember that it is an experiment, even an adventure, and not a piece of routine. Let it arouse controversy and not seek to muffle controversy. Let it enable the intelligent public to hear the best that has been thought or said or composed in all the world. Let it demonstrate that we are not afraid to express our own culture or to give our people access to the culture of others. Let it set a standard, and furnish an example, which will not only raise the level of our own broadcasting but in the end affect the level of broadcasting in other lands. Let it be something which has never been attempted hitherto in any country.'
During its ten year of existence the Third Programme has done all of these things; in its early days the timing of programmes was frequently erratic, and many of our talks are still not only dull but difficult to comprehend without considerable knowledge of the subject under review. This has been a deliberate policy, and I am sure a right one: any attempt to 'brighten-up' by 'talking down' to our listeners would inevitably have led to a lowering of intellectual standards. besides, we should cease to obtain the services as speakers of some of the best minds in our own and other countries".

This edition of BBC Four's Time Shift documentary strand examined the early years of the station. The Third Programme: High Culture for all in Post-War Britain was broadcast on 25 October 2005.

From the Third Programme: A Ten Years' anthology edited by John Morris (Nonsuch Press, 1956)

Saturday 24 September 2016

The Third at 70 - Part the First: How to Listen

The Third Programme "will devote to the great works the time they require. It will seek every evening to do something that is culturally satisfying and significant. It will devote occasional series of evenings to some related masterpieces, a Shakespeare historical cycle, all the Beethoven quartets, or a series of Mozart operas. It will, so far as circumstances permit, be international. Concerts, operas, plays will be taken from abroad as landline conditions improve. Its talks will include contributions from the great European thinkers. Its whole content will be directed to an audience that is not of one class but that is perceptive and intelligent".

So ran the introduction from the BBC's Director-General Sir William Haley on the opening night of the Third Programme on 29 September 1946.  But the first programme chosen to open the new service wasn't a concert, an opera, a drama or a talk but a comedy from Stephen Potter and Joyce Grenfel.

"This is the BBC Third Programme," said announcer Patrick Butler. "How to Listen. Including how not to, how you ought to, and how you won't." The idea of launching with a send-up of highbrow listening was that of Leslie Stokes, the station's Assistant (Presentation and Publicity), who thought that "we ought to have a laugh at ourselves."

Stephen Potter had been writing and producing for BBC radio since the mid-30s. He'd already appeared in a few How to ... programmes on the Home Service: How to talk to Children, How to Argue, How to Give a Party, How to Woo and so on. Turning freelance after the war he wrote comic books on Gamesmanship and One-Upmanship that would later form the basis for the delightfully funny film School for Scoundrels with Alistair Sim and Ian Carmichael.

Recounting the events of that opening night Humphrey Carpenter, in his book, The Envy of the World, takes up the commentary:

Narrator (in a hushed tone): the programme is about to begin. We are rehearsing the opening announcement. The last details are being added. In the studio, last directions from the producer ... One minute to go ...
Amyot [Etienne Amyot, the Third Programme's Assistant (Planning)] says there was indeed such a mood as six o'clock approached that evening: 'We were terrified that something might go wrong. I remember George [George Barnes the Controller of the Third] saying to me, before we went on air, "Well, it'll succeed or it won't."'
In its opening moments, How to Listen exposed everyone's anxiety that no one would tune in to the Third. A radio producer, waiting eagerly for his live programme to go on the air, is suddenly granted a dispiriting vision of what is going on in listeners' homes:
Narrator: Are they ready? Are they listening? Here, the house is empty - there, the set is switched off - but here, Licence number 865432, Mrs Moss, is she listening?Old Lady: Turn up the wireless, Mrs Moss.Mrs Moss: Yes, dear, it is chilly tonight, let's turn up the wireless a bit ...Producer (anxiously): Yes, but is she really going to listen?Narrator: On to another radio set. Where are we now? Let's look in at the window of Baltimore Gardens.Man: It's your call.Woman: I said four clubs.Man: Four clubs...I say, could we have the radio down a little, please?
Woman: Yes, let's have it down a little. It's a bit difficult to concentrate on bridge.
This was all too realistic. A survey conducted by the Daily Telegraph during the third evening of the Third gathered these, among other responses:Housewife: Bottling apples when the play started and could not listen. Now playing bridge.Business Man: Not the time. I play bridge.   
How to Listen went on to poke fun at every kind of BBC cliche, from the inanities of Workers' Playtime on the Light Programme to 'poetic drama' at its worst. Then, in the final few minutes, it suddenly turned serious, quoting from The Anatomy of Melancholy and Robert Graves on the listening ear, and offering some mock-Shakespearean verse (spoken by Deryck Guyler) which was presumably thought appropriate to the opening of the Third: '...Admit me Chorus to this History, / Who, Prologue-like you humble patience pray / Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play.'

The genesis of the Third Programme can be traced back to a 1943 memo from Senior Controller Basil Nicolls who proposed a general 'Home Service'. a 'light' programme, 'popular', but not 'rubbishy', and an 'Arts Programme', which would be devoted to high-quality performances of masterpieces 'in all the arts amenable to broadcasting'.

Controller of the Home Service, Sir Richard Maconachie, also attempted to carve up the radio networks to fit the available wavelengths. Programme A would be "cultural, for want of a better word" that would be directed to a "highly intelligent minority audience", Programme B would be 'Educational and Youth', Programme C would draw on regional material, Programme D would be like the wartime Forces Programme and Programme E would be 'light'. This proved too ambitious and all peacetime audiences got was just the Home, Light and Third, and they had to wait for over a year for the latter.

The Third Programme was at pains to emphasise that the schedule would have no fixed points, if a concert overran then so be it. "The Third Programme avoids annotation" explained the BBC Year Book for 1947. "Comment on a work about to be performed is avoided, and silence - a full ten-seconds' pause - is regarded as the best cushion for a masterpiece. This leisured presentation in which silent pauses of up to four minutes have been allowed is one reason why the Programme has been described as unexpected and different from what is customary".

Back to that opening night. How to Listen was billed as running from 6 pm to 6.45 pm but it under ran by seven minutes. "The timing was slipshod to say the least" said one newspaper. To fill the gap announcer Christopher Pemberton read some Henry James.  A later four minute gap just before 8 pm remained just silent, save for twelve words from Pemberton.

Bach's Goldberg Variations followed at 6.45 pm. Played by Lucille Wallace at the harpsichord they were introduced by yet another announcer on duty that evening, Marjorie Anderson.

At 7.30 pm came a talk: Reflections on World Affairs by Field-Marshal J.C. Smuts. They had wanted Churchill for the opening talk but he was ill.  

The first concert on the station commenced at 8 pm with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Chorus performing live at the Maida Vale studios with announcer Alvar Liddell introducing. The concert featured a specially commissioned Festival Overture by Benjamin Britten. The concert interval was Director-General William Haley's introductory talk referred to above.

Following the concert at 10.10 pm was Living Opinion, a heavily-scripted discussion between "ex-Servicemen and others". The Star was not impressed: "The handful of woolly-minded men discussing ... were obviously reading it all out and despite careful producing it did not sound real."

The rest of the evening consisted of Monteverdi madrigals on record, a repeat of a 1935 talk by Sir Max Beerbohm on London Revisited and, to close, the Epilogue.

There were bouquets and brickbats from the press and listeners. "Haley's Third Symphony for orchestra and two listeners" jibed the Daily Mirror. The Evening Standard liked "the look of it" whilst the Daily Mail though "it demanded no greater feat of endurance than two hours of choral and orchestral music ... and the fragments of talk and music which made up the rest of the evening were easy enough on the ear". One listener thought it left "no time to do anything else except listen and I can see a succession of evenings in which meals will be prepared in ten minutes' time and eaten in five minutes". Another exclaimed "Today is the high spot of my listening life."

So here is that opening programme, How to Listen. With Joyce Grenfel are Gladys Young, Betty Hardy, Louise Hutton, Carleton Hobbs, Geoffrey Wincott, Roy Plomley, Ivor Barnard, Deryck Guyler and Ronald Simpson. My recording comes from the Radio 3 repeat on 29 September 1986, hence the voice of  announcer John Holmstom.

As a bonus this is How to Broadcast that aired on the evening of the Third's fifth anniversary on 29 September 1951. The cast is Joyce Grenfel, Betty Hardy, Ronald Simpson, Deryck Guyler, Geoffrey Wincott, Alan Reed, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Carleton Hobbs and Roy Plomley. This recording is of the Christmas Day 1987 repeat on Radio 4 and includes an introduction from Laurie MacMillan.

The Envy of the World by Humphrey Carpenter (Phoenix 1997)
The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume IV Sound & Vision by Asa Briggs (OUP 1979)
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