Public radio’s enemies, John Thomson

Humphrey Carpenter’s recent book on 50 years of the BBC Third and Radio 3 is aptly titled The Envy of the World. 1 It tells the story of one of the most prestigious and influential networks ever created, whose character is reflected in our own Concert FM. The product of Director-General William Haley’s vision of a cultural programme of the highest standard with no fixed points whatsoever and no cuts, it began on 29 September 1946. Although many attempts have been made since then to maim and destroy it, the Third has never closed despite the pruning shears of politicians, black sheep within the BBC itself and the army of accountants, marketing managers, media consultants and those baying for the network’s blood.

Carpenter’s book shows in his own words “that there was no golden age of the Third Programme. From the beginning, it was a story of struggle”. In 1976 for its thirtieth anniversary, Haley said: “The BBC’s mission is to enhance awareness of the richness of life, to support moral leadership in the nation, to raise public taste. The corporation would be otiose and sterile without it. That mission has to be accomplished by ever-evolving methods. It is the will that must stay constant”.

These are old-fashioned words, perhaps, but the message is still clear, still the aim of those at the nucleus of things, despite the withering attacks on Nicholas Kenyon’s present-day Radio 3 by those who object to his loosening and changing its structure to attract a changing audience. It has survived despite John Birt’s depredations, ostensibly to prepare for digital audio broadcasting, which have gained most publicity through his plan to amalgamate the BBC World Service’s unique news-gathering service with that of the general BBC newsroom, a process that has been stalled by the Foreign Office, the chief funder.

As a student in London during the 1950s I listened intently to the Third. As I was also studying typographical design, I kept a selection of the black and white engravings, woodcuts and elegant layouts that illustrated its programmes in the Radio Times, thus providing a steady outlet for innumerable artists. Here can be found a new production of Louis MacNeice’s parable play The Dark Tower, Nesta Pain on “The silent areas of the brain”, “an analysis of psycho-analysis”, a team of eight specialists on “Getting to know the Russians”, concerts and operas galore, plays such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Crime Passionel and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, “Treasure-seekers”, a sermon in sound by the Rev Joseph McCulloch, Bertrand Russell and P M S Blackett on the atomic bomb and stylish performances of early music, though it was not called that then. I recall Henry Reed’s hilarious depictions of the life of the avant-garde composer Hilda Tablet based on the living composer Elizabeth Lutyens, who conducted a guerilla warfare against the conservatism of the BBC for many years. Hilda’s all-woman opera Emily Butter is set mainly in the lift of a department store, a dig at Britten’s all-male Billy Budd. Reed originally wanted to call his epic Milly Mudd.

The Third often sent itself up. In a satirical programme by Peter Ustinov and Peter Jones to mark its tenth anniversary entitled “Third Gear: a Homage to their Betters”, the authors take a lift to the Third’s studios past a commissionaire wearing a hand-woven uniform and reading Proust. The liftman intones: “Second floor — London Baroque Ensemble, medieval poetry, Toynbee, Aramaic mosaics, minor Elizabethans, recreation room, critics’ cavern …” They get out of the lift, only to find themselves watching a broadcast which consists of two actors looking at each other in total silence — an Imaginary Conversation between William the Silent and the Sphinx. “This programme was recorded,” droned the announcer, “and will be repeated frequently…” The fiftieth anniversary of the Third began this year with a replay of its 1946 opening radio classic, How to listen, by Joyce Grenfell and Stephen Potter, whose Mrs Moss became a national figure. Pretentious “poetic drama” never recovered from their spoof.

Criticisms of Radio 3, throughout its history, have concentrated on several topics which are still debated and which curiously echo the charges laid against New Zealand public radio in general and Concert FM in particular. In March 1987 David Hall, director of BBC radio programmes, described it as “off-putting, exclusive and unwelcoming”. It has been clamorously urged to become more “accessible” and so swell an audience described as “miniscule”, a conclusion supported often by a dubious use of statistics. Radio 3 is held to absorb too much of the licence fee and funding in relation to its share of the kitty and worst of all, is elitist. For “Radio 3” substitute Concert FM.

When appointed controller of Radio 3, in 1992 Nicholas Kenyon’s application for the job included his belief that “Radio 3 can change without sacrificing quality”, a view he reiterated when he launched the Carpenter book in London last September. He was the only speaker and his spirited and temperate advocacy of the need for change was widely reported in the British press. “Radio 3 is far more than a classical music service, as we demonstrate every week,” he said. “If Radio 3 continues to change and adapt and reflect all that is most vital in our cultural and musical life it can look forward to celebrating its centennial.”

The size of the audience, relative to costs, remains as much at the nub of the continuing battle between the idealists and the levellers, as does the question of elitism itself. In October 1995 Radio 3’s catchment pool was 2.6 million listeners. There followed pressure from the top BBC brass to improve audience figures. Hence many of Nicholas Kenyon’s strategies, some of which have been successful and some spectacularly not. He believes still that “the BBC has been the most decisive influence on musical taste in this country for the best part of this century, and I intend it to continue as such”.

How does one “popularise” Radio 3 or Concert FM? Not by trying to sell Beethoven as a freedom fighter or the friend of the common man. Nor by conscious downgrading and simplification, though a love of Mozart may begin with Eine kleine Nachtmusik. I am convinced that possibly from birth we each have a built-in gene which steers us musically in certain directions — classical, jazz, rock, reggae, etc with some possible crossovers, as many early music enthusiasts have an equivalent curiosity about the contemporary scene. On the whole we each find our own way, but we are inestimably helped by the “educational” processes inherent in the structuring of programmes of organisations such as the BBC or Radio New Zealand.

Before leaving New Zealand near the end of the war as an 18-year-old trainee in the Fleet Air Arm I had seldom listened to radio. Whenever I turned it on, especially in the weekends, I seemed to tune in to the slow movement of a Brahms symphony or to a singer halfway through an anguished lieder recital. The overall musical colouring communicated a Brahmsian beige or brown.

In the evenings at home we often listened to each other play the piano or my uncles sing ballads on Sunday evenings. Occasionally there was a broadcast recital from 2YC. There were no records to speak of, the emphasis being on live music. As a result I came to know the piano repertoire best, largely through the playing of my cousin Elizabeth Wemyss who, in pursuing a professional career, favoured the romantics such as Schumann (and indeed Brahms), whereas I quickly became orientated towards Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. How, then did this change — how could one enter the orchestral world and, later, that of opera?

“Through the Henry Wood Proms in London,” would be my quick answer. They were then usually given by one orchestra, the BBC Symphony under Sir Adrian Boult, which night after night worked its way through the entire classical repertoire, the programmes including a “novelty”, a contemporary work — which many people did not stay for. All the principal Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and other symphonies were played, as were the piano and violin concertos, each evening bearing the rubric of its principal composer. It was Open University at its best.

On the Third, programmes such as Anna Instone and Julian Herbage’s Music Magazine, a cornucopia of invariably friendly musical stimulus and knowledge, presented gifted commentators. Soon my piano-orientated ears adjusted to this wider sound palette. Even then I found the combination of piano and orchestra jarring, especially in Mozart, for the days of the harpsichord and forte-piano had not yet arrived. As a corollary to these experiences the wide repertoire of postwar Sadler’s Wells opened up the perspectives of opera — I had never seen a single production in New Zealand.

The basis of any serious music programme must by nature be a reaching out to bring in an audience , to inspire, to suggest, to illuminate. If I slightly adapt Auden’s words, in his Selected Essays (London, 1964) to suit music, I can touch on some of the central issues. In reply to the question, “What is the function of a critic?”, he says:

He can do one or more of the following services [I substitute “composer” for “author”] (1) introduce me to the composer of works of which I was hitherto unaware; (2) convince me that I have undervalued a composer or a work because I had not listened to them carefully enough; (3) show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall; (4) give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it; (5) throw light upon the process of artistic “making”; (6) throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion etc… The last three services demand, not superior knowledge but superior insight. A critic shows superior insight if the questions he raises are fresh and important, however much one may disagree with his answers to them… The one thing I most emphastically do not ask of a critic is that he tell me what I ought to approve or condemn… Let him not lay down the law to me. The responsibility for what I choose to listen to is mine, and nobody else can do it for me.

The last thing one wishes for our restructured Concert FM is that it become a music wallpaper programme interspersed with the occasional musical talk. Only Concert FM and its administrative staff know the comparative listening figures for the various times of the day and these need to be interpreted most carefully. It is impossible to keep up a steady flow of informed documentaries, meaningful, well-balanced orchestral and chamber music programmes over a 24-hour stretch and one should never expect this. The lean financial reserves for initiating programmes, especially those with a high relevance to New Zealand musical culture, must be reserved for “peak periods”, however these are defined, with possibly more than the two standard repeats as at present. This particularly applies to specially recorded programmes.

Formerly, museums and art galleries were the favoured cultural icons in countries of British origin: thanks to government and private funding, free access to these was an inherent part of the tradition. Public broadcasting is a parallel attribute or concept, though it is seldom viewed as such in our (and other) societies. The crisis forced on New Zealand public broadcasting by a political budget-cutting exercise might well be immediately reversed, if Labour was in control rather than National. In 1983 it was National which tried to introduce controlled advertising on Concert FM, monetarily a futile gesture as the sums involved were so tiny. A change of government altered this misplaced endeavour, for Labour abandoned the idea, though the eventual report had recommended that discreet sponsored advertising be adopted.

It is frequently overlooked that the arts can be economic assets. Who in those early days following the decision to proceed with building the extremely expensive Sydney Opera House, when there was little Australian opera, imagined that it would become an international symbol for the the entire country, attracting millions of tourists, with an opera company to match. A not inconsiderable income returns to Britain through performances of works by Vaughan Williams and Britten, to name only two.

Humphrey Carpenter’s thoroughly documented book is a talisman for such programmes as Radio 3 and Concert FM and for the incalculable role public broadcasting plays in the life of a nation. Its destruction or gradual attrition opens the door to the chaos of purely commercial broadcasting. We can all play a part by supporting the stand taken by the Public Service Association for a public inquiry and support the Friends of Concert FM, the Friends of Public Broadcasting and the Save Broadcasting House campaign.

John Thomson has broadcast regularly on music for Radio 3, including a series on the history of the flute.

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