Various BBC anniversaries in the past week prompted me to dredge up this little review I wrote a while ago. When I was doing my initial research for my undergraduate thesis, I came across a history of British satire boom in the 1960s, written by the late Humphrey Carpenter. I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style, and when I heard that he’d written a fiftieth anniversary retrospective about the Third Programme and Radio 3, I managed to dig up a copy with the help of the Internet and settled down to read it.
The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1946–1996 by Humphrey Carpenter
For those who’ve never listened to it, Radio 3 is a BBC radio station dedicated to classical music performances, opera, drama and the visual arts, and similar programmes, with flexible programming times and no real fixed programming schedule. When it was founded in 1946 under the name of the Third Programme (the other two being the Home Service and the Light Programme), the very idea of having a radio programme focusing entirely on such ‘highbrow’ pursuits and programme ideas was met with no small amount of dissent, ranging from general scorn to outright incredulity. The programme was thought by many in the press to be elitist in nature and overly insular, heavily weighted in favour of the Oxbridge universities, full of self-indulgent broadcasts of ‘dons talking to dons’, unintelligible to the general public and not at all the thing that the average Briton would want to listen to. Carpenter’s book chronicles the constant struggle of the Third Programme’s producers and managers to keep it on the air and generally free of outside interference, along with the many upheavals and internal BBC squabblings that at times threatened the programme’s continued existence. And interestingly enough, he manages to write his retrospective with a good historian’s careful impartiality, rather than a biographer’s subtle prejudices.
The Envy of the World clearly shows that the Third Programme and Radio 3 have always been characterised by constant bickering, inside and outside the BBC, about audience listening figures and the proper tone of radio announcers and the overall place of the arts on radio. It certainly puts a dent in the argument of those who like to bemoan the state of ‘culture’ nowadays, or who hearken back to some mythical ‘golden age’ of a Third Programme unsullied by commercialism or free from outside interference. Carpenter’s writing style is as smooth as ever in this book, and his tone falls somewhere in between a newsreader’s calm straightforwardness and a critic’s nosy sense of inquiry. His access to the BBC Archives was essentially unlimited, far from anything that the average researcher could hope to get, so if you’ve any interest in the history of radio, of the art world, and of the BBC in general, then this book is without a doubt one of the best sources you could hope to find.