At 6pm on 29 September 1946, when the Third Programme took to the air for the first time, it seemed as if the BBC was dramatically abandoning one of its core “Reithian” principles. The corporation’s “founding father”, John Reith, had always insisted that the broadcaster’s purpose had been to make “all that is best” available to “the greatest number”.

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Yet here was the Third, apparently threatening to ring-fence high culture for a minority. Reith, already long departed from the role of director general, harrumphed from the sidelines. True, the very first item in that first Sunday’s schedule was accessible enough. How to Listen was a “satirical review” that took the opportunity to poke gentle fun at the Third Programme’s grand pretensions before anyone else did.

The rest of the night’s output proved a little more demanding, however. There was Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played – rather unusually for the time – on the harpsichord, followed by “Reflections on World Affairs” from the South African prime minister Jan Smuts. Later there were madrigals by Monteverdi conducted by Nadia Boulanger, a live concert featuring works by Hubert Parry and Vaughan Williams, and a specially commissioned Festival Overture from Benjamin Britten.

As for the following days, publicity promised new music from the composer Michael Tippett, contemporary poetry in its original French, talks on James Joyce and atomic energy, Sartre uncensored, nearly four hours of Bernard Shaw, plus the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.

Officially, the BBC described this extraordinarily ambitious new service as something for “the alert and receptive” listener. The Third’s first head, George Barnes, put it rather more bluntly: there would, he warned, be few props. Listeners would need to “make an effort”. Few inside the corporation were under any illusions as to the scale of the challenge they had set themselves – or how pretentious it might all appear.

For, as one senior figure put it, the British people had long demonstrated a widely held prejudice “against people being too clever”. Yet in his famous wartime plan for a welfare state, William Beveridge had included ignorance – alongside want, disease, squalor and idleness – as one of the giants to be slayed. The postwar Labour government subsequently embraced the idea that culture and learning were vital ingredients of the “New Jerusalem” it aimed to build – a view that clearly resonated with the BBC’s own deeply rooted ambition to spread the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold’s famous “sweetness and light” throughout the land.

The British people had long demonstrated a widely held prejudice “against people being too clever”. Yet in his famous wartime plan for a welfare state, William Beveridge had included ignorance – alongside want, disease, squalor and idleness – as one of the giants to be slayed

The BBC had other, more strategic considerations to face in the years after 1945. The two wartime radio services, the Home and the Forces, had been wide ranging and popular. But director general William Haley worried that letting the forces’ easy-listening tradition continue in the form of the Light Programme without creating another service for what insiders called “the really intelligent section of the public” would unbalance the BBC’s overall peacetime output.

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Haley was keen, too, to build on the corporation’s reputation abroad, which was at an all-time high due to its extraordinary successes broadcasting vital information to occupied Europe.

New interpretations

When the Third Programme was finally unveiled, Haley saw it as potentially the greatest civilising influence in the postwar world. There would be no need to chase ratings, no fixed points in the schedule. Talks, concerts and plays would all get whatever time they deserved. And after years of relative isolation, there would be a special attempt to reconnect Britain with the best of world culture.

The critics salivated. Rationing might still be a be a dreary reality on the high street, The Listener proclaimed, but on the nation’s airwaves there would be a leap “from frugality to plenty”.

Over the next few years, there were certainly some startlingly original treats for committed listeners. Virgil’s Aeneid might have been a good 2,000 years old, but for its 1951 production the Third commissioned the University of Oxford’s professor of poetry, Cecil Day Lewis, to come up with a fresh translation. Its producers sensed that, in the years of reconstruction after the Second World War, the story of a refugee from war sailing across the perilous Mediterranean to reach the shores of Italy – a tale that had shaped so powerfully the myth of Rome’s foundation as a civilisation – was especially resonant.

The adaptation, designed very much to be spoken rather than read, was vast in scale. By the end of its three-month run, it was loudly praised by the critics for bringing Virgil “from the stuffy shades of the classroom into blazing sunshine”.

Occasionally, the Third earned a mention not just in the critics’ columns but in the news headlines – as, for instance, when the solution to one of the great archaeological riddles of the 20th century was announced live on air. At the turn of the century, while excavating the ruins of a palace at Knossos in Crete, the archaeologist Arthur Evans had unearthed clay tablets that were more than 3,000 years old, many of which had scratched into them a mysterious script – Linear B.

Despite the best efforts of several generations of scholars, the tablets had remained unreadable – leaving the language behind them, and the whole Minoan civilisation that they represented, unknowable.

But, one evening in 1952, a Third Programme producer, Prue Smith, happened to have been visiting the Highgate home of Michael Ventris, a young British architect with a precocious interest in ancient scripts. Ventris, it transpired, had been trying to decipher the Knossos tablets for years. Now, when he came late to the dinner table, he was profusely apologetic. “I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting,” he said, “but I’ve done it.”

Smith and Ventris agreed between themselves that he would announce his momentous discovery not in an obscure journal or to the national press, but on the radio. When he took to the microphone on Tuesday 1 July, Ventris changed our view of Aegean history at a stroke. He also put a seal on the Third’s reputation for allowing its listeners to be the first to hear new ideas as they entered the public realm.

In focus: how Under Milk Wood realised the Third Programme’s potential

At 7.25pm on 25 January 1954, the Third Programme aired 90 minutes of radio that would go down in history as one of broadcasting’s creative pinnacles, its opening words destined to be among the most famous lines in British poetry:

"To begin at the beginning: it is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the hunched, courters’- and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crow-black, fishingboat-bobbing sea."

Under Milk Wood went on to treat listeners to a bawdy journey through the night-time dreams and working days of Organ Morgan, Polly Garter, Captain Cat and a multitudinous cast of other characters in the small fictional Welsh village of Llareggub. Its author was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who was also due to have been the drama’s narrator but died before what he called his “wretched script” was ready.

That Under Milk Wood got on the air at all was largely down to the BBC’s infinitely patient producer, Douglas Cleverdon, who’d spent half a decade cajoling a script out of Thomas. It was Cleverdon who persuaded the author to abandon an early, over-elaborate story line, when it looked as if Thomas was wearing himself to a thread over the commission.

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

Not every critic was impressed by Under Milk Wood. Kingsley Amis, for one, regarded Thomas’s work as “sentimentalising, ignorant horsepiss”. Most reviewers, however, were thoroughly spellbound by the rhythm and texture of the lines, delivered with gusto by the production’s all-Welsh cast.

Between them, Thomas and Cleverdon had delivered on one of the Third Programme’s key promises: that as well as sharing with listeners the established highlights of “high culture”, here was a radio service that would be creating brand new art all of its own.

Quality or quantity

Music did not yet dominate the Third’s schedule. Yet there were plenty of ear-catching moments that established it as a platform not just for airing the existing canon but for changing what counted as part of the canon to begin with: startling new work from Peter Maxwell-Davies and Benjamin Britten; modern jazz; rediscoveries from the lost early music of the Renaissance; deliberately provocative programming that placed Bach cheek by jowl with Stravinsky.

There was even, in 1960, the very first performance of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. It had been left uncompleted at the time of the composer’s death in 1911, but the BBC producer Deryck Cooke went back to the original score and did enough “conjectural filling in” to build the foundations of a version still widely used today.


On the podcast | Susan Tomes discusses some of the most impressive pieces of piano music ever written, and shares the stories of the composers who penned them:


Such riches did not guarantee big audiences. Haley had calculated that, in what he viewed as his “pyramid” of three radio services, the Third, occupying the glittering summit, would attract perhaps 1 in 10 of all listeners. He hoped, too, that through the BBC’s efforts to nurture public taste, this figure would grow over time. Alas, it did not take long to discover that as few as 1 in 100 people were listening.

The Daily Mirror soon reported mischievously that some inside the BBC were referring to the new service as “Haley’s Third Symphony, for orchestra and two listeners”. Some compromises to the Third’s rigorous schedule proved necessary. In 1951, a season of “Light Orchestral Concerts” was unveiled; six years later, big slices of airtime were taken away to make room for “Network Three”, a potpourri of hobby programmes, many of them instantly forgettable.

The Daily Mirror soon reported mischievously that some inside the BBC were referring to the new service as “Haley’s Third Symphony, for orchestra and two listeners”

Such measures provoked high-profile campaigns by Britain’s cultural elite. Michael Tippett, Vaughan Williams and TS Eliot helped launch the “Sound Broadcasting Defence Society”, and in a typically eloquent talk, EM Forster reminded the BBC that the Third’s mission was to chase quality, not quantity.

But the reality was that the BBC’s services always had a delicate line to tread: to be ahead of public taste, but never so far ahead that people would not follow. The Third was no exception to this rule. Yet it remained sufficiently distinctive in its commitment to high culture that in the 1950s it inspired overseas broadcasters, such as RAI in Italy, to launch radio services on a strikingly similar model. As William Haley had always hoped, it was, it seemed, becoming “the envy of the world”.

David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)

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

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