Rule Of Third

The BBC Third Programme.

This is essentially a modified version of the opening chapter of The Larks Ascending, my book about comedy on BBC Radio 3, which you can get in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. It was put together – if I can really call it that – for a culture magazine who wanted to run it as a feature to promote the book, but that never actually ended up being run for some reason so here it is anyway. This is a brief look at the handful – yet still a surprisingly large handful – of comedy shows that appeared on Radio 3’s somewhat more serious (yes that is possible) ancestor the Third Programme, and features some names that even surprised me when I stumbled across them. It’s not intended as a definitive overview but it touches on most of the most significant examples… apart from a few that I knew nothing about but have since come to light courtesy of Andrew Pixley’s excellent book on the making of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I wonder how Hans Keller enjoyed his Mock Ferret Soup?

You can hear me talking about a couple of the programmes that are mentioned in this, including the Piotr Zak hoax, in the Looks Unfamiliar The Larks Ascending Extra here.

On 10th June 1969, the jazz-rock outfit Soft Machine were in the BBC’s Maida Vale studios to record a session for Top Gear, the popular ‘progressive’ show on BBC Radio 1 presented by John Peel, which had been enthusiastically supporting the band since the station’s launch in 1967. Broadcast on 15th June, the session showcased several lengthy numbers intended for their forthcoming album Third, including one entitled Moon In June. Drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt had already tried out several potential lyrics for this number but had rejected them all as unsatisfactory, and found himself at the session with literally no words to sing. Possibly inspired by the more irreverent and humourous atmosphere encouraged by Peel’s incoming producer John Walters – himself later a regular broadcaster for Radio 3 – Wyatt improvised amusing lyrics about the experience of recording sessions at the BBC, mixing tongue-in-cheek references to the tea machine and other facilities at Maida Vale with recollections of how, on their first appearance on the station, they had been forced to ensure all of their numbers clocked in at under three minutes. Now, however, as Wyatt memorably put it, they were “free to play for as long or as loud as a jazz group or an orchestra on Radio 3”.

Following an extract being played on Radio 4’s cross-station highlights show Pick Of The Week, which caused much amusement within Radio 3’s corridors, the upshot of this extraordinary performance – one of the first recordings for Peel’s show ever to be commercially released – was that on 13th August 1970, Soft Machine were invited to take part in Radio 3’s coverage of the BBC Proms, sharing the bill with the unlikely combination of The BBC Symphony Orchestra and electronic music pioneer Tim Souster, treating the station’s eclectically-minded audience to numbers with such obtuse titles as Esther’s Nose Job and Out-Bloody-Rageous.

As humourous as Wyatt’s lyrics may have been, the session recording of Moon In June was very much a serious musical performance, yet the band’s appearance on Radio 3 the following year clearly demonstrates that even in those early days, despite popular perception, the station had both a sense of humour and a willingness to showcase interesting developments in the arts outside of the classical sector. This was, in fact, nothing new – launched on 30th September 1967, Radio 3 was intended as a successor to the existing Third Programme, a notably more speech-orientated BBC radio station devoted to the arts, science and intellectual pursuits, although for a variety of technical and administrative reasons the Third Programme would continue to exist as a standalone service, broadcasting mainly in the evenings, up until finally being subsumed into the more music dominated Radio 3 in April 1970. Despite its lofty reputation, the Third Programme did possess a sense of humour, albeit possibly not one that radio listeners more used to the exploits of Jimmy Clitheroe or Ted Ray might have recognised as such. Indeed, its first night of programming on 29th September 1946 had seen actress Joyce Grenfell deliver one of her celebrated spoof documentaries, How To Listen (“including How Not To, How You Ought To and How You Won’t”), which poked fun at the reverence with which audiences were supposed to treat ‘serious’ radio.

BBC Third Programme - Radio Times launch feature (1946).

As early as 1949, there was an attempt at establishing a regular comedy show with Third Division, a sketch show described as ‘Some Vulgar Fractions’ and featuring the likes of Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Patricia Hayes and Harry Secombe, with sketch material by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, which poked fun at the station’s cultural and academic obsessions in a manner that did not always please BBC executives. The station’s tenth anniversary in 1957 was marked with In Third Gear: A Homage To Their Betters, a satirical one-off in which Peter Ustinov and Peter Jones delivered a mock ‘Behind The Scenes’ feature on the Third Programme, which pulled even fewer punches, and a series of spoof diary readings by ‘Mrs Cramp’ (Patience Collier), written by Angus Wilson and Christopher Sykes as a literary send-up of The Light Programme’s Mrs Dale’s Diary, a reference point which was presumably lost on most of the Third Programme’s audience. Tom Stoppard produced many of his early comic plays for the station, notably If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank (1966), featuring Timothy West as a man who recognises the speaking clock – Patsy Rowlands – as the voice of his wife, and the somewhat darker Albert’s Bridge (1967), while the mercurial talent Gerard Hoffnung made a number of appearances on the station both as a musician and a humourist. Most famously, between 1953 and 1959, Henry Reed penned a total of seven plays about ‘Hilda Tablet’, a wild and frequently surreal parody of modern classical composers, starring Mary O’Farrell as inventor of ‘musique concrete reinforcee’ Hilda, and Hugh Burden as the put-upon narrator.

More peculiar still was a 1963 hoax perpetrated by Hans Keller, the Third Programme’s resident music critic, whose fearsome intellect and waspish observations masked a genuine enthusiasm for elements of ‘low’ culture, notably his passionate love of Tottenham Hotspur, and a mischievous sense of humour coupled with a love of annoying the pompous and self-important . Having concocted a random and meaningless cacophony of percussion noises, Keller worked up a fictitious life story for the equally fictitious composer Piotr Zak, presenting it as a factual documentary as part of one of the station’s ‘Invitation Concerts’ on 5th June 1961. Despite some deliberately unrealistic elements in the story, many were taken in, some critics penning dismissive reviews of his work and others feigning a detailed knowledge of his career. Keller’s savage wit would later provide a fitting coda to the saga of the Third Programme, when he described the incoming Radio 3 with tongue very much in cheek as a ‘daytime music station’.

This sort of highbrow humour would even carry through into much of Radio 3’s regular output. For many years, the regular Jazz Record Requests slot inherited from the Third Programme was presented by Humphrey Lyttleton, a bandleader with a droll wit and chairman of the Radio 4 panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue for over thirty years. The frequently absurdist Pied Piper (1971-76), a children’s show aimed at raising awareness of music, was presented by David Munrow, a firebrand of an early music enthusiast whose refusal to kowtow to ideas of classicism once saw him record a collection of Beatles covers on archaic instruments. Many at least nominally comic plays have been broadcast on the station, while the sporadic humorous content of review and magazine shows like The Verb, Late Junction, The Wire, Night Waves and In Tune would defy cataloguing.

Although they have been few and far between, Radio 3 has even made the occasional attempt at establishing its own dedicated comedy show. While the station’s relatively small listenership has largely prevented any of them becoming well known – and even in some cases from becoming known to the performers’ not inconsiderable fanbases – these have been a surprisingly varied set of projects from surprisingly prominent comics and writers, clearly relishing the opportunity to do something slightly more personal and experimental than they would be able to on practically any other radio or television station. This is the story of that handful of quite remarkable shows, and – almost like a statement of intent – it begins with perhaps the least likely comedian ever to appear on Radio 3…

The Larks Ascending - a guide to comedy on BBC Radio 3 by Tim Worthington.

Buy A Book!

You can get The Larks Ascending – a complete guide to comedy on BBC Radio 3 – in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Although you are welcome to skip the highbrow literary analysis of the mug.

Further Reading

The Nation’s Not-Quite-As-Favourite is a look at what happens when you release a book about BBC Radio 1 at exactly the wrong moment; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking about comedy on BBC Radio 3 – including more about the ‘Piotr Zak’ hoax – on Looks Unfamiliar here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.