Humphrey Carpenter's 50th anniversary volume is an insider's affectionate portrait of the BBC Third Programme (later Radio 3)which succeeds in being a thorough piece of serious scholarship. The radio station was highbrow, funny, with an amateur's unconcern for the minutiae of broadcasting (like starting and ending programmes on time), setting high standards for itself and its listeners - how could it survive, supporting orchestras, commissioning new music and drama, in a time of cost counting and popular culture? Yet somehow it has - just.
Fascinating to read about the debates which raged, and still rage now, as to the viability of - or necessity for - a station dedicated entirely to the high arts.
As cultural frontiers become blurred and mass audience entertainment encroaches further into the arts sphere, this book gains in relevance, not least as a document to the way that educational standards have altered. There was a time when the Third Programme was branded as pretentious, aimed merely at Bloomsbury luminaries. In reality, the Evening Standard proclaimed, it should be beamed at the average Albert Hall Promsgoer, the average public library user.
Where should it be aimed now? At the "discriminating" music lover who recognises the superiority of Radiohead over Blur? Or who reads John Grisham rather than comic books? It all rather depends on cultural trends and the prevailing thinking at the BBC. This book will cast a disquieting look on the arts world for some time to come.