New Heights, New Conquests: now it’s Radio 3…

Word has it that some younger people don’t know that Radio 3 exists! I ask you, he sniffed, whatever next? In my youth, of course, they’d have been laughed to derision – and besides in those far-off days it was called The Third Programme. But one has to enunciate those three hallowed words rather quietly, and with a very plummy and slightly superior tone of voice, because the sort of people who listened back then really knew – or thought they knew – about classical music. I can remember some of my parents’ musical friends talking about a concert they’d just heard which included ‘that ghastly 1812 Overture – the noisy one with the bangs…’ In short, it used to be an excuse for much intellectual elitism and snobbery, but over the past thirty years, or so, it managed to shake off that very crusty image and latterly provided what one might call (to be a bit elitist myself) a grown-up accompaniment to Classic FM.

My own musical tastes are eclectic. The great love of my younger life was jazz. I’ve even been kissed on both cheeks by that late and very great genius Duke Ellington, but over the past twenty to thirty years I’ve found most pleasure in classical music, especially Baroque and Early Music. I suppose five years ago I’d have Radio 3 on somewhere in the dig, house or garden for three or four hours every day. As I said, it was a more meaty version of Classic FM and I saw many students move – graduate? – from the one to the other. Then a few months ago, everything changed and  I now find myself listening to Classic FM again.

This will come as no surprise to older Radio Three listeners who, like me, have turned off their sets in the morning when the station is taken over by Essential Classics which tries to do, in what I find a slightly patronising fashion, what Classic FM has been doing successfully for so many years. I had feelings of déjà vu: it was like Time Flyers and other unsuccessful BBC attempts to clone Channel 4’s Time Team. But why did they do it? Was it just jealousy, or do the all-powerful media luvvies who seem to control what is still the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world, really resent any other broadcasters making good programmes? Presumably for them, now safely concealed inside their Salford bubble, co-existence is impossible. The trouble is, like many other BBC Licence payers, I resent seeing my money being spent on producing programmes that commercial stations can do successfully – Classic FM, being a good case in point. And as for Strictly Come Dancing… Grrrrr…

The other thing that drove me away from Radio 3 was a series of weeks in which they played an entire composer’s output. Now I love Mozart, I adore Bach, but not, please not, for hour after hour, after hour. If they could have heard it, I’m sure the composers themselves would have turned in their graves, and not just once, but again and again and again, like so many chickens on a barbeque. Recently Schubert has been given this treatment and somehow it was even worse than other Radio 3 composer-fests: maybe it’s because I can’t get my head around so-called German Song, or lieder. And I even sang a Schubert song as a treble at school (about a youth picking a rose in the morning) and won a small prize. But no: for me, hours of lieder are best left to devotees, or the deaf. So I reached for a CD (and I’ve got a large-ish collection) and have been playing them ever since.

Then about ten days ago my phone rang. It was a producer from Radio Three. They were researching for a programme called Night Waves. Don’t get me wrong, Radio Three hasn’t completely dumbed-down. There are still some good music shows, like their live lunchtime and evening concerts and the splendid Early Music Show. They also produce some superb full-length plays and dramas. Other first-rate spoken word programmes include their Essays and the estimable Night Waves, which I quite often hear because it coincides with something I don’t like on Radio 4 – could it be The Moral Maze? –  because I’ve been known to yell obscenities at that posy load of reactionary rubbish. Anyhow, that phone call came as a surprise.

We discussed doing something about the Fens which would involve a stroll through a typical landscape. So I suggested Bronze Age Flag Fen and made my usual sales pitch, which seemed to have gone down quite well, because a couple of hours later the phone rang again. Would I be available to record next Sunday? Of course I said yes.

Bronze Age roundhouse, Flag Fen, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire

The reconstructed Bronze Age (ca. 1500 BC) round-house at Flag Fen. This was where we recorded the Radio 3 Nightwaves programme, to be broadcast at 22.00 on Tuesday April 10th.

I like doing radio. I like the people and the relaxed vibe. I also like the audience responses which tend to be about what you have said, rather than what, or who, you are. And this interview with their presenter Juliet Gardiner was a real pleasure. Yes, it was hard work and after three hours I was exhausted. But I always take that to be a good sign: if you haven’t run down your reserves then you haven’t been functioning at full throttle. And even relaxed performances on the outside must have energy and commitment at their heart – otherwise they’re boring.

Our talk was very wide-ranging and we discussed everything from a modern industrial suburb on what was once a Bronze Age landscape, to the great wind turbines that today dominate the Flag Fen skyline to the south. And I think I’ve managed to upset those thousands of people who were quite happy for the folk of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire to live in the shadows of the great coal-fired power stations (that have done so much to wreck our climate), but who now squeal like so many spoiled brats when somebody suggests they should erect windfarms near their homes, in southern England. We discussed the meanings of landscape and why the antiquity of our surroundings matters. All in all it was a cracking good conversation, but I don’t envy the poor producer the task of editing it all down. Anyhow, we can all listen to the final results in Night Waves, at 22.00 on Radio 3, next Tuesday, April 10th. Maybe after that I’ll try to return to what was once my favourite station. Give them one last chance. Maybe.

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