The introduction of the BBC's Third Programme in 1946 can be seen as part of a movement in post-war British society to expand the range of 'culture' available to the masses. Rationing might mean that people would still go hungry but they could at least seek intellectual nourishment. The culture on offer was 'high culture' and the tone was decidedly highbrow. The Third demanded of its listeners that they actively listen as if attending an evening concert. This was not background noise.
Writing the introduction to the tenth anniversary anthology John Morris, the then network controller, hammered home the fact that the Third was not easy listening:
"It was decided from the beginning that the Third Programme should not compromise; it should make no concessions to popular taste. Sir William Haley, who was at the time the Director-General of the BBC, was asked if the Third Programme were to live up to such ambitious motives, might it not often become dull? 'Yes', he answered, 'let it often become dull. Let it often make mistakes. Let if often under-run and over-run. Let it always remember that it is an experiment, even an adventure, and not a piece of routine. Let it arouse controversy and not seek to muffle controversy. Let it enable the intelligent public to hear the best that has been thought or said or composed in all the world. Let it demonstrate that we are not afraid to express our own culture or to give our people access to the culture of others. Let it set a standard, and furnish an example, which will not only raise the level of our own broadcasting but in the end affect the level of broadcasting in other lands. Let it be something which has never been attempted hitherto in any country.'
During its ten year of existence the Third Programme has done all of these things; in its early days the timing of programmes was frequently erratic, and many of our talks are still not only dull but difficult to comprehend without considerable knowledge of the subject under review. This has been a deliberate policy, and I am sure a right one: any attempt to 'brighten-up' by 'talking down' to our listeners would inevitably have led to a lowering of intellectual standards. besides, we should cease to obtain the services as speakers of some of the best minds in our own and other countries".
This edition of BBC Four's Time Shift documentary strand examined the early years of the station. The Third Programme: High Culture for all in Post-War Britain was broadcast on 25 October 2005.
From the Third Programme: A Ten Years' anthology edited by John Morris (Nonsuch Press, 1956)