A Third Opinion

This look at comedy on BBC Radio 3 and its predecessor the Third Programme was originally written as the introduction for an intended follow-up to Fun At One concentrating on Radio 3 comedy programmes. Yes there were some. More than you'd expect, in fact. For various reasons this was never finished and some bits of it ended up being absorbed into other projects, but in recognition of the Third Programme's seventieth anniversary, here it is...

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.

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 shows like The Verb, Late Junction, The Wire, Night Waves and In Tune would defy cataloguing. For a time the station was also home to the famously dry-witted Andy Kershaw, whose Radio 1 show was effectively airlifted onto Radio 3 when he was dropped from their schedules.

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.

Fun At One, the story of comedy at BBC Radio 1, is available from here. You can also find more previously unseen material from A Third Opinion in Tim Worthington's Bookshelf.

Drawing An Obadiah Blank

Over The Moon was one of several studio-bound videotaped shows with human presenters that the BBC introduced into their schedules for younger viewers in the mid-to-late seventies. Like Playboard, Ragtime, Ring-A-Ding!, How Do You Do! and probably also one or two others that even I can't recall off the top of my head, it's not really anywhere near as well remembered as it logically should be.

Other than the possibility that some of the target audience resented anything that wasn't puppet-led, there's not really a readily obvious explanation for this. And that doesn't really work anyway as the Playboard presenter was never actually seen onscreen. Still, as you might have noticed, I tend to use Over The Moon as an example of TV That Time Forgot rather a lot; an example that is slightly undermined by the fact that a lot of people actually do remember something about it, even if they have no idea which programme it came from.

Introduced by an animated question mark/coathanger pin man rebounding off the side of various aspects of nature and industry to a squelchy synth backing, Over The Moon was to all intents and purposes a science show for the under fives. Introduced by the no-nonsense Sam Dale, who conducted very basic sub-Johnny Ball experiments in an equally basic studio set, the show also featured Play School-style filmed inserts illustrating the chosen scientific concept of the week, and a similarly illustrative quirky song set to animation by Pigeon Street designer in waiting Alan Rogers.

What was unusual in Over The Moon's case was that these songs were written and performed by actual singer-songwriters, albeit in most cases with previous links to BBC Children's programmes. As you can imagine, this meant that the songs were usually of a very high standard and indeed were remarkably memorable for such a widely-forgotten show. So much so, in fact, that it's likely that most people who remember the songs have little or no idea of what Over The Moon even was. Notable examples include Kim Goody's lament for Rat Van Winkle, who escaped from the 'Rat Race' to a land where a minute lasted a year, Jasper Carrott's salute to intrepid if unsuccessful wildlife photographer Angus McBluff, and a certain Derek Griffiths number concerning one Obadiah Blank.

This was a chirpy call-and-reseponse number about how we have our lucky stars to thank for Obadiah Blank, an indefatigable inventor whose achievements included devising the flying spoon and growing poppies on the moon; and ultimately an 'inventing machine', which could go on inventing for him while he sat back and, presumably, counted his own lucky stars. And it's very clearly the most well remembered detail about Over The Moon; any time that I mention the programme anywhere, you can guarantee that someone will ask if anyone else remembers the song, and more or less every reference to 'Obadiah Blank' on the Internet - apart from an article written by me - is someone asking what programme it came from and where they can get hold of it. It seems that a lot of people would like to see it again, in fact. But there's a slight problem with that.

Wheels And Wires, the edition of Over The Moon featuring the Obadiah Blank song, was first shown by BBC1 on 20th December 1978, and last seen 23rd June 1982. Needless to say, it was repeated countless times in the interim. Unfortunately the master tape was lost in the early nineties - if you want to know how and why this happened, then you can read more about that in this post here - and while a filmed insert from the show apparently does still exist, it's not clear as to whether this is Obadiah Blank or the live action sciencey bit. Or both, in fact, but anyway. So many people recall the song so vividly that somebody must have kept a copy of it, even if it's just a crumbly audio recording made by holding a built-in tape recorder microphone up to the television speaker.

So if you do have a recording of the Obadiah Blank song - or anything of Over The Moon in fact, as there's a few of them missing - please let me know. If we can find lost episodes of How Do You Do!, we can find this...

Streetsounds 17: Electric Boogal... No, That Doesn't Work

In 1986, I won a competition in Smash Hits. Though I'm not really quite sure of how and why I did.

Rather than the can of Citrus Spring autographed by Phil Cool that you might well be expecting, the prize in question was a copy of Streetsounds 17. As the name suggests, this was the the seventeenth instalment in the Streetsounds label's lengthy series of compilations of hot new electro, hip-hop and breakbeat tracks. Despite having more than a passing interest in the genre, and being the proud owner of K-Tel's surprisingly strong if slightly dubiously promoted Rap It Up collection, I don't recall ever being particularly desperate to get hold of this or indeed any other edition of Streetsounds. Scanning the lists of winners of other competitions in the same issue, I suspect that I may actually have been after the 12" of Rockin' With Rita by Vindaloo Summer Special, and had just entered the Streetsounds 17 one on a whim due to having a spare stamp.

In order to win a copy, you were challenged to explain, in an essay lasting no longer than five words, why Prince was so short. "The effects of Purple Rain" was my aaaaahhh-tastic pseudo-satirical response, which clearly amused Sylvia Patterson and company sufficiently for them to send me one of the fifty copies on offer. It arrived before the issue with the list of winners came out, in fact, and once it did hit the 'newsstands' I became something of a minor celebrity in school for a week or so. We had to make our own 'trending' in those days.

Anyway, I was reminded of this recently while I was scouring 1986 issues of Smash Hits as research for an article about Now - The Summer Album; which none of you actually read, clearly on account of the MSM bias against me. Sadly, I don't actually have the issue itself any more - a shame as it was the one with the brilliant feature on where the money that you spent on records actually went - but thanks to the fantastic Like Punk Never Happened, here's that list of winners in full. It's particularly interesting to see that the other winners included one 'Scott Walker'. There was such a prominent electro influence on Tilt after all.

However, while that issue of Smash Hits may have long since disappeared into the great magazine-based Bermuda Triangle of the rest of your family denying all knowledge of what might have happened to it, I do still have Streetsounds 17 itself. Not that I really remember very much about it - like all of the Streetsounds label's billions of releases, it was aimed primarily at hip DJs and people playing at being hip DJs, and intended as a way of getting hold of hot new tracks cheaply and easily rather than an actual coherent listening experience. So there's really not much of an excuse for not giving it another spin, is there?

Streetsounds 17 has an indistinct photo of an anonymous street funkateer in a long mac on the cover, and this sense of anonymity also extends to its contents. Many of the featured acts are so low-profile and little-remembered that it's virtually impossible to find an actual photo of them, and only three of the featured tracks resemble even anything approaching a hit single. Janet Jackson's oft-overlooked second hit Nasty might seem a surprising inclusion for such a radically urban and cutting edge series, but it was also a good deal harsher sounding than her usual fare; which is probably the reason why it's oft-overlooked, in fact. This is even more true of the 12" Extended Version included here, which strips it down to some suitably nasty-sounding beats that feel a lot closer to mid-eighties hardcore rap than mid-eighties Motown slickness.

Plenty of slickness can nonetheless be found on Step By Step by T.C. Curtis, the Jheri Curl-sporting synth-funk polymath who somehow failed to break through to mainstream success, despite appearing at the end of side two of every below-par Now! That's What I Call Music rip-off in existence. Step By Step may be presented here in an exlclusive 'Streetsounds Remix', but it's still true to say that if you did ever catch one of those end-of-side-two tracks, then you'll have a fair idea of what this likeable but undistinguished mid-paced hoarse-voiced workout sounds like. It's worth noting that a now somewhat unfortunate yodel starts to creep in towards the end, though.

If we're being honest about it, though, most of you will probably have no idea of who T.C. Curtis even was, and if we're positing him as the third most famous artist featured on Streetsounds 17 (we'll get to the second later) then you've got some sense of just how obscure the others actually are. Sharp-suited Oran 'Juice' Jones-alike Michael Jonzun, who throws a hefty helping of vogueish Nu Shooz-esque 'barking dog' voice samples into Can't Fool Us, and Give Me Up non-hitmaker Beau Williams, whose primary gimmick was to fool you into thinking he was singing about a girl when he was actually singing about God, do at least have something approaching a traceable career path. As do Skipworth And Turner, the duo behind the energetic 'Streetsounds Exclusive Edit' of Children's ITV Game Show-friendly-synth-festooned Can't Give Her Up, whose main contribution to musical history was giving Kenny Thomas another hit nobody asked for by writing Thinking About Your Love. Actually, apparently they're different songs, but I couldn't be bothered checking and anyway, there's no point allowing the opportunity for a good Kenny Thomas gag to go by.

Above and beyond that, though, we're adrift in a fathomless factual void of sequinned jackets and Yamaha DX7s. Colors, the unimaginatively-named outfit responsible for the Mario Kart backing music-like Pay Me Back My Love, may possibly have featured veteran session singer Vaneese Thomas but nobody seems to be quite sure about that. Given that it opens with the same sort of over-extemporising saxaphone as any given mid-eighties US TV show, and continues in a suitably mediocre sub-Al Jarreau style, you'd be forgiven for assuming that Cargo, whose Love You So (Without You) is yet another 'Streetsounds Exclusive Mix' ('featuring Dave Collins'), were as American as they came. Yet, bafflingly, the credits seem to indicate they were not just UK-based but actually led by veteran beardy jazzers Mike Carr and Dick Morrissey. Meanwhile, Sleeque have fallen so far off the factual radar that they might as well not have even existed, which is a shame as their sturdy proto-Acid Jazz stomper One For The Money, with its amusing interpolation of the lyrics from Blue Suede Shoes, is the best track on here by some considerable distance.

Former disco ensemble who'd moved with the times Zapp, whose Computer Love (Extended Version) was presumably not a tribute to Zzap!64, sit uneasily somewhere between the two as they seem to have been around for several thousand years without anyone actually noticing them. On the evidence of this 'dreamy' soundscape that clocks in at nearly ten minutes without offering a single robot voice, this is hardly surprising. It's doubtful that it would even have appealed to nominally music-averse sci-fi fans because 'space'.

Right at the end, however, comes the 'Special Extended Remix' of Set Me Free by Birmingham's own Jaki Graham. Seemingly hovering around the charts for the entirety of 1986, even the regular version of Set Me Free was already a touch overlong and repetitive, so making it even longer still seems like an act of wilful obnoxiousness verging on madness. That's how they did 'remixes' back then, though, and frankly it's exactly what we want here. Turning a likeable if lightweight spot of full-throated jazz-funk into something approaching art terrorism exemplifies both everything that was wrong and everything that was right about mid-eighties pop music at the same time, and stands out way more than any of the seemingly endless procession of seemingly endless pleasant enough in-one-ear-and-out-of-the-other exhortations for swanky types in Midnight Starr-inspired clobber to get on down on the dancefloor that you'll find elsewhere on the album.

The regular version of Set Me Free did of course appear on Now! That's What I Call Music 7, which in addition to being a hugely listenable vivid and vibrant snapshot of the diversity of the mid-eighties pop charts, is also the very best Now! album bar none. Yes it is. Stop arguing. Yet for all their wilful angularness, we should be glad that the likes of Streetsounds and the Indie Top 20 series (which you can find Dave Bryant's excellent album-by-album review of here) existed, as they're probably the only way of really accurately measuring what went on beyond the Top Forty short of inventing a time machine and posing as Eugene Wilde. A pose that no doubt involved reclining forward into the camera lens with a satin jacket and a huge grin.

So, that's how I ended up with Streetsounds 17 instead of Rockin' With Rita. But can you guess which one of them I later ended up mentioning in a book?