‘The Larks Ascending – A Guide To Comedy On BBC Radio 3’

❉ Tim Worthington takes us through Radio 3’s comedy output, notable for its quality rather than quantity.

Radio 3 is perhaps the one BBC radio station whose reputation has seemed most staid over the years. Usually seen as the rather austere home of classical music, Tim Worthington in his latest book sets out to prove that, whilst it wasn’t exactly a laugh-riot every day, it did in fact produce some outstanding comedy content alongside the Choral Evensong and Essential Classics output.

In all honesty, Radio 3’s reputation is probably more set-in-stone now than ever before, thanks in no small part to commercial radio and digital broadcasting which have allowed the various stations to become more specialist. Classic FM has cornered the ‘popular’ classical market (you’re never too far away from a John Williams movie theme record on Classic FM – this isn’t a bad thing – although check out Matthew Sweet’s excellent Sound Of Cinema on Radio 3 for some fantastic themed movie selections), whilst Radio 4 dominates speech broadcasting, despite losing some listeners in recent times, perhaps because of the availability via DAB radio of Radio 4 Extra and the listen-on-demand magic of the iPlayer. Thanks to the iPlayer and 4 Extra a number of shows from the era when Radio 3 was commissioning new comedy material have been rebroadcast in the twenty-first century. Rebroadcast or not, in The Larks Ascending, Tim Worthington takes us through the Radio 3 comedy collection.

After his more personal memoir/collection Can’t Help Thinking About Me, Tim has moved back to a more archival approach for this book and it acts as a companion piece to his earlier title, Fun At One, about Radio 1’s various comedy productions. If you’re wondering why the author hasn’t tackled Radio 2, or the speech-radio-behemoth Radio 4, then the introduction sets out the reasons for this and not least amongst these is that despite the relatively small amount of programmes produced by the station, there’s a pretty good hit rate of successes and some out-and-out classics as well.

The book tackles the twenty most significant comedy programmes broadcast originally on Radio 3, plus there is a listing of the rest of what could be considered ‘humour’ output, as well as meticulously researched listings of broadcast/repeat times and dates and a run-down of which programmes received some form of commercial release – even if it was in an entirely lacklustre package, such as that foisted on the superb Why Bother? (by Peter Morris and Chris Cook, if the cover is to be believed…)

The author’s ability to turn what is essentially a listing of Radio 3 archive materials into an interesting and informative book is really to be admired. The research is handled deftly and within the handful of pages each chapter contains, you’re taken on a fascinating journey through the backgrounds of the developers and contributors, with appropriate context provided and some thoughtful reflections on the significance of the programmes. Tim also queries the sparseness of the repeats of some of the shows. It’s interesting that a station which deals with classical music, often considered the unmovable, universal canon of culture, seems to have let its comedy output fall into the ephemera bracket.

If you’ve heard any of the programmes covered, then you’ll probably (a) be a little pleased with yourself (rightly so – some of them are hard to come by) and (b) be delighted by the chance to learn more about the means by which the shows came about. Chris Morris’s journey from regional radio to interviewing Peter Cook as Sir Arthur Greeb-Streebling, sorry, Streeb-Greebling, is wonderful. There’s explanation of how Joe Orton’s Up Against It came to be adapted for the station, having been rejected by The Beatles in the sixties. Brian’s boys, despite their artsy proclivities, didn’t want to stymie their career by acting in a film that opens with them pissing-in-a-pond and ends with them trying to kill the Prime Minister. There’s material about Rowan Atkinson, Armando Iannucci and John Sessions included, as well as due and deserved tales of writers such as N F Simpson, David Renwick, Andrew Marshall and more besides. Even if you can tick off both points (a) and (b) from the top of this paragraph, there’s no doubt you’ll come away with a list of shows you want to hunt down and listen to, it’s just that some might take a bit more hunting down than others.

The book is topped off with bonus material covering Peter Cook’s wonderful Entirely A Matter For You performance, included due to how it links to a couple of the entries in the book and also an interview with writer/comedian Toby Hadoke regarding his play about Spike Milligan, Going, Going, Goon which featured as part of a Radio 3 tribute to Spike last year. These two ‘extras’ round out a really readable book which tackles what surely must be one of the darker and less explored corners of the BBC’s output. It’s only lacking one thing – it really should have had a foreword from The National Theatre of Brent’s Desmond Olivier Dingle, to instil it with the gravitas that Radio 3 demands


❉ ‘The Larks Ascending – A Guide To Comedy On BBC Radio 3’ By Tim Worthington is available in paperback & on Kindle: PaperbackKindle

❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.

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