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The Guardian view on BBC Radio 3: a balm to the soul | Editorial | Opinion


Under extreme conditions, it is possible to see clearly what ought to be deemed important to British national life, and what ought not. What matters, and what does not. Which institutions have been neglected, undervalued and in some cases shamefully starved of resources. A well-funded NHS, clearly, ought to fall into the indispensable category. And the same goes for a high-quality national broadcaster. One whose chief responsibility is not to shareholders or proprietors but to citizens, not to profit but to people.

There will be a reckoning to come: the indispensability of the BBC and the licence fee has been demonstrated during this pandemic beyond all reasonable doubt. But in this moment of lockdown, it is to BBC Radio 3 in particular that many are flocking, for it offers a very particular kind of shelter in the current storm. The network provides, above all, an escape: an escape from the news bulletins and speculation, an escape from the wranglings and bunglings, an escape from the sadness and anxiety.

While cultural venues are closed, there are still concert halls to be visited in the evenings on Radio 3, still an echo of the thrill of the live in these performances from the recent past. Programmes like the early-evening show In Tune have done a good job of shepherding listeners towards the upsurge in online resources – past opera productions being made available on YouTube, for example, or even famous instrumentalists offering online lessons from home as their movements across the globe are stilled. In Tune is also broadcasting musicians playing from their homes – many of whom are trying to cope with a cataclysmic loss of livelihood, even sense of personhood, as their ability to perform in front of audiences is cut off.

Meanwhile, 20 composers, including Raymond Yiu, Anna Clyne and Jonny Greenwood, have been commissioned to write “musical postcards” – brief pieces for solo instruments, written in lockdown and speaking to the moment, performed by members of the BBC orchestras. The presenter-led programmes on Radio 3 have taken on a new feel of intimacy, especially when one knows that Sarah Walker is broadcasting from her garden shed in south London, or Kate Molleson from a bedroom in a flat in Edinburgh. These friendly voices act as a reminder of the particular power of radio – always fundamental to the form but especially important now – to bring companionship to the most isolated and lonely ear.

The material of Radio 3 is music – but also, on a more fundamental level, time and attention. This translates into the deep engagement of hearing an opera performed in its entirety; or the almost physical sense of involvement in a slow-radio, real-time walk through the Black Mountains; or the imaginative adventure offered by hearing a performance of a play such as Henry IV Part 1 (with the inimitable Toby Jones as Falstaff). Radio 3 is offering something more than a welcome distraction at the moment – it is offering a balm to the soul.

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