Words and Music: The Full Montaigne - review

I tried to fall back in love with Radio 3, to no avail. By David Flusfeder

A radio mixing desk
A radio mixing desk. Photograph: Getty Images

I used to love Radio 3. The station seemed to represent a significant part of what the BBC was meant to be: with a discerning noblesse oblige, examples of high (and sometimes obscure) culture were offered as experiences of cultivation and pleasure. These weren’t broadcasters; they were considerately knowledgeable enthusiasts and educators. Listening to Words and Music: The Full Montaigne (Radio 3: 9 June, 6.30 pm), that all seemed a long way away. (The awful subtitle is something of a clue: a good pun works on at least two levels; this doesn’t work on any.) The essays of Montaigne are in currency these days, there’s an appetite for his elegantly unflinching self-examinations; and the excerpts here, read by Jim Broadbent over and between some oddly chosen music, demonstrated the range of his concerns. We heard Montaigne’s opinions on kingship and cruelty and farting and marriage and hunting and dreams and disease and ordinariness.

“The most fruitful and natural exercise of the mind is discussion,” Montaigne wrote. The joy of the great essayist is the impression given of being in direct communication with the reader. But this format didn’t allow for that. The musical interludes didn’t create the space for the listener’s thoughts to move towards Montaigne’s. Instead, the programme occupied that peculiar zone where there is no distinction between being under- and overwhelmed.

Nostalgia for a preferable Radio 3 is nearly as old as the station itself (battles between “elitists” and “popularisers” have been fought since at least 1957, when The Third Programme Defence Society was formed). I tried to resist this, to find my way back into love with the station. But I foundered quickly, with Petroc Trelawny at Breakfast (daily, 6.30am), and his wakey-wakey music and emails from listeners about music in dentists’ offices. Then Essential Classics with Rob Cowan (daily, 9am) and his guest, the constitutional expert Peter Hennessy. Their conversations taught me nothing about the constitution but I did learn that both Lord Hennessy and Rob Cowan grew up in Finchley. I went to school in Finchley but still this failed to interest. Instead it became a sort of mental clutter that I’m sure dislodged something that was once hard won and has now been lost.