The very weak joke in the title of this 1965 series is that (as Britons surely will already know) in 1965 there was a BBC-1 and a BBC-2, but no BBC-3. Now there's a Channel 4, and two million channels on SkyTV.
'BBC-3' made its debut soon after the tremendous revolution of satirical comedy in Britain had begun, exemplified by such offerings as 'That Was the Week that Was' (a.k.a. 'TW3'), 'Beyond the Fringe' and Peter Cook's Establishment nightclub. The people behind 'BBC-3' -- primarily producer Ned Sherrin and his 'TW3' musical troupe, and comedians John Bird and Eleanor Bron -- were keen to get in on that revolution. Unfortunately, this programme lacked the bite and the anger of those more successful offerings, and its satiric edge seldom rose above the level of 'Yah boo, sucks!'.
Indeed, anticipating criticism that 'BBC-3' was breaking no new ground, the programme led off with a theme song making precisely that point: "It's all been done before / By Swift, who said it better..."
An ongoing feature of this series was Bird's impersonations of Harold Wilson: unfortunately, these tended to be long droning monologues which weren't very funny, and which relied heavily on topical references to the events of the previous week. Seen today, by a generation who barely remember Wilson, the topical references are largely baffling rather than funny. More effective were Bird's two-hander sketches with Eleanor Bron -- somewhat similar to what Nichols and May were doing in America at this time -- which are rendered more impressive (though not more funny) when one learns that they were largely improvised; Bird and Bron had performed together many times, and were keyed into each other's chemistry and pace.
The pedigree of 'BBC-3' was raised slightly by the very occasional appearances of Alan Bennett (the most anodyne and least angry of the 'Beyond the Fringe' quartet), here writing monologues for himself to perform and sketches for himself, Bird and Bron. Bennett was adrenalised by the challenge of performing on live television ... oddly, since he'd already worked successfully on stage. The weak comedy sketches in this series were sometimes alleviated by panel discussions on one or another allegedly cutting-edge subject.
One of the best 'BBC-3' sketches, scripted by Marty Feldman and John Law, featured John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett (not yet officially the Two Ronnies) as symbols of the upper class, middle class and lower class. Their widely disparate heights (Cleese is 14 inches taller than Corbett) added to the hilarity. Years later, Cleese guest-starred on 'The Two Ronnies' and the trio reprised this hilarious triptych.
Although 'BBC-3' very largely sank without a trace, the transmission of 13 November 1965 has earned a permanent place in the annals of television history. That week's panel discussion was on the subject of theatre censorship: a much more serious subject in Britain at that time than in America, as all theatre scripts still required the approval of the Lord Chamberlain. One member of the panel was theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, and -- in the course of his live on-camera bloviations -- he spoke a certain notorious four-letter word beginning with 'F' ... which went out on the air, there being no electronic delay. Much controversy ensued, until it developed that Tynan's remark was in every other way quite banal.
Several of the 'BBC-3' recordings still exist, although the one with Tynan's famous comment now survives only in transcript. From what I recall of 'BBC-3', very little of it -- apart from Bennett's few contributions -- would now be worthy of resurrection. This series remains merely a footnote in the careers of several major figures whose important contributions were elsewhere, and I'll rate 'BBC-3' a mere 4 out of 10. Watch your mouth, Ken.
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