Whatever happened to TV’s arts savvy?

Over the years ITV has made fitful attempts at getting art into its schedules, and without very strong support from above it has never been sustained and culture has largely been left to the BBC. Now the channel that doesn’t even have an arts commissioning editor any more might have come up with a rather brilliant wheeze, alongside the X Factor, I’m a Celebrity… and The Voice UK. Visual art as well as live opera and theatre is now bringing audiences into cinemas, thought someone in ITV’s penthouse suite, why not to television via the same sources? High quality at affordable prices, who wouldn’t go for that?

For the last five years or so the award-winning documentary film filmmaker Phil Grabsky has been turning his back on the more obvious hard-hitting subject matter like his The Boy Mir–Ten Years in Afghanistan to explore visual art. He has been making beautifully shot (mostly by the brilliant David Bickerstaff) and infinitely researched full length movies based on art exhibitions. He and his Brighton-based Seventh Art Productions have teamed up with ITV to make television versions of the films he has already made for cinema presentation, and next week it will start running a series of five airing at just after the 10 o’clock news, capturing the work of Canaletto, the Impressionists, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Michelangelo, presented by Grabsky’s favourite frontman, the Royal Academy’s artistic director Tim Marlow.

Two series of five have been commissioned, the second to run later this year, and who knows after that – Seventh Art does music too. Enough damage has been done to the exposure of the arts on public TV by underestimating the appetite of the Gogglebox sector, perhaps now by this kind of initiative we can at last get not only visual art but opera, live theatre and, next year especially in its 250th anniversary, circus on to the telly.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s director of arts Jonty Claypole has gone back 50 years to revive Civilisation, the magisterial stroll through humanity’s aesthetic story by Kenneth Clark. He had been director of the National Gallery, but Claypole has decided to match him with three modern historians, none of them art historians – Mary Beard, Simon Schama and David Olusoga, currently presenting the BBC2 series A Black History of Britain. And it will go on BBC2, rather than the Beeb’s cultural ghetto at BBC4, where he doesn’t mind if it only gets a few hundred thousand viewers: Clark’s version went out in an age of three TV channels when Morecambe & Wise were getting 27m, and Clark managed an acceptable million on a good night. This, Claypole will argue, is public service television.

But the problem is that the Beeb can’t help but fiddle with a good idea until it becomes a bad idea. Front Row has been a weekday fixture after The Archers on Radio 4 for 20 years and is a staple favourite that is not afraid to go after both the arcane and the popular with knowledgeable and familiar presenters led by John Wilson, a BBC stalwart man and boy. So telly decided it could work on BBC2 after the disaster of The Culture Show – but with presenters that were hot only different from the radio line-up, they were led by a freelance restaurant critic who confessed that he doesn’t like art. It wandered around the schedule so that no-one was sure when to find it if they wanted to, and it’s coming back for a second season despite its disappointing first outing and bearing no resemblance to its successful and respected radio namesake.

In the 18 years since Tate Modern shouted PEOPLE LIKE CONTEMPORARY ART! loud enough to get even politicians to hear it by pulling in, by now, eight million visitors a year, the BBC have never quite decided how to deal with this strangely savvy audience. It had a successful review show, after Newsnight on Fridays, which for what seem to be logistical reasons it pulled, and when the same was attempted on Radio 4’s Saturday Review show for apparently cost cutting reasons a petition got enough signatures to make controller Gwynneth Williams abandon the plan “at this time”.

I wish all these enterprises luck, of course, and I also wish the BBC would give more of a chuck up to that aforementioned ghetto, BBC4, where some fantastic programming – who that watched it hasn't loved Neil Brand’s recent excursion into musical theatre, who knew it was on? – is studiously ignored in the lengthening trailer slots on the other BBC channels.

The BBC is by far the most capable channel to do the arts justice, run by a man with a proven track record in the arts and with the best talent capable of carrying it out. So why doesn’t it? Keep it simple, Jonty, don’t patronise, and have a word with Phil Grabsky, why don’t you…


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