BBC4's Licence for Drivel

By Sewell, Brian | The Evening Standard (London, England), February 12, 2002 | Go to article overview
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BBC4's Licence for Drivel

Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


AT 7pm on St Chad's Day, Saturday 2 March, we can switch to BBC4 for six hours of broadcasting on a channel devoted entirely to the arts. And so it will be in perpetuity, 42 hours of the arts in every week, some 2,200 hours in a year, until the channel breaks down in a sea of unseen drivel and the annual budget of [pound]35 million is withdrawn.

Unseen? Drivel? Yes, because BBC4 is a digital channel and thus invisible to most of us - just as St Chad, who insisted on climbing naked down a well in Lichfield to say his prayers, was invisible to his parishioners. Yes, because 2,200 hours a year cannot be sustained unless the boundaries of arts broadcasting are extended to embrace not only music, drama and debate that better belong on more accessible channels, but all forms of popular presentation and performance - the Melvyn Bragg definition of art and culture that leads to programmes as pointlessly beneficent as his South Bank Show has always been.

The specialist channel is a flawed concept. It is, perhaps, justified with sport only because sport is a majority interest, but interests less broadly based in society cannot flourish in a technological ghetto denied the chance to catch and hold the viewer surfing terrestrial channels in search of the least tedious choice. Even with sport there must be doubt, for those of us who watch long-distance running or a rugby match in the tragic terms of Aeschylus or Shakespeare, who find such human endeavour beautiful and are as moved by it as by a Callas competing with the crescendo of an orchestra, do not want to be deprived of the experience by exclusive channelling.

Moreover, what confidence can we have that BBC4's programmes on the arts will be better than those on the terrestrial channels?

A corporation that can pin its faith on Sister Wendy and Rolf Harris is not a corporation to be trusted. It has discovered a skilled and convincing presenter in Neil McGregor, director of the National Gallery, but even his lordly programmes have been disrupted by the familiar and obtrusive tricks and mannerisms of television, the manifestly false notes of continuity to which directors are addicted.

If only television devoted to the arts could be as pointed, incisive and directly informative as television devoted to news and political enquiry, instead of constantly competing with its subject, pretending that it is itself a sister art, equally important, more would watch it.

If only it were critical, if only the voice of disagreement could be heard, but no - arts television sees itself as a medium of flattery and promotion, as a shop window for the perfect and desirable.

The BBC is a public-service broadcaster with a duty to inform, educate and entertain at a higher level than Graham Norton saying "w***" to an audience of idiots who then roll in the aisles. We hoped for wonderful things long ago when BBC2 was conceived as the Radio 3 of television, but it has sold its soul to cooking, gardening and gimcrack redecoration. If this is what the BBC thinks suitable to foist on us, together with Never Mind the Buzzcocks, EastEnders, The Generation Game, Anne Robinson pretending to be sour and the appalling Lottery shows, not one of which is intellectually distinguishable from Cilla Black's Blind Date or the incomprehensible Brookside, then why have we to pay an annual licence fee?

In its obsession with keeping its viewing figures in the high millions, in competing with commercial television, the BBC betrays both itself and its traditional audience when it establishes a separate channel for the arts.

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