Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Art for the Masses: The Working-Class Roots of the South Bank Show

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Art for the Masses: The Working-Class Roots of the South Bank Show

Article excerpt

In 1977, when John Birt, then controller of features and current affairs at LWT, invited me to start a new arts programme, I was surprised to realise that I wanted to do it. I had started making arts shows for the BBCbackin 1963, for the series Monitor. The job was worlds away from any work done by my parents, or their parents. I couldn't believe my luck. When Birt approached me to move channels, the BBC still seemed the best home for arts programmes. It had been in the bloodstream for many years and provoked adhesive loyalty.

At that point, I was making a series of 90-minute interviews on BBC Two, talking to Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Gunter Grass, Tennessee Williams and others. On BBC One, I was editing and presenting Read All About It, a new books programme. That show is what made me sympathetic to John's proposal.

When I set up Read All About It, it was sniffed at by some of our more snobbish literary gatekeepers--frankly, I thought, because it was available to a wide television audience, "the mass". That was the point I set out to make. I took the most common form of television--the panel game--and applied it to books. Anyone turning on their set would see all the familiar apparatus, including a desk of celebrity experts: Martin Amis, Antonia Fraser, Gore Vidal, Clive James, Fay Weldon, Jonathan Miller ... There was Christopher Booker's "quiz" and Paul McCartney played us in with "Paperback Writer", which he said chuffed him. We dealt not with the latest hardbacks, as had been customary with books programmes, but in paperbacks. They were a year old, much more available to criticism, and much more available to our audience. The show was a hit. Antonia's choice of The Slave, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, sent book sales through the roof.

Read All About It taught me that arts programmes could reach the democratic scatter audience, television's great bounty. Shows could be accessible without dumbing down. I wanted to do this not just with books but with everything. To be a bit fanciful, I wanted to replace the pyramid with the rainbow. Birt and LWT executive producer Nick Elliott, with whom I had several weeks of discussion before committing, were open to my ideas and so, reluctantly, suffering some scorn from my superiors, I left the uplands of the BBC for the jungles of commercial television. As it happened, ITV was in terrific form.

My agenda for putting the arts on screen went back to the roots of my own experience, and my work as a novelist, in which my drive was to put front-of-stage people from my own background--working class. When I began writing, at university, it seemed to me that--save for glorious exceptions such as Hardy and Lawrence, and comparatively recent novels by some fine Northern writers--English fiction had largely neglected or ignored the mass of English people. They were servants, clowns, pitiful--at best rude mechanicals. I know now that there is a raft of working-class representation in fiction over the past 200 years, but I was largely ignorant of that at the time.

Even if I had known, I'd have felt no less strongly. It felt as if we had been left out, sometimes no more than part of a number: "with 14 men", "with seven servants". English history, as taught, skated above the people. For instance, we had to swallow the ridiculous claim that at Waterloo the battle was won "on the playing fields of Eton". Simply untrue. The battle was won by armies of men from Britain and Germany well led by Wellington and Blucher.

And so, in 1969's The Hired Man, I wrote in anger, provoked by my grandfather's imminent death. He had been a number all his life. He was born into a family of 16, undereducated, a farm labourer at 14, then a coal miner, a soldier throughout the First World War, and a father of eight children, all of whom led worthwhile lives. He was as thoughtful, talented and sensitive as any of those who wore fine clothes and dominated fiction. Naively, I thought the novel could "show them". …

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