Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Art of This World

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Art of This World

Article excerpt

A channel devoted to culture has been launched. But how highbrow is it.

I had real nerves switching to Sky Digital's channel 199 last Saturday afternoon and finding there an amateurish drawing of a curtain behind the announcement that Artsworld would begin broadcasting for the first time at 7pm. This single image captured all the formality, pomposity and naivety of a satellite company's first attempt at an arts channel.

There is, after all, a generation out there who, used to actors lolling about on stage waiting for the audience to arrive, have never seen a curtain rise over a proscenium arch. The one place the convention persists is the Royal Opera House, whose former general director, Jeremy Isaacs, is chairman of Artsworld. The ROH is not a model for anything.

The importance of Artsworld succeeding, however, is hard to overstate. We are more than two years into Chris Smith's digital future. With any number of channels dedicated to movies, sports, news, pop, shopping, God, Bollywood and porn, the absence of an arts station continued to make a mockery of the metaphor of multichannel as a vast WHSmith in which the consumer can find exactly the right periodical to cater for his or her taste, however obscure.

Meanwhile, terrestrial television serves higher brows less and less. The quality is still there, but not the quantity. The recent pre-emption by snooker of half of BBC2's Art Zone is a case in point, as is the declining frequency of opera on Channel 4 (although, by strange coincidence, there was one on Saturday). Mourn also the midnight scheduling of Young Musician of the Year and the almost complete absence of classic plays on any channel. One jolt among Artsworld's schedules is Diana Rigg in Hedda Gabler, made by ITV for prime time in the late Seventies. The embarrassment shown by BBC2's controller, Jane Root, towards cultural discussion is evident in her shunting around of Late Review, whose latest incarnation will be as a 30-minute extension to News-night on Fridays. It looks as if arts fans will have to buy a digital box and watch BBC4 when it launches next autumn. If Artsworld fails, BBC4 will have precious little competition, save from the Performance Channel, which is confined to cable.

When the curtain did go up, my first impression was of Sunday School piety. Tim Marlow and then Sheena McDonald -- sitting in the solitary quiet of the studio for the channel's daily arts magazine, Focus -- played us compilation clips and invited in first Marianne Faithfull, then the saxophonist Andy Sheppard, to do turns. I expected more of a party.

Programmes commenced with Lesley Garrett: going home (made by the chairman's production company), in which the soprano performed at her father's working men's club. …

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