Magazine article The Spectator

Lurching towards Mediocrity

Magazine article The Spectator

Lurching towards Mediocrity

Article excerpt

Thirty-two years ago, when Kenneth Clark was engaged on that ground-breaking adventure Civilisation, Huw Wheldon, the controller of BBC Television, said that in future the medium would be judged by its willingness to make such ambitious programmes. As television coverage of the arts panders ever more to the modish, the transient and the downright tacky, it seems a good time to remind his successors of their birthright.

The obvious place to start is The South Bank Show if only because its presentereditor, Melvyn Bragg, began his career in the early Sixties under Wheldon on Monitor, the Corporation's pioneering arts programme. The SBS (back on 26 September with the comedian Paul Merton) was once a pioneer itself, carrying interviews with the likes of Pinter, Golding and Stoppard to large Sunday night audiences, happy to treat viewers like adults, not children who are easily bored.

Nowadays it has given up any attempt to do missionary work. In recent seasons the programmes have included features on the drama series, Band of Gold; Michael Flatley, the Irish-American folk dancer; and a batty pop singer from Reykjavik. In other words, hookers, hoofers and poseurs. This is straight from the glorious world of Peter Simple.

In the course of this pliant lurch towards mediocrity, designed to indulge those with films, shows and records to plug, Bragg's argument has always been that, without the SBS, the arts would have no voice on prime-time television. This no longer holds water. If it is to be no more than a repository for whatever is considered fashionable, or commercially successful, the programme lacks a sure foundation. Better to scrap it than to muddle on as it is.

These days, when the show features a serious, writer, it is no longer a first-rater like Miller or Naipaul. It tends to be somebody like lain Banks, who has acquired a kind of celebrity by not belonging to the literary tribes of London. A more interesting subject by far would have been another Scot, Allan Massie, who has written an impressive trilogy of novels on post-war Europe and who, having lived abroad, could have shed some valuable light on Britain, past and present. But Massie is, broadly speaking, right of centre, and, as a writer, he prefers old-fashioned virtues like narrative and character to literary doodling, so naturally he doesn't get much of a look-in.

Similarly, instead of drooling over Cecilia Bartoli, who is, admittedly. a mellifluous songbird, why not show an audience that may not know it how excellent are some of our home-grown singers? No country in the world has such an abundance of talented performers in so many different fields, and plenty of them could do with a gentle push. Instead there is a programme about Lucy Gannon, the prolific writer of television drama, whose life makes an interesting tale but whose work neither requires nor merits any further exposure.

If the BBC has not quite plumbed these depths, the day cannot be far off. An Omnibus of recent vintage featured the uncertain gifts of Reeves and Mortimer, a pair of second-division clowns. Morecambe and Wise were the finest double act in living memory, loved bv millions, yet they were never accorded such an honour. In their day, mercifully, people never talked about 'comedic' strategies, and the great fog known as post-modernism had yet to vaporise. …

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