Exiled Reithian: Melvyn Bragg's "South Bank Show" has been shuffled off to Sky Arts
Thirty years ago I recall watching a wonderful episode of The South Bank Show about Benjamin Britten. Called "A Time There Was" and hosted, as usual, by Melvyn Bragg, it was made by Tony Palmer, the hugely respected director of films about music and musicians. It was on the ITV network and shown at prime time. The programme did exactly what the best arts documentaries are meant to do: it provided an effective introduction for those who (like me at the time) knew little about the subject, and for the more knowledgeable, it offered further illumination.
Here we are, three decades later. The South Bank Show is no longer on ITV. Instead it can be found on the niche subscription channel of Sky Arts. The same goes for its annual awards show, which at least has not suffered the fate of the Olivier theatre awards in disappearing completely from the airwaves (one can easily imagine modern TV executives flinching at the inaccessibility of the very word "Olivier").
Back in the Nineties, and making my freelance way through television, I worked at The South Bank Show, on and off, for the best part of a decade. I can't remember a day when I didn't enjoy it. To a boy from the suburbs who had a suspicion he might like the arts, The South Bank Show was one of television's higher callings. Actually to get to work on it was a source of genuine pride. It seemed to me then (and still does) that Bragg was a genuine Reithian who believed that television had a possibly unique role in bringing the arts to a wider audience.
But now it is quite inconceivable to imagine such a mainstream arts series taking root on ITV. For younger people especially, used only to Simon Cowell and the various mutations of reality and talent show the channel currently offers, it must be hard to believe that such a show ever even existed. Today, Tony Palmer's film would probably just about make it on to BBC4, another niche channel.
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