Exit Right the Last Reithian

Standpoints Mole in arts television says the axing of ITV's The South Bank Show is sad but inevitable

Back in the mid-’90s, during the heady days of Cool Britannia when new cable and satellite TV channels were, like June, busting out all over, I was living in the rather grand house of a senior executive at one such new, resolutely down-market enterprise.

I was a producer and director of arts programmes on what was still called terrestrial television, enduring a bit of a fallow period. Being broadly in the same industry, we would discuss where it was going. On more than one occasion this led to arguments, from which I usually emerged branded, dismissively, as an “elitist”. 

Why? Well, I believed rather earnestly that covering the arts on TV was a worthwhile endeavour. I was the grammar school son of originally working-class parents and my knowledge of Benjamin Britten and Rudolf Nureyev had been significantly expanded by what I’d seen, sometimes by simple happy chance, on The South Bank Show and the BBC’s Omnibus. It was these programmes which probably first got me into the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, and from there into what will undoubtedly be a lifetime punctuated by such visits. 

My friend was having none of this. His new channel was not giving people what it condescendingly thought they should watch, he claimed, but what they actually wanted, and he had the focus groups to prove it. 

His channel’s audience responded most positively to variations on a tits-and-arse theme, and it was a simple commercial duty to give it to them. He, of course, was a privately-educated, middle-class boy who wouldn’t have dreamed of watching this stuff himself. He had already acquired his culture as a matter of upbringing. But no, I was the elitist in this universe, and my days were numbered.

I wish that George Walden had written his excellent 2006 book The New Elites: A Career in the Masses a decade earlier, as then I might have been able to make more sense of what was going on. A new caste was emerging, one which regarded Lord Reith as a jokey irrelevance. As it was, I was left feeling beleaguered and unable to make a convincing case in a country whose culture increasingly seemed to be on some kind of downwardly-aspirational kamikaze mission. 

I thought of all this again when it was announced last month that The South Bank Show would be ending after 31 years. Melvyn Bragg appeared on the front pages of the broadsheets and there were condolences in the comment pages, but overall there was little fuss. Most people, I imagine, were surprised it was still on air, so hidden away had it become in the twilight zone of the TV schedules. This was reflected in the ratings, which averaged apparently one million a show — although it seems a fair number were achieving considerably fewer viewers than this. 

For the whole of my ten years in arts television — which included long stints in ITV’s Arts Department — it operated under the Sword of Damocles. There was the sense that we were at the tail-end of something or other. The axing of The South Bank Show is another nail in the coffin. It was through sheer force of character that Bragg had managed for years to convince ITV that it should cover the arts, as, contrary to what many assumed, no official remit actually existed. To this extent, he was a genuine Reithian with a mission, possibly the last of his kind. When it came to getting programmes commissioned, the fact that Bragg was the only man who needed convincing also made life much easier and simpler for producers. Unfortunately, perhaps, all of this — plus the fact that nobody could really be allowed to be groomed to be the “next Melvyn” — meant also that the show became his own personal fiefdom, which, with his departure, simply could not conceivably continue.

Arts programmes on the BBC have never been so identified with one man, although there has been, with Alan Yentob and Imagine, an attempt to give an otherwise rather shapeless strand a distinct identity. (There was much talk at the time of needing a “name” to front this new series. The fact that somebody largely unknown outside the Groucho Club was considered a celebrity tells you much about the growing gulf between “court” and country.) 

Arts programming in general is at the sharpest end of the cultural changes that have occurred over the past couple of decades. But it is not simply the proliferation of channels such as my friend’s that has left it diminished. It has been caught in a pincer movement between the economic choice-merchants of the Right and the cultural relativists of the Left. Why try to get people interested in Shostakovich when Dizzee Rascal is every bit as valid? It is a brave TV executive who would demur, and in the course of a decade I never came across one. To his credit, Bragg always made a virtue of mixing the best of popular culture with what used to be called the “highbrow”, of speaking of Paul McCartney in the same breath as Herbert von Karajan. 

But generally across television, the effect of an absence of intellectual judgment-making has led to a fluffy, warm, fuzzy treatment for any activity which could be deemed “cultural”. This would have happened even if we still had just three channels to choose from. 

Things are not helped by the fact that profiles of the creative great and good are made in an atmosphere of gratitude — first for the commission, and then for the subject’s co-operation (in the case of Hollywood personalities, one is also at the mercy of powerful PR machines). Of course, if somebody is initially deemed worthy, then the incentive to reinforce this in the making of the programme is inevitably great. One thing this doesn’t lead to is rigorous evaluation. The South Bank Show was often criticised for being too laudatory, but the truth is that coverage of the arts across the whole of television has become unthinkingly accepting. When the arts are not being allowed their special pleading, they are being indulged as the “happy-clappy” part of the news schedule. 

Similarly, just as the arts in wider society have become the most visible manifestation of political correctness, with funding policies dictated by the needs of social inclusiveness, so television coverage of culture is made within a particular mindset, a kind of group-think. It is not one which emphasises, for example, the dangers posed to the arts by a growing self-censorship in the face of radical Islam. There has been no examination of this. One colleague included a mildly critical voice in a programme she made about anti-war art and congratulated herself on her daring. 

No, arts stories are considered to be adequate now either when they are about what is currently hot, or when they are about bringing people together. This will carry viewers along for a time, but the jadedness already in evidence will surely increase, as will the danger that people will eventually lose interest altogether.

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