Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Arts coverage on television

The titles should give the game away. Some dreamy music, a child, an old man, someone else with their dreamy eyes shut presumably Imagining... something dreamy. Or artistic. Who knows. And then half an hour of Alan Yentob 'interviewing' american directors in the strangest fashion. Two cameras. Shot of Yentob asking question/making statement. Brief shot of interviewees responding. Back to Yentob listening to their response. (Shot of interviewees has the Yentob camera in frame with an awkward looking operator. Whatever for?) Then off to another shot of Yentob in a convertible/ under Hollywood sign/ next to New York steam hole. Then section of Yentob walking down a corridor with a director making chit chat. Then Robert Redford on a rooftop. Then I switch off.

Not to mention that the programme has lifted chunks wholesale from a book called the Sundance Kids by James Mottram about the new generation of hollywood directors from Soderbergh to Sofia Coppola. A book which at 400 pages felt like a brief account of this fascinating period of American cinema. So what would a producer of a weekly arts strand on BBC hope to gain by squeezing the book into 55 minutes? I didn't make it to the end so didn't see the credits but I hope they made a mention of this fairly shameless usage.

I don't think the Imagine... show is dumbed down tv. It just seems to me a vanity project for Alan Yentob as a reward for his sterling services to television. Travel the world in style meeting lots of interesting people and getting to see loads of paintings in empty galleries and dress it up as BBC arts coverage. Nice work if you can get it.

But then you do get dumbed down arts coverage - The Culture Show on BBC2 on saturday nights now 'presented' by xfm dj Lauren Laverne from some kind of sixth circle of hell trendy bar/ members club in an indeterminate location (probably BBC studios in White City) where the various contributors come in to 'explain' to Lauren in words of two syllables or less what their 4 minute 35 second segment on Mozart is going to be ABOUT. Because you always have to be told atleast three times for the 'information' to get through the thick skulls watching zombie-like out there in tellybox land. And then you get Grayson Perry on the Late Review being asked about a film and responding something like: 'Well, I don't really go to the cinema so I don't, erm, really know much but I did like it, a lot'. Sorry to single out Grayson there but more often than not the Late Review does descend into the kind of I Liked It, I didn't Like It level of criticism. The least intersting thing anyone can say about a work of art is whether they liked it or not. Give me a reason to see, listen, read, watch.

"The duty of criticism is neither to depreciate nor dignify by partial representations, but to hold out the light of reason, whatever it may discover; and to promulgate the determinations of truth, whatever she shall dictate." - Dr Johnson.

To be fair BBC4 has some good live coverage of music and opera and some good documentaries although they do have a tendency to over-do the 'drama' part of drama-ducumentary as obviously some bad writing spoken by bad actors on a cheap looking, bad set is much more effective than somebody actually telling us what a book or painting is about. And there are interesting things to be happened upon across all tv stations but where radio (for which I happily cough up my license fee) and the internet manage to talk to us like grown-ups (witness Radio 4's Saturday Review against BBC2's Late Review) why does television still insist on talking to us like we're 7 year old couch fungus?

Is it ratings? Did nobody watch the arts on tv when they were focused, articulate, complex and fascinating? I just don't believe it. Or is it that cable and satellite gives producers an excuse not to bother. I still remember channel 4 in the mid-eighties dedicating successive saturdays to a season of films from Andrei Tarkovsky. At 9PM! Prime time! Execs are always talking about Television to Remember. Well, I remember Ivan's Childhood, Solaris, Stalker, Mirror, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice.

Accessibility. That's the word isn't it? Everything these days has to be accessible not exclusionary. I'm going to stop now. Got work to do. Might return to the topic though...

ps As a counterpoint to arts coverage I was watching Sky Sports news this morning while chewing on my muesli. No less than 4 separate bits of moving text all with different information and two people telling us stuff intercut with interviews and statements. Why do sports producers assume I can easily absorb 5 different bits of information simultaneously yet arts producers assume I'm a moron who needs every single thing explained 3 times v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y


  1. Alan Yentob was invented solely so that Private Eye could call him Alan Botney. Well there can`t be any other reason.

  2. Am so glad our household is not the only one squirming at Yentob's Zelig-like appearances. We used to work in Arts TV When It Was Good but, like most of our ex-colleagues gave up trying to get projects through many years ago. It started with the dreaded Birt regime (with 'arts person' Yentob at the cultural helm), which did away with arts altogether. Then came Rolf Harris and Simon Schama domination. There are small signs, however, of a mini-Renaissance. A film editor friend has just been told she doesn't have to cut sequences every few seconds; the Arena on Pete Doherty was good, and had some VERY LONG shots....