Under the stewardship of John Reith, the BBC was godlier than it is today. In fact, when Broadcasting House was first opened in central London, Director General Reith made sure to dedicate the whole thing to Him up there. An inscription was chiselled into the wall of the building’s foyer, which began: ‘To Almighty God, this shrine of the arts, music and literature is dedicated by the first Governors in the year of our Lord 1931’. The words that followed included ‘decency’, ‘peace’ and ‘good harvest’. It’s not really the sort of epigraph that Auntie would put her name to now.
But, reading that inscription again, it’s not so much the G-word that stands out as the A-, M- and L-words: arts, music and literature. After all, people are currently questioning the BBC’s commitment to those ideals. Stand outside any gallery, concert hall or library, and sooner or later someone will waft up to you to complain — through a cloud of cigarette smoke and indignation — about the recent decision to move The Review Show from its weekly slot on BBC2 to a monthly one on BBC4. The box, they groan, just doesn’t have much space for arts programming these days.
It’s easy to sympathise with these critics. Whenever there are cuts to television budgets, the arts always seem to lose out, while reality teevee and cookery programmes continue to dominate the schedules. And this isn’t something I say out of snobbery. No, I am an eager fly-on-the-wall for reality shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And while I’d rather eat a steak than watch Jamie Oliver slaver over one on screen, millions clearly feel otherwise — and why should they be denied? Television is a stunningly democratic medium. It generally gives us what we want, and we duly devour it.
But are the same critics overdoing it when it comes to the arts? I spoke to Mark Bell, the BBC’s head of arts commissioning, and (I know, I know, he’s hardly an impartial observer, but…) he put up a solid defence of his corporation. He rattled through some of the content of BBC4 — from a documentary about Roy Lichtenstein to esoteric numbers such as Edwardian Insects on Film, which recreates Percy Smith’s 1908 short film The Acrobatic Fly. And he highlighted the arts programmes that endure on BBC1 and BBC2 — from The Culture Show to the idiosyncratic Fake or Fortune? ‘It’s not unheard of — nor, indeed, uncommon — for the BBC to be broadcasting the ten most popular arts and music programmes on television, in any given week or month.’
And remember, this isn’t just about the Beeb. ITV may have ditched The South Bank Show, but there’s always Sky Arts. The music videos pumped out by channels such as MTV and 4Music count as culture, even if they’re not the Last Night of the Proms. And nowadays, as television goes digi-loco, all of this can be recorded, replayed and repeated with a few clicks of a remote control or a computer mouse. The point is, there’s a lot of arts programming out there, if people want to look for it.
Yet this raises an awkward question: will people look for, and find it? Mark Bell is sanguine about this. The swollen number of channels, he says, ‘means that you can put stuff on in prime-time slots — 8 or 9 p.m. — that you couldn’t before’. But there is also the gloomier possibility: that moving arts programmes away from BBC1 and BBC2 limits their audience even further — and not simply because BBC4 has fewer viewers. The big shows on the big channels receive the big promotions, the big reviews and the big acclaim. They’re a floodlight for us moths, whereas BBC4 is but a bedside lamp.
This is a concern shared by the arts documentary-maker Phil Grabsky. ‘Prime time on BBC1 or BBC2 still matters immensely,’ he says. ‘Even if they have digital television and thousands of channels, most people — particularly the older generation — will spend most of their time on the same three or four channels that they always have. It’s what they’re used to.’
Grabsky makes documentaries for television, but dwindling budgets and, to some extent, opportunities have encouraged him to find another home for his work: the cinema. His latest film for the silver screen has been made to accompany the Royal Academy’s massive Manet exhibition — and there are more to come, for Munch and Vermeer exhibitions later in the year. There is a trend for spooling artistic events into movie-house projectors. You can now watch live performances from the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House in cinemas hundreds of miles away from the stage. And many people are doing just that. ‘These are sell-out shows,’ says Grabsky.
Are such films occupying a void left by television? Mark Bell doesn’t see it like that. For starters, he thinks that cinema offers something that television cannot: ‘If we were to put these performances on in the corner of a room, they would feel very different.’ And, for seconds, he reckons that the two media are in happy partnership with each other. ‘We’re about creating enthusiasm for culture. The more people consume culture, the better.’
The more people consume culture, the better — that’s the rub of it. Cinemas can do this, by closing the distance between shows and their audiences. The endless expanse of the internet can too, by yielding millions of websites, blogs and tweets devoted to the arts. But television still occupies an exalted position between the two, with greater reach than a movie theatre, and more cathode-ray intensity than a computer screen. It has nurtured new audiences and enthusiasms in the past, including for history. But will it do so for the arts? If not, then those watching BBC4 could simply be those already in the know — and a dying breed.
In the end, the BBC and other channels could do a thousand things — great and small — to push the arts more forcefully, if they were minded to. As Phil Grabsky puts it, ‘Instead of racing tips on Radio 4 every morning, why don’t they, even just once a week, give us a nugget of information about an artist?’ That would mean upsetting the norm, which all schedules are impeccably founded upon, but it could be done. Perhaps all that’s needed is a bit of that Reithian fervour at the very top.
For more information about Phil Grabsky’s film Manet: Portraying Life, visit www.exhibitiononscreen.com