Clemency Burtonhill

The public arts

The public arts
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At a press conference at the Hay Festival this week, broadcaster-comedienne Sandi Toksvig began with a wistful reminiscence of what arts broadcasting used to be like when she started out. ‘You could have an idea, go and see your editor, and they’d say okay, let’s do it’ she explained. ‘Now, you go to, ahem, certain broadcasters, and they say, okay Sandi, good news, we can have your idea up and running in three years.’ Three years? The alternative to this is – well, what, exactly? The BBC may be dutifully putting out quality arts programmes on their hinterland digital channels (you can pretty much forget going to BBC2 for the arts anymore) but ITV, as their axing of the South Bank Show show proves, have decisively relinquished any commitment to providing a mainstream British television audience with the arts; they’re also slashing drama budgets and will presumably be stuffing schedules with yet more cheap-as-chips reality TV and ‘talent’ shows in their stead. As John Cassy, the channel manager of Sky Arts jokes: ‘Britain may have talent, but ITV don’t know their arts from their elbow’…

Happily, his dynamic team look more and more ready to step into the breach and rescue the concept of high-quality but accessible arts broadcasting. Unpretentious and bold, the channel—which currently hosts the only dedicated books programme in the UK and has exclusive British broadcast rights to La Scala and the Met—will this summer show Glyndebourne operas over four weeks (one a week) before going live from the opera house mid-August; will build on their relationship with English National Opera and Ballet by being both front and backstage at the Coliseum; will broadcast live, every day for a hundred days, from Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square; as well as launching Theatreland—a behind-the-scenes adventure at the Haymarket Theatre—and Theatre Live, an ambitious new approach to bringing live drama back to television involving six new plays, five top directors and twenty superb actors.

Of course, on one level Sky has an easier job of it than other channels, being subscription-based rather than publicly subsidised, but nevertheless, they have no commercial imperative to make such a commitment to the arts (four dedicated channels and counting, if you count the HD output). No doubt there will be some arts people out there who will be snooty about Sky’s customer base, not to mention its owner, but if they genuinely care about the future of the arts in this country they should probably get over themselves: on the evidence here, I’m impressed and grateful that a major broadcaster is still getting excited about the idea of bringing the arts to as wide an audience as possible.

On other fronts, it’s been a relatively quiet mid-week here at Hay, with a few notable exceptions (the ecstatic cheers of Barcelona fans watching a live beam-back of the Champions League Final on the Sony Screen last night among them). But alongside some literary and philosophical gems, including a session about Fidel and Che’s friendship ahead of one on the rise and fall of Communism, it has been a remarkable couple of days for music. I was left shaking and speechless by the superlative music-making of Boris Giltburg, a 25-year-old Russian-Israeli pianist who played what to my mind is the greatest piece of classical music ever written – Bach’s monumental Chaconne from the violin Partita in D Minor – as adapted for the piano by Busoni, and then followed it with a breathtakingly musical rendition of Grieg’s Sonata in E minor, op.7, and a technically ravishing, emotionally sensitive interpretation of Rachmaninov’s second piano sonata in B-flat minor. It was recorded live for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 5th August at 1pm, and I urge you to listen if you have the chance.

In addition to Giltburg, in the past 48 hours I have been lucky enough to hear live in concert: the phenomenal South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, a living legend if ever there was one; the great baritone Sir Thomas Allen, who sang a glorious programme including Beethoven, Ives and Barber; the monks of the 15th-century Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tibet; and Tai Murray, an exciting young American violinist who played Dvorak, Stravinsky and Suk with real gusto, accompanied brilliantly by the Swiss-born Gilles Vonsattel. Not bad for a literary festival, eh?

Today it’s the Battle of the Bishops, as Hay hosts both Rowan Williams and Desmond Tutu, and I’ve noticed a number of men of the cloth strolling around the site, clerical collars proudly on display. Apparently, over the last ten years, every major world religion has reported a rise in membership. In the middle of a jam-packed day, which also includes a visit from new Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Miles Davis’ drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played on Kind of Blue (which celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year), Economist editor John Micklethwait will be talking about his new book God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Will Change the World. Now that’s what I call inspired programming…