Entertainers need colourful minds, not underwear

The jollier the BBC's gardening and cooking programmes get, the more depressing they are
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The Independent Culture
RADIO 4'S Feedback, the programme on which listeners are allowed to complain about the small evils at the BBC (too many trailers, etc) but not about the large evils (too many commissioning editors, too much management, too much John Birt, in fact) had an item this week about a series called Seeds of Conflict, with many listeners wanting to know why such a good programme had not been repeated.

I felt the same. I had listened to the series idly to begin with, then with fascination, because it promised to unravel the historical reasons for the Serbian/Albanian/ Yugoslavian imbroglio. Oh, how many times have I sat down to an article or book that would finally enlighten me about the Balkan situation, and how often have I stood up again as deep in fog as ever, but this time I really did switch off a better and more enlightened man.

The thing about a series like this is that because it is so absorbing, it is also immensely entertaining. Does that sound odd? What can be entertaining about an exposition of Balkan history? The short answer is that anything can be entertaining if done thoroughly. I have heard entertaining funeral speeches and entertaining talks on disease - indeed, at university I can remember hearing an entertaining lecture on medieval French. Brian Walden is immensely entertaining when talking to camera about people he considers to be heroes or villains.

The trouble is that these days we are led to believe that entertainment is an object, a fun commodity. Now for half an hour of entertainment... You are now entering the entertainment departments, where you can buy half-hour chunks of comedy, sitcom and lightweight quizzes. But that's balderdash. Most of what comes out of entertainment departments is deeply unentertaining, and half of what really is entertaining has never been near an entertainment department in its life. Entertainment is style not content. David Attenborough is more entertaining than most "entertainers".

Sometimes I get the feeling that the more the BBC tries to entertain, the less it succeeds, and the more it is content to be interesting, the more it entertains. There has recently been a radio series telling the history of American stand-up comedy. A gift, you might think. Just tell the story and play some wonderful extracts. But someone thought it would be even better to hand the job to the American comedian Greg Proops. Oh, how wrong they were. Proops mugged his way desperately through every link, pretending to be funny, and the result was not only dire, but unenlightening - I ended up knowing less about American comedy than I had to begin with.

In this very paper yesterday the TV reviewer Robert Hanks was reflecting on the similar process whereby Adam Hart-Davis is thought by the BBC to be more entertaining as a science presenter if he bicycles round the country in purple and yellow underwear. Actually, thought Hanks, Hart-Davis is interesting enough to survive anything, even the BBC's attempts to make him entertaining. He's right. Over on Radio 4 Hart-Davis has a programme called Inventors Imperfect and - can you believe this? - he gets through half an hour of radio without colourful underwear or bicycles and it's just as good as it is on TV. He simply tells a story - yesterday he was telling us about the Rev Moule, who invented the earth closet - and as I metaphorically sat round the camp fire listening to him, I found the whole thing gripping.

Where the BBC goes wrong is in trying to jolly so much up. The jollier its gardening, cooking and decorating programmes get, the more depressing they are. "I know," cries someone. "Let's see if we can make archaeology entertaining by getting Tony Robinson to do it at a run!"

Let's not, actually. If you want to be really entertaining, just tell a story, as Robert Hughes did last year in American Visions, a gripping, eye-opening, mind-boggling history of America and its art. I am not much interested in painting, but I was entranced. In fact, I didn't get to see every episode, but I was confident that it would be repeated or at least put out on video. As far as I know, the BBC has not made the slightest attempt to do either. I even rang up and asked why they hadn't released the Robert Hughes series on American art.

"Can't see us doing it," the man said. "Not really the sort of thing which makes us much money. It's entertainment that people want."

Well, he may be right. But it's quite possible that he, and the BBC, have lost sight of what entertainment really is.

This article about the BBC has been written entirely without the aid of the phrase "dumbing down".