Life after the black polo-neck

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The Independent Culture
A year ago this week, on 21 June 1995, The Late Show finally departed from our screens. After more than 1,000 editions, six years of strutting its stuff, and a host of brainy presenters, the wolf had howled its last, leaving half a million viewers without their regular cultural fix. No more Sarah Dunant, no more Tracey MacLeod, no more carefree cantering through apparently unrelated fields, no more bust-ups between Keats and Dylan, no more double bills with Newsnight. Michael Jackson, the programme's former editor and now Controller of BBC2, was philosophical. "I am very proud of The Late Show's achievements," he said. "But nothing lasts for ever." Twelve months on, Ariadne Birnberg looks for solace in the current crop of arts programmes


Age: A mature and well-coiffed 18 years old.

Frequency: Sunday nights, 26 weeks a year.

Ratings: Averages 2m. Hit a ceiling of 5.5m with a crowd-pleasing profile of Dawn French.

Formula: ITV's flagship arts show. Hour-long promo, sorry, portrait of the artist and his/her work, pioneered and steered by Melvyn Bragg on a kaleidoscope of subjects, from Sting to Vermeer, Coronation Street to Howard Hodgkin. In 18 years, you name it and the South Bank Show has probably done it.

Promo? According to some churlish critics, the SBS has gone soft on its subjects of late. The word "hagiography" has been mentioned. A recent edition on Dame Barbara Cartland was particularly fluffy.

According to Melvyn: Not so. Making the arts accessible is a democratic aspiration. Wacky camera angles and chiaroscuro lighting are not the only way to make a point. There are, after all, "a hundred ways to skin a cat".

Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? Irritatingly catchy jazzed-up Paganini theme tune.

The bottom line - is it any good? All told, it's still a flagship - maybe flagging, but not yet sunk.


Age: It would have been six.

Frequency: Wednesday nights, two seasons of about eight weeks each a year (until last month).

Ratings: An average of 2m.

Formula: Two half-hour pieces within a one-hour slot. Scope for diatribe and hero-worship accommodated by "J'Accuse" and "J'Adore" formats. One notable edition featured Camille Paglia delivering a blistering semiotic analysis of the iconography pertaining to Princess Diana. Another, decidedly less sprightly edition featured Vivienne Westwood, looking uncannily like Margaret Thatcher in all but dress, waltzing unsteadily through her personal history of fashion. Iconoclastic, provocative and innovative are all words once associated with Without Walls.

Isn't there a retrospective air about this? Yes indeed. Without Walls and Douglas the armadillo are, sadly, no more.

Sadly? Not for some. "Thinks it's on the ball, whilst being out of touch," according to the Independent's John Lyttle, who recently appeared on Jaci Stephen's one-fingered salute to the "New Lads".

The bottom line - was it any good? That's a contentious question. But that, surely, was its (selling) point.


Age: Born this March, kicking and screaming.

Frequency: Tuesday nights, for a nine-week run. Future development by no means certain.

Ratings: Exactly.

Formula: Loud, lippy and opinionated cultural review, incorporating studio interviews (brief), record reviews (rapid) and TV "essays" (more like one-liners) delivered by a host of expanding violets on topics such as John Major's "verbal pratfalls" and the cred attached to Irish descent in America. Cultural deconstruction on speed.

Sounds like a vehicle for: Yep, Tony Parsons, held by some to be a breath of fresh air in a moribundly middle-class industry, and by others to be a breath of fresh air approximately once every six months, if that, and haven't we all heard enough of him anyway? Joined by Miranda Sawyer, fellow verbal junkie, on record reviews.

What the blurb says: "Big Mouth is the next generation of cultural review programmes."

What the critics say: God help us.

Opening sequence: Andy Warhol meets Keith Haring meets the Tango ad.

The bottom line? All mouth no teeth.


The what? OK, so it's only just started. A tender two months old.

Frequency: Prime-time Tuesday evenings - an early bird as far as arts programmes go. First series in the bag. We wait with baited breath ...

Ratings: Averaging 1m.

What's it all about then? Well, it's got a beginning, a middle and an end, and has a very flexible remit.

A riddle? No. A story. The concept behind the Beeb's latest arts documentary series is all about spinning a good yarn. "No single theme links all the films in the series," says Mike Poole, series editor, "except for the fact that they take real pleasure in storytelling."

What kind of stories? An eclectic mix, from Ben Woolley's film on Walt Disney's soon-to-be-realised dream of a perfect city ("Celebration"), to psychoanalyst Darian Leader's take on Francis Bacon ("In the Name of the Father").

But does it work? The critical consensus says yes. "On the pulse of what's going on," according to Lucy Ellmann, the IoS's TV critic.

For example? The FBI's most wanted man was actually caught while a scheduled programme on the Unabomber was being completed.

The bottom line: Very promising.


Age: A venerable, statesmanlike 25. The grandaddy of the genre.

Frequency: In its current incarnation, Monday nights, two seasons (of variable length) a year.

Ratings: Level-pegging with The South Bank Show, cheek to the Omnibus jowl. Waxed to more than 5m for Peter Cook, waned to 1m for Jean Renoir.

Formula: Definitely not "man on the Clapham...", despite being an anagram of "bus in mo". Omnibus presents the Big Names Of The Arts World, often timed to accompany much-hyped exhibitions of their work. Recent profiles of Eve Arnold and Degas are cases in point. Iconoclastic, irreverent, provocative and opinionated are all words not associated with Omnibus.

Little known facts: 1) The series editor is Nigel Williams, of Wimbledon Poisoner fame; 2) Once, in the programme's early history, Omnibus was presented by Barry Norman. And why not?

What even the young critics say: Due respect.

The bottom line - is it any good? Difficult to summarise 25 years of output in a single sentence. However, traditional, solidly well-made arts documentary series, might do.


Age: About two and a half. Originally part of The Late Show, now an independent young thing.

Frequency: Thursday nights, a gruelling schedule of 35 shows a year.

Ratings: Half a million. Who says "public service" means popular?

Formula: Sparky, round-table debate on the arts highlights of the week, intended to cut across the high/low divide. "A more conversational, more accessible, more middle-brow version of the Late Show," according to series editor Mike Poole (again).

Agreed? Not by all. Still held by certain critics to be an unedifyingly smug bout of metropolitan ego-wrestling.

Egos involved: Mark Lawson is the cuddly chair. Critics can be classified as the stalwarts (Tony Parsons, Tom Paulin, Allison Pearson - memorably described as the show's Holy Trinity), the increasingly frequent (John Carey, Kate Kellaway, Jim White, Germaine Greer and Suzanne Moore - ouch) and the left-field occasionals (Darcus Howe, Paul Gambaccini).

Curious unsisterly fact: Female critics apparently do not like appearing with other female critics. So much for solidarity.

Last word goes to: Invariably Mark Lawson. !