Podium: The ironic and the moronic of TV

Melvyn Bragg From a speech by the controller of arts at London Weekend TV to launch the new `South Bank Show' series at the Groucho Club, London
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The Independent Culture
I AM baffled by the lack of intellectual ambition in British Television. Here we are, the terrestrials, still commanding huge audiences, still bringing in substantial revenue on the commercial side and a willing licence- fee booty on the non- commercial side, still capable of infinite variety - and yet. Am I alone in feeling that there is not so much a dumbing down as a failure to engage at the highest level?

If anyone else wrote that, I would instantly be at their throats. There is, I emphasise, much good television. What about Newsnight? Have I Got News For You? The recent Alzheimer's programme? Death of Yugoslavia? The work of Jimmy McGovern? Lucy Gannon, with Bleasdale hovering in the wings and other fine dramatists on the prowl waiting to paint on the electronic canvas?

What about the documentaries? Some excellent writing in the soaps? I could go on. I often do, I often have, I will again. Because there is a truth there. I regret that I do not watch enough TV and so I miss much that I would like to have seen. With Channel 4 regrouping rapidly, BBC2 on a high, ITV refocused and on song, BBC1 promising to get its act together, C5 on target, with Sky delivering superb sport and movies and saying there is much more original British commissioning to come, and the digital army giving us a frisson, are we not the lucky ones? Only up to a point.

What I am trying to get at is hard to define, easy to dismiss but important to discuss. British television is still led by some extremely able people and yet at times they can seem like thoroughbreds happy to pull milk carts. The rush towards laddish TV, which can soon become merely loutish TV. Ladettes queue up to join that rather sad orgy. The passion for the ironic show often collapsing into the moronic and no one up there seeming to notice, and am I alone in believing that here as elsewhere trash TV is welcomed because there are those in the opinion-forming seats who still feel that all TV is trash, and all proofs to that absurd theory are welcome? I believe TV is capable of delivering the best - right across the spectrum.

But are we in British TV really using our clout to greatest effect? We are trying hard enough, yes. But are we aiming high enough? Do we want to use this ubiquitous democratic unrivalled medium of communication for the best it can do as well as the most it can do? I'm not sure. Of course, I am not advocating instant, all-channel highbrow material. But the intelligent groups must have a stake there, surely. Why don't we have the investment that is given to so many lager series? We could hold the same audiences.

In the new age, when cable and satellite channels grow and will prosper on audience numbers far smaller than those now watching the South Bank Show - there is still not enough recognition in British television of the vitality of dedicated audiences of one to three million inside the portfolio of the big channels. Such programmes as arts and "difficult" documentaries are often shunted to shoulder peak time at best. Maybe that is a reasonable place in the schedule, but it is short-sighted that British television should still regard audiences as best measured by the bucket- load.

A recent South Bank Show on Tony Harrison - an uncompromising poet, and an uncompromising film, by David Thomas - won an audience of more than 1.5 million, when screened late on a Sunday evening. That is the sales figure, say, of The Sunday Times.

We are all, although we seem to hate to admit it, getting less dumb. The numbers at universities, although academic tyrannosauruses may sneer, grow and grow in numbers and quality. Broadsheets sell far more than they did 15 years ago, and their content has not slimmed down so much as bulked out. The BBC Radio 4 programmes that have gone upmarket have increased their audiences. The literary festivals are crowded. The old Victorian lecture is revived and well. There is a fibrillation of the little grey cells abroad, but despite such weighty swallows as Robert Winston's series, there is too little feeling in British television that it has the power or the ambition to lead the national conversation. I think it could and should.

There is an audience out there, big by all but nostalgic standards, and ready to follow intelligence onward and upward. We are coming to the time when intelligence rules and British TV is well able to put on those glad rags. And if TV does is not prepared to make the best possible effort to reach the high ground, then it is likely to be abandoned by those whose support it most keenly wants and needs to have.