Raise your brow

Arts on television used to mean Kenneth Clark standing in front of an Old Master. Then came Alan Yentob, `Arena' and the Ford Cortina. But Nigel Williams, the outgoing editor of `Omnibus', thinks postmodernism has now gone too far: it's time to put high art back into arts programmes
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The Independent Culture
I was switching channels the other day when I came across a programme on BBC2 that I thought looked interesting. A man in a short-sleeved shirt, filmed in black and white, was standing in front of a large picture. A voice on the soundtrack informed me that this was none other than Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art.

"Look!" I said in bright eager tones. "It's Marcel Duchamp! The father of conceptual art!" My wife shifted uneasily in her chair. "Oh," she said. "It's an arts programme." I found something offensive about the the cautious disapproval in her tone. I have spent 26 years of my life making television arts programmes. I leaned over the arm of my chair and said, "What's wrong with arts programmes?"

She made a noise somewhere between a snarl and a bark and went back to her book. With the peculiar self-righteousness of one making an a deux relationship with the television screen when there is someone else in the room, I settled down to learn some more about Marcel. "Watch it!" I cried, as an image of a naked woman flashed across the screen. "You might learn something!"

She looked up from her book. "Arts programmes,"she said, "are boring." At this moment the image of a naked woman was replaced by what looked like a black-and-white still of a urinal. "How can you say that?" I cried, gesturing wildly at the urinal. "It's art! And not just art, it's something that challenges our notion of art!"

She shook her head pityingly.There are some people who simply don't watch arts programmes. They feel about them the way I feel about, say, Top Gear. But some of these people (and I am not ashamed to include my wife in the category ) have worked out an attack on the form which is, I feel, slightly spurious. I don't like Top Gear because I am not interested in motor cars. The anti-arts lobby are all too often people who, if you backed them up against the wall, would protest that they loved art. "My God!" they say, "Theatre! Ballet! Sculpture! These are wonderful things! But not on television!"

Even Melvyn Bragg (a man who has spent a very great deal of his life putting arts programmes on television) has, in a recent lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, come dangerously close to suggesting that if you want to experience a Corot the only real way to do it is to hop on a 747, book yourself into a Manhattan hotel and hotfoot it down to the Frick Collection.

It is of course true that a reproduction of a great painting, in whatever form, is no substitute for the thing itself. I wandered into the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels the other day and found myself face to face with a painting by Breughel that I thought I had seen hanging on the wall of my father's living room in Finchley between the years 1965 and 1983. In the Breughel original - a snowscape of peasants coming to be taxed in Bethlehem - the sky is greyer, the snow both dirtier and more luminous and the faces of the peasantry are informed by a kind of wicked glee that is entirely absent from the image that used to hang over my Dad's fireplace.

But if I hadn't known the reproduction I might never have gone to the museum to see the original. If I hadn't seen Ken Russell's film biography of Elgar I might never have bought the Barbirolli recording of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. If I hadn'tseen John Drummond's programme about Diaghilev, I might never have overcome my primitive fear of ballet.

The truth of the matter is that the kind of people who are philistine about arts programmes on television are probably philistine about art itself. Not that they ever come out openly and admit to the fact that they would rather watch ER than look at a Matisse or read a poem by Rilke.They give you a lot of postmodernist guff about how the camera angles on Casualty are as worthy an object of serious study as the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, all of which is designed to cast doubt on the assumption that there is any such thing as an objective standard of value for products of the human imagination.

There is a crisis of confidence about whether we are even allowed to use the word "art" on television. A recent Omnibus programme about Schubert, narrated and presented by Andras Schiff, was trashed by my colleagues in the arts department while gathering an audience of two and a half million and a pile of appeciative letters of the kind usually received by the Beeb when they put out an appeal for the adoption of a budgie. The drift of my colleagues' objections seemed to be that it wasn't quite enough to have a great pianist playing some of his music and recounting the simple facts of Schubert's life. They seemed to want a bit more sex and violence. Their lack of enthusiasm for what might be called the High Art approach has, in recent years, become worryingly prevalent. Although there have been welcome signs of change in this pattern recently, it is none the less true that, with the loss of the Late Show and the dismemberment of Arena, there are now fewer and fewer arts programmes. And the ones that are left are all too often scheduled later and later. About six months ago, Melvyn Bragg rang me on a Sunday night to ask me what I thought of that evening's South Bank Show, and I was forced to admit that I had already been in bed for half an hour.

How did this crisis start? l would argue that it has been, in part, engineered by the professionals who work in the field. And I am afraid that I and my fellow workers on Arena - the programme where Alan Yentob, the BBC's Director of Television, made his name - must bear a fair share of the responsibility. Arena, heavily influenced by the mixture of Freud and Marx that has made contemporary English studies almost as impenetrable and pointless as sociology used to be, started to do innovative and lively programmes about things like the Ford Cortina - not an art object that was ever on Huw Wheldon's shopping list.

This deliberately iconoclastic approach to the classics, a refusal to be reverent before the canon, came out of a distaste for the old-fashioned BBC heavyweight standards like Civilisation in which eminent gurus such as Kenneth Clark would guide the punters through the cultural high points of the Renaissance. A lot of directors in the arts department felt (and some of them still feel) that a great painting is not necessarily improved by having, say, Robert Hughes standing in front of it. But the auteur approach of film-makers like Ken Russell or Leslie Megahey, in which pundits like Hughes or Clark were dethroned, led, effortlessly, to the conclusion that a programme's content was of less interest than its treatment. Dejeuner sur l'herbe gave way to the Ford Cortina. And after the Ford Cortina came a very large number of cookery programmes.

The trouble with all this, now, is that we have lost sight of why it was we were bothering to argue about how to make arts programmes in the first place, or why method seemed so particularly important in this genre. And, to reassure ourselves, we have reached for a crop of presenter-led programmes, which are indistinguishable from their predecessors. Many of them are excellent in their way, but none of them take the formal risks with the material they present that is the heart and soul of the thing they seek to extol. Art. And Art (yes, I will give it a capital letter) is too important to ignore, to water down, or to treat as an uncomfortable cadet branch of Schools Broadcasting. As I step down, after four years, as editor of Omnibus, I find myself wanting to scream at anyone who will listen that the reluctance of television to deliver on behalf of the arts is a vote of no confidence in the arts themselves. And our method of getting the subject across need not be a crude simplification of the original, whether it be a Corot painting or a Bach fugue. What I love about arts programmes is that, at their best, they can be a unique blend of entertainment and information, and, like the artists whose work they describe, they can have the courage to be silly, wrong or, sometimes, dare we say, it, difficult enough not to get the ratings, about which public-service broadcasting was once so absurdly contemptuous and is now so absurdly anxious.

! The current season of `Omnibus' ends tonight with `If: a Film About Rudyard Kipling', on BBC1 at 10.35pm. Nigel Williams is not leaving the BBC but will present a series of his own in 1998 - `Just Williams', `an autobiographical creative-writing course, with jokes'.