The television season has been around for a few years, but it is still in its infancy. The networks have plans for it, though, especially BBC 2 and Channel 4, and well they might given the success of seasons they have mounted so far. Some of the most ambitious and absorbing television events in the last couple of years have come to us via the television season. In 1990 Channel 4's 'Soviet Spring', much of which was done in unprecedented collaboration with Gosteleradio in Moscow, gave a compelling portrait of the Soviet Union in fragmentation, and introduced British viewers to the astonishing work of the Latvian documentary film-maker Yuris Podnieks. Later that year, BBC 2 broadcast the 'Tales from Prague' season which, amongst other things, reported on the Czechoslovak elections and included the award-winning documentary Absurdistan.
There had been other seasons before, but it was these two, so similar in theme and logistical ambition, which confirmed that the genre had a future. That future continued last Saturday when 'War and Peace', a season of programmes on the cost of modern warfare, came to BBC 2. To give you some idea of its size, it's bigger than War and Peace. You need five weeks to get through it; unlike Tolstoy it covers not just one war, but one century of war; and, on top of all that, it gives us all another chance to see Testament of Youth, Blackadder Goes Forth and a bunch of classic war movies.
'There's a general climate on BBC 2 now for finding new ways of expressing ideas,' says Peter Salmon, the executive producer of 'War and Peace'. 'It's a very imaginative time and we're thinking much harder about how we draw viewers in, whether there is some way of varying the old 10-part series syndrome, because I don't think any of us are that sure anymore if that's the way patterns of viewing work. There was a sense, basically, that there was an open season for seasons.'
But what exactly is the point of the season, which cannot afford to be frivolous like a single night of programmes in TV Hell or Texas, or as focused as an evening with Rembrandt or in Petersburg? Is it more than just a cunning plan to infiltrate yet more uncostly old favourites into the schedules?
'People are entitled to address this issue with some scepticism,' says Alan Yentob, Controller of BBC 2, 'but I think you have to judge it on what you see. People require some context to enjoy a programme, and if you want to use your archive, which is full of so many things that people get only one chance to see - unless it's Blackadder, of course - then you've got to find a way to put things next to it which give it a different resonance.'
That is certainly the case with 'War and Peace'. Rowan Atkinson's First World War anti-hero is surrounded on all sides by programming of a more sombre persuasion. Beginning with Tony Harrison's The Gaze of the Gorgon (see television review, below), the weeks up to Remembrance Sunday will see the transmission of programmes and series about war memorials, the psychology of the modern soldier, conscientious objectors and other topics that generally won't raise a lot of laughs.
Isn't there a danger of overloading the viewer's plate? 'We thought long and hard about it,' explains Salmon. 'Believe you me, we whittled down a lot more to get even here. We probably began with 20 documentary ideas. There were all these corners that one wanted to explore and a season gave us that room.'
Beginning on Channel 4 this coming Saturday is a smaller season of Latin- American documentaries and features. The main focus is Goodbye Columbus (the only work in any art form this year which has America's discoverer in its title but isn't actually about him), a series of documentaries on Latin American life, all broadcast on Saturday night.
The season was assembled in a slightly more haphazard manner than 'War and Peace'. 'Once Goodbye Columbus was established,' says Alan Fountain, the commissioning editor, 'we thought that on the back of that it would be good to show a season of contemporary Latin American features because we happened to have them.' Bung in another series called The Other Americas and, Bob's your uncle, you've got a season.
But once you've headlined Latin America or war in the 20th century, you've got to get people to watch, and if possible keep them watching, as if the season were in fact a series. This is never easy with television from abroad.
'In any season that Channel 4 does,' says Fountain, 'there's obviously a number of people, which for any of the seasons we do is relatively small, who will try to watch or record everything. For a lot of other people, having a season says something to the audience. There's all this debate about prejudice against subtitles, prejudice against television from other countries, and it is difficult to bring large numbers of people to Latin American work.
'What we've got to try and do is invite people to drop in and hope they'll enjoy it and stay for a bit and watch more. If you watch for an hour or so you'll see three or four different things that give you a bit of the feel of the place. If you watch the lot you'd get quite a good idea of what's really happening in contemporary Latin America. A season - the idea of it and the scale of it - communicates something more than you could do with one or two programmes.'
'I think one should never assume that people will see them all,' says Salmon. 'What one should hope is that there is an accumulative understanding of the issue, that even if people don't see programmes one and three they might see two and four, that one idea reinforces another, that one programme in a season trails another.'
There are plans for further seasons. One of them, on BBC 2, will be similar to the Prague venture but, for fear of being gazumped, Yentob is not revealing details. The next big one, to be screened next year, also purloins its title from a famous Russian novel. According to Yentob, ' 'Crime and Punishment' is about the justice system. Given all that we've seen about the legal system here and the state of the prisons, and the fact that people are fascinated by policiers as a genre. I hope that we'll start a national debate.'
Yes, but the really important question is, will the season include a repeat of Porridge? 'That's exactly the point I will take into account when we come to it,' says Yentob. 'Whether we can resist one episode or not is to be seen, but possibly we will.' Believe it when you don't see it.