Melvyn Bragg calls on new BBC boss to reverse 'shrinking arts coverage'


The broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has urged Tony Hall, the new BBC Director-General, to restore arts programming to the heart of the corporation’s schedules.

Lord Bragg of Wigton, the veteran South Bank Show presenter, said senior BBC executives should “fight” to retain arts programming in the face of budget cuts.

The BBC’s commitment to arts programming has been questioned following the decision to move the Review Show, BBC2’s flagship arts programme, from BBC2 to BBC4. The discussion show will be cut from a weekly to monthly slot.

Arts coverage on BBC1 and BBC2 is being reduced as part of a £700m cost-cutting programme.

Lord Hall of Birkenhead will join the BBC next week, after quitting his post as chief executive of the Royal Opera House.

Lord Bragg said: “I think they should make more arts programmes, particularly on BBC1. I’m disappointed at the way the arts seems to be shrinking on the BBC.”

The broadcaster, who continues to present radio and television programmes for the BBC, said the corporation needed “a few people determined to fight for the arts and a greater variety of programming. That way they can turn it around.”

Lord Bragg, 73, announced a new series of South Bank Show documentaries which will air on the Sky Arts channel,  the series’ new home following ITV’s decision to axe the arts strand, which ran on the commercial broadcaster for more than 30 years.

Senior BBC executives have dismissed the rival Sky Arts service as a “niche” channel, which attracts audiences in the tens of thousands. Lord Bragg said: “I was disappointed when some people in the BBC hierarchy said Sky Arts audiences will never be as good as theirs.

“They had better be careful because I was there at the beginning of BBC2 and Channel 4 and people criticised their audiences but those channels soon developed strong identities. What matters is the quality of the programmes.”

Lord Bragg also endorsed Lily Cole, the model and actress, as the future face of arts broadcasting in Britain.

Cole, 25, who has modelled for Alexander McQueen and Hermès, achieved a double first class degree in History of Art at Cambridge University. She recently presented a Sky Arts series, Lily Cole’s Art Matters, in which she observed artists including Dame Paula Rego at work and discussed their artistic processes.

“Lily Cole is the new person on the block,” enthused Lord Bragg. “She’s an amazing talent and it’s interesting that it was Sky Arts that snapped her up. Could she present the South Bank Show? I’m presenting it at the moment and I’ll go on for another few years or so. Then we’ll see.”

The new series of the South Bank Show will include films about the comedian and musician Tim Minchin, Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of the English National Ballet and the playwright David Hare.

A special film featuring David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst will examine the reasons behind a return to painting among contemporary artists.

In his first interview since accepting the BBC post, following the resignation of George Entwistle, Lord Hall said “the arts matter to me hugely”. He said it was “phenomenally important” to bringing to people’s attention “the great things being done by arts organisations across the country.”

The BBC recently announced a series of new arts commissions, including What Do Artists Do All Day?, a series of intimate observational portraits of leading artists and Opening Night, a series of films previewing new exhibitions and events, which launched with an examination of the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at Tate Modern.

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