Naked before nine, the new art show on Channel 4

Pre-watershed series will invite viewers to join in at home with life class

The temperature in the television studio will be slightly higher than it was for Watercolour Challenge – it will have to be, for the benefit of the disrobed participants – and lord knows what Tony Hart would make of it.

This summer, Channel 4 will broadcast a new series before the watershed featuring nude models. The show, provisionally titled Life Class: Today's Nude, hopes to promote a return to elementary skills of drawing and painting, and spark a revival of more traditional, figurative art.

Some viewers, no doubt, will not appreciate the chance to study full-frontal male and female nudity at 6pm, three hours before the 9pm watershed.

The five-part series, scheduled to air on consecutive days in July, will invite viewers to sketch along at home while an expert in the corner of the screen offers advice. It will be produced by Artangel, the group behind Rachel Whiteread's 1993 casting, House.

Alan Kane, the artist who had the idea for the show, said: "Because it is educational and non-sexualised nudity, Channel 4 didn't have any concerns with it at all."

Although known for his conceptual work, such as his collaboration with the Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, Mr Kane said what inspired him to become an artist was life drawing and he has mourned its diminished popularity. "It has definitely come off the agenda at art school," he said.

Once seen as a must in developing the skills of would-be artists, life-drawing, or figure drawing as it is also known, has seen its status decline in recent years. Many art students have shunned taking the classes, forcing some schools to drop it from the curriculum.

Its suffering has coincided with the rise of BritArt and, more commonly, with the rise of art that relies on the use of computers and digital wizardry rather than paint and canvas. The main problem is that there are few jobs in life artistry, whereas students with technical skills honed on a computer have more options.

The artist (and Independent columnist) Tracey Emin has her roots in life drawing. She attended classes for seven years and has posed as a nude model. One of her exhibitions, When I think About Sex, includes four nude self-portraits.

John Beyer, the director of the broadcasting standards group Mediawatch-UK, said that Channel 4 had "an obsession with sex and nudity".

But John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the Culture Select Committee, said he would not object to nude life drawing classes shown before 9pm provided they were in an "educational context" and avoided "gratuitous titillation".

Such restraint would break with Channel 4's provocative traditions. In 1983, barely a year after the channel's inception, its pop music show, Minipops, was attacked for putting girls in adult clothes and make-up and encouraging them to perform provocative routines. Then, in 1986, it broadcast film scenes of incest and cannibalism.

Perhaps Channel 4's most famous moment of sexual content came in 1993 when its flagship soap opera, Brookside, screened British television's first pre-watershed lesbian kiss – an at-the-time unmissable clinch between actresses Anna Friel and Nicola Stephenson. The series also featured a storyline about an incestuous brother and sister.

In 2002, Channel 4 screened a live autopsy. This was followed in 2004 by a documentary which showed a woman undergoing an abortion. And in 2007 it cancelled plans for "Wank Week" – a seven-day celebration of masturbation – despite the earlier success of "Penis Week" and a programme called Designer Vaginas.

Briony Lewis - Life model: What I do is not pornography

Comment

I began life modelling a year ago after spotting a poster asking for volunteers in Cyprus. It was an idea that had interested me before. I found I really enjoyed it and the artist said I was a natural, so, when I returned to England, I decided to pursue it as a career.

Having no artistic ability of my own I saw it as a way I could contribute to art; it allows me to be part of something I would otherwise not be able to participate in.

People think it is simply a case of taking your clothes off and sitting still, but there is more to it than that. You have to talk with the artist and find out what they want to achieve from the session and take an active interest in the type of work the artist wants to produce. I love looking at the paintings afterwards and seeing different artists' interpretations of my appearance. Every picture is very different.

Some people equate what I do with pornography or see it as seedy in some way, but I could not disagree more.

Art, like medicine, is a profession that does not see the naked human body in a sexual way. I do not associate what I do with sex – nor, I believe, do any of the artists I work with. The two are completely separate issues.

Depending on who I work for I will usually be paid between £8 and £15 per hour and I've managed to turn it almost into a full-time job. I work a few hours a week in an office doing administrative work for a recruitment company, but the rest of my week is taken up with life modelling.

A typical session involves me sitting still for up to three hours. I go into an almost meditative state and just try to relax. Sometimes I switch off completely and think about all manner of things – what I am going to have for dinner, for example, or what I plan to do over the weekend.

But other sessions require me to hold different poses every five or 10 minutes. I prefer this: it is more challenging and means that I must think about what I am doing and which pose I will adopt next.

Using life drawing as the subject of a television show is a fantastic idea. The fact that it is on before the watershed guarantees a young audience – which is great, because it will show nudity in a non-sexual way. If it means that more people discover life drawing then that is all the better.

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