We're not as dumb as they like to think we are; Dumb Britannia 5. The Conclusion

The `high' arts are more popular than ever. So are we really dumbing down? Or are we being persuaded to do so? By David Lister
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In March 1960, the television company Rediffusion put on The Birthday Party by the young playwright Harold Pinter. It was watched by 11 million viewers and was described by the Daily Mirror as "a play to scorch the nerve ends". A month later, another of his plays was broadcast and went to number one in the week's ratings, beating the popular variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

It is inconceivable that such a sequence of events could happen today. One-off dramas of any sort are an endangered species; from the world of serious theatre they are all but extinct. The BBC won't screen them, let alone ITV. Even if they did, far fewer than 11 million of us would watch. Somewhere across the decades, the arbiters of culture have lost faith in the public. They assume there is no longer the appetite to stretch our cultural horizons and move beyond the mainstream. Or have the cultural decision-takers lost faith in themselves?

The last controller of Radio 3 left after enduring criticism for allegedly diluting the purity of the network and aping Classic FM. He had to fight on two fronts as his corporation masters demanded higher ratings. News at Ten is moved to make way for adventure movies. Germaine Greer analyses teen and sub-teen magazines for girls and notes that nothing in them would suggest that their readers had ever read a book. The English National Opera has, with some success, used posters of bare-chested, hunky backstage crew members to market past seasons and even now uses full frontal nudity on posters to advertise Orpheus and Eurydice. To sell a classical music album, record companies pose the violinist Vanessa-Mae coming out of the sea in a see-through dress, and the cellist Ofra Harnoy embracing her instrument as it rests provocatively between her legs.

Shakespeare, our national playwright, was pretty common fare on the BBC until the mid-Eighties. Few programmers would risk him now. Indeed, quite astonishingly, a BBC Shakespeare season, promoted with huge publicity as "the most comprehensive Shakespeare season ever seen on television", had everything from animation to quizzes, but included just one production of a Shakespeare play. So much for the most comprehensive season ever.

An arbitrary snapshot, certainly. And we could take just such an arbitrary snapshot of the cultural scene to make the opposite case. Racine can play to full houses in London's West End; there are queues down Piccadilly for Monet; Radio 3 has a weekend largely devoted to Messiaen and is busy commissioning new works; the Turner, Booker and Whitbread prizes are televised and discussed at length; literature festivals abound; London has more symphony orchestras than dog tracks; Tosca can sell out the Royal Albert Hall.

As John Sutherland (who teaches English literature) said, introducing this series, there are more classic titles in print than at any period in British cultural history. He declared: "A culture in which Jane Austen (in film, TV and print) is a best-seller, where Shakespeare in Love is packing cinemas and where Noel's House Party dies for lack of viewers, can't be all that dumb."

But it is also worth remembering that after the massive success of the BBC's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice its then controller, Michael Jackson, went on the radio the next morning and apologised for the fact that so many years had gone by without regular classic serials. BBC producers had decided in their patronising arrogance that there was no public demand for them.

So have we dumbed down? What does seem clear is that some of the more common laments are not borne out by fact. To test out the dumbing down theory as regards radio - and regular complaints that both Radio 3 and Radio 4 have lost their way - we compared schedules now, 10 years ago, and 20 years ago. Not only were they similar, they were darn near identical.

But, even here, the issue is a subtle one. The titles of the programmes may not have changed; it is the banter, mispronunciations and talking down of the presenters. Not easy to quantify.

Perhaps this is a debate in which more entrenched positions could have been taken five years ago. The education system is ridding itself of some of its less rigorous procedures - empathy questions masquerading as a history exam, the lack of art and music in primary schools. Now every 10-year-old will have a passing acquaintance with Cezanne, and new A-levels are being drawn up which will insist on the study of literature pre-1770 as well as pre-1900.

All well? Not quite. Mr Blunkett has now announced that primary schools will no longer have to follow programmes of study in history, music and art, as numeracy and literacy programmes must take precedence. Children are hungry for literature. More than 8,000 children's books are published in the UK every year. Yet the children's author Helen Cresswell says that she is continually asked to simplify her books.

David Blunkett laments that cartoons are dumbing down our children. Opponents say The Simpsons is the wittiest cartoon satire there has ever been.

Even if we are on the verge of turning out budding impressionists from our primary schools, it seems that their elders continue with a less rigorous education. Dr John Maddicott, a tutor at Exeter College, Oxford, writes in the Oxford Magazine of the university's history syllabus: "It is now possible to take finals without ever having encountered the Magna Charta or the Reformation, the Revolution of 1688 or the Reform Bill of 1832... what has emerged is not a new syllabus but an old one broken into pieces."

Publishers no longer dwell on literature when they market a book. This year's Whitbread biography prize-winner, Amanda Foreman, posed semi-naked in Tatler. Robin Baird-Smith, managing director of the publisher George Duckworth, says: "I see a growing cult of the personality of the author as against the actual quality of the book. In the past, editors would make a judgement about its intrinsic merits as a piece of literature. Now they think about the shape of the author's legs, whether she's nubile or went out with Mick Jagger."

But any discussion of dumbing down must begin and end with television and the media. Most insidious and deliberately deceptive is the way that TV has redefined its terms. There are many hours of drama; but drama now means EastEnders, The Bill, and anything with a doctor in it. It does not mean plays. Within the last month, some of TV's best-known writers, including Pride and Prejudice's Andrew Davies, have accused the BBC of selling drama down the river. A former head of BBC drama, Mark Shivas, adds: "The BBC just aren't making films any more. They would rather make more docu-soaps." The similarly ratings-obsessed Channel 4 has developed a curious obsession with sex; Channel 5 has alarmed the Independent Television Commission with its "inappropriate use of erotic material".

Television documentaries, too, have changed. Jonathan Dimbleby claims: "These days, I feel as if I belong to an almost extinct species, because the television culture in which I operate is antipathetic to documentaries that don't deal immediately with human emotion."

But there is a more subtle dumbing down; one that masquerades as promoting the arts; one that is embraced, ironically enough, by government and many in key positions in the arts. It is what this weekend's Culture Wars conference describes as "the tyranny of relevance": making education and culture more relevant to everyday life. Thus enters the focus group to displace the creative mind. As Barney Hoskyns wrote yesterday, even in pop music so little comes from a sense of tradition; rather it is pre-packaged according to market research.

Relevance, says Culture Wars' conference co-director, Mark Ryan, "is a fraud that masks a profound disdain at the top of society for the capacities of the average person to go beyond their limited experience and grapple with what is difficult and challenging...the new principle of judgement is no longer whether something provokes the imagination and intellect, but whether it is relevant, accessible and inclusive."

And from children's literature to grand opera, anecdotal evidence is supported by observation and informed comment: evidence that builds up a picture of a public not yet dumbed down, but certainly let down by the suppliers of culture.

So there is a need for vigilance; there is a need to see concern over dumbing down not as pompous or reactionary, but as being at the cutting edge.

how dumb are we?

"The dumbing down debate has become polarised between two extremes. On the one hand we have the old farts who seem genuinely fearful of ordinary people, on the other we have this emerging argument for relevance and accessibility, championed as being `for the people'... If you criticise this gesture of egalitarianism, you're seen as being anti-people... Nowadays, anyone who utters this phrase `dumbing down' is considered anti-democratic."

Claire Fox, director of Culture Wars, publisher of LM Magazine)

"There is a political issue at stake here, which is that there is a drive towards popularisation which, rather than making the best available to all, panders to our assumed inability to appreciate really good things."

Peter Ainsworth, Shadow Culture Secretary

The speakers are contributing to a conference, Culture Wars, Dumbing Down, Wising Up? at the Riverside Studios, London W8, 5-7 March

Comments