The Christmas trails for Great Composers, one of BBC 2's flagship arts series, were off-puttingly reminiscent of the adverts that crowd in around January for part-work publications in which, week by week, you will build your very own library of the greatest music the world has known. The sense of low-cost cultural self-improvement was unfortunately confirmed by the series' K-Tel opening credits, in which a series of "best-known bits" are segued into a single signature tune; the sequence even ends with a Fantasia-like flourish from a silhouetted conductor - a gilt hood ornament for the great limousine of classical music. The prejudices (or perhaps snobberies) aroused in me by these associations put me off the series for some time but the other day I decided I could postpone duty no longer and watched three of them in a row.

One thing such a style of viewing brings home is how conventional the films are - all three began with a brief montage of testimonials from performers, musicologists and - in the case of Wagner and Tchaikovsky - transportation workers (New York cabbie and St Petersburg tram-driver respectively), presumably there to reassure timid customers that entry is not restricted. All three films also had people sitting at pianos to explain musical points, all three had a sequence in which an attractive female performer testified to the emotional intensity of X, Y or Z's music, all three had location filming in family homes and, naturally enough, all three had illustrative extracts and plenty of rostrum photography. This isn't a rigid recipe, but there is a sense, nonetheless, that the burdens of co-production and chronological exposition weigh a little heavily on the creative instincts. As primers the programmes are pretty good, combining a brisk survey of the life with a clear account of the inventiveness of the respective composers. But as television they are a touch worthy - too preoccupied with the task at hand to really let their hair down and take risks. As a result directorial ambitions issue in odd uncontrolled spurts, as though squeezed out through the gaps between edification - in the Wagner programme there was an odd moment when one of the composer's biographers was filmed peeling potatoes in a Parisian kitchen as he talked, apparently because potatoes were the impoverished musician's staple diet during his first visit to that city. Similarly Simon Broughton's film about Tchaikovsky included a sprightly sequence in which Evgeny Kissin jumps from piano to piano while hammering out the opening chords of the Piano Concerto Number One (a reference to the fact that it is his proving piece when testing a new instrument). You can make very good television this way (Saturday's film ended with a beautiful dying fall, in which the descending notes of an Orthodox death-knell chimed over the theme from the "Pathetique") but it is difficult to make great television unless you let directors further off the leash.

Michael Parkinson counts as a classic too, I suppose, and is currently being given an encore on Friday nights. There are things to be said in his favour: he wants his guests to do well, for one thing, rather than simply provide a trampoline for his own wit. What's more he does his research properly - when Barry Manilow demurred at one instance of his former brattishness Parkinson was able to point out that it came from his own autobiography. But there is something grimly matey about his style. "Stick around, sir," he said to Paul Merton, when their conversation had come to an end, a 19th-hole clubbability which returned again and again in the programme (even the set has walnut trim, like the sort of status motor you would show off to your drinking pals). "That's a cruel joke, Merton," he chided, when the comedian upstaged a Manilow story about his absent father - the bluff surname implying that they had known each other for years and perhaps played in the same showbiz cricket team. This ingratiating masculine style reached its peak when he snapped "Stop screaming woman" at one of Barry's overwrought fans. If he'd turned back to his guests and said "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" it wouldn't have been a bit surprising.

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