The first of a promising new series of Omnibus looks at the unlikely coupling of what, on first glance, seem very strange bedfellows indeed. Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas and Jenny Saville do not leap to mind as potential Academicians. But, says series editor, former South Bank Show producer Gillian Greenwood, the match is well made. "The Royal Academy doesn't want to be regarded as old-fashioned, or stuffy," she claims. "It's important to remember that its members are working artists, after all, and were radicals in their time. This group of young British artists are very much an academy in their own right."
But the thesis that this exhibition represents an acceptance by the mainstream is only part of the story. It is undoubtedly also a smart move for an institution pounds 2m in debt. The recent tabloid kerfuffle over Marcus Harvey's child-palm-print portrait of Myra Hindley - whose inclusion the RA is still debating - has saved them a fortune in PR costs, while just about anything by Damien Hirst attracts publicity, sells tickets and makes money.
"The Royal Academy has always been commercially aware," Greenwood acknowledges. "They are not government funded and have always had to find their own money - they're a shrewd commercial bunch."
This may explain the calculated risk they took in opening the gates to the Omnibus cameras. Since The House, the warts-and-more documentary cum hatchet-job on the Royal Opera House, institutions have been wary of making the same embarrassing mistake. So out of a mutually satisfactory game of cat-and-mouse emerges an entertaining film of an institution with just a few old bones - no skeletons - in the cupboard.
"It's mischievous rather than cruel," states producer Bernadette O'Brien. "It wasn't intended to be a damning portrait of the Royal Academy. It is difficult to know what their role is, but I think it is important it exists. We made just as much fun of the younger set as of the Academicians." The mild extent of this mischief appears in amusingly cut "mwaah, darling" shots of both the RA fuddy-duddys and supposedly radical "Sensation" luvvy- duvvys in air-kissing mode. In another insolent edit, RA president Sir Phillip Dowson has barely finished rebutting allegations of fogeydom before a rather deaf old man appears on screens, struggling to get a drink.
Despite their Saatchi-funded stranglehold on contemporary art, the artists in "Sensation" are unwilling or unable to see themselves the new establishment. But Omnibus does this for them, bestowing legitimacy on the Goldsmiths crowd. The link between them and an institution towards which many are openly derisive is the vivacious Exhibitions Secretary Norman Rosenthal. Described in the film as "a good drinking partner" by Sarah Lucas, he is the man who tentatively suggested the exhibition to the RA. So, will the BritPack be permanently embraced by members of the Academy or is it just a phase they're going through? "This is one of the most significant moments in British Art this century," Rosenthal comments. "Damien Hirst has been around for a decade and he's a fact. He can never be written out of the history of art.
"One could argue that the current scene in London and Glasgow is unparalleled," he continues. "What is so extraordinary is the way in which these young artists have seized the art scene in such a big way. It is a unique moment in British art."
Rosenthal's attitude towards the Omnibus programme is more equivocal but realistic. "I hope that it's not going to make the Royal Academy look ridiculous," he offers after a thoughful pause. "But we understand that publicity is a double-edged sword. If you don't announce things they won't take place. It's all about living dangerously."
Omnibus, Sunday 10.35pm BBC1
For more on `Sensation', see Richard Ingleby's Visual Arts diary on p30Reuse content