Dumb and dumber? The chattering classes line up to batter the BBC

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THE BBC took an intellectual battering yesterday as a new cultural coalition representing playwrights, actors, authors and musicians threatened to launch an upmarket radio station to expose the corporation's `dumbing down'.

The attack was led by left-wing playwright Howard Brenton, former revolutionary turned TV producer, Tariq Ali, and composer Michael Nyman. Concern was also expressed by Rumpole creator, Sir John Mortimer and actor, Timothy West.

Actor, Martin Jarvis issued a plea to a meeting of the pressure group Voice of the Listener and Viewer yesterday: "It would be tragic if, in the future, the only drama associated with radio was that of its demise." The once 40-strong BBC Radio Drama Company had been reduced to six actors - two of them students, he said.

Brenton and Ali are calling for an "unashamedly elitist" radio station. It would be called Radio Einstein and would broadcast a challenging, schedule-defying mix of Stockhausen, Brecht and live debates on town planning.

But the pair will find that, by coincidence, the only frequency available for a new station is in a corner of north London - the new station will broadcast direct to the chattering classes of Hampstead.

Claiming that BBC's Radio 4 and Radio 3 are spearheading "the dumbing down of culture," Brenton and Ali will next week draw up proposals for Radio Einstein with the aim of broadcasting early next year.

The desire for a return to Reithian values was spelled out by Tariq Ali, who said yesterday he was committed to "a modern version of the old Third Programme". He wanted a minority station for a minority of about 2-3 million people.

Speaking from the enemy's camp - on Radio 4's Today programme - he said: "Radio 4 and Radio 3 have dumbed down to such an extent. Radio 3 has become too celebrity-centred, there is too much talk on it. They are trying to mimic Classic FM. "There has been this decline and a numbskull attitude of producers to creative people."

Ali and Brenton are seeking support in the arts and media world to help them take on the BBC. Their main collaborators so far are the composer Michael Nyman, and Dominic Gill, former music critic and co-founder of Loot magazine. The four will meet next week to discuss the feasibility and mechanics of setting up the station.

London licences are very popular with commercial radio groups and there are expected to be more than 10 bidders for the North London frequency. Most of those will have already secured financial backing and created business plans to accompany their application.

The BBC yesterday fought back against what is one of the strongest attacks on dumbing down so far. Jenny Abramski, the director of network radio, said: "I strongly disagree that Radios 3 and 4 have dumbed down. This weekend we have a celebration of the music of Oliver Messiaen which is unashamedly serious music, and an opportunity for listeners to hear, live from the Met in New York, Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor."

Writing in the Times Educational Supplement yesterday, Howard Brenton said that falling standards in arts and media programming had led "self- hating liberals" in the television drama departments to neglect Brecht in favour of "another cop show with a serial killer plot."

He said: "Radio, television, arts programming and tabloid and broadsheet journalism are dumbing down to an alarming degree. Something is going seriously wrong with our culture."

The problem was not the schools, he said. "The national curriculum is well designed to ensure that a door is opened to literature and drama. The problem is that the culture does not reinforce it; there is very little in broadcasting, or in the weakened library services, which reflect the values of the curriculum."

Speaking after a lunch organised by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, Central London yesterday, the actor Timothy West said: "Radio drama is in a state of flux."

He warned there was a danger of losing loyal listeners by trying to lure a new audience. "You may alienate the audience you have got already," he said. And Sir John Mortimer sent the VLV a message of support backing their efforts to maintain quality in broadcasting.

However, Kate Rowland, the head of BBC Radio Drama, said that the BBC was "one of the biggest promoters of poetry. Poetry on Radio 3 and 4 is phenomenal," she said.

She added: "Whenever I go somewhere the love and respect for the medium is huge. Dumbing down is completely the wrong phrase to use. It is our job as programme makers to find new talent and to promote the work of the established artists."

But her claims were countered by Tristan Evans, the assistant general secretary of the Society of Authors. He said that there had been a reduction in the quality of BBC radio which had an adverse effect on writers.

"These days there are no plays lasting more than 60 minutes. Because of the dumbing down process, people are being asked to write plays which are not of the same quality as before. ``Consequently listening figures are going down. Highly skilled writers are being left by the wayside."

`It seems to me that radio, television, newspaper journalism and arts programming are all dumbing down to an alarming degree'

Howard Brenton, playwright

`It would be tragic if the only drama associated with radio was that of its demise. In our society phrases like budget conscious are heard more often than plays on the air'

Martin Jarvis, actor.

`Radios 3 and 4 have dumbed down. Radio 3 is too celebrity centred. There has been this real decline and a numbskull attitude of producers to creative people'

Tariq Ali, producer