Dumb Watch: Melvyn has nothing to brag about

MELVYN BRAGG pulled no punches last week in his condemnation of dumbed down television. Broadcasters were not "aiming high enough", he said, and some talented ones were "like thoroughbreds happy to pull milk carts".

Launching the new South Bank Show season and LWT's arts plans, he went on: "Sometimes I am baffled by the lack of intellectual ambition in British television. Am I alone in feeling that there is not so much a dumbing down as a failure to engage at the highest level?"

He was not alone as within hours of his speech the novelist J G Ballard also thought he detected a lack of ambition.

Unfortunately, he detected it in the South Bank Show, hosted since its inception 23 years ago, by Lord Bragg himself.

Mr Ballard said: "Melvyn Bragg poses a problem of his own making. The South Bank Show is a classic example of dumbing down. Most television trivialises the already trivial but the South Bank Show trivialises the serious, which is far more dangerous."

Certainly a look at the subjects being covered in the new season of television's premier arts programme cast some doubt on its own intellectual ambition. Cher, Joan Collins and Michael Douglas will attract viewers, but are they worthy of in-depth exploration on an arts programme?

Is Yoko Ono (receiving another hour-long slot) genuinely either at the cutting edge in the visual arts or even a critically acclaimed long-term practitioner? Or is she merely a celebrity who might keep the ratings up?

Lord Bragg addresses potential criticisms of this nature by saying: "I am not embarrassed by doing programmes on popular culture ... Joan Collins is an iconic figure."

The "icon" argument is one often used by commissioners of arts programmes. It is an easy and superficially attractive argument but it is spurious. Longevity and familiarity can make icons. Cilla Black and Bob Monkhouse are icons of light entertainment; the beanie baby may one day be viewed as an icon.

It does not make any of them necessarily worthy of cultural investigation.

The very first show 23 seasons ago, adds Lord Bragg, was on Paul McCartney. True, but McCartney as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century was and is a legitimate subject of inquiry. In particular is regards to his song- writing technique which was the focal point of Bragg's questioning in that inaugural show.

More pertinent are the other shows in that first season. There were programmes on Paganini, Alan Howard, David Hockney, David Hare, Horowitz, Pinter, Von Karajan, Auerbach, John Arden and Ingmar Bergman. Even McCartney had to share his South Bank Show laurels with Germaine Greer and Gerald Scarfe. There was no fear then of doing programmes on names the viewers might not immediately recognise, but whose work and philosophy would extend the horizons.

With a new season that also includes Blur, Paul Merton, James Galway and The Lion King, the suspicion prevails that tabloid or middle-market celebrity has to be a precursor to an arts programme.

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