After 10 years, BBC comes out of cultural wilderness

Nearly a decade after the end of the BBC's only topical arts programme, its successor will try this week to fill one of the most debated gaps in the corporation's schedule.

Nearly a decade after the end of the BBC's only topical arts programme, its successor will try this week to fill one of the most debated gaps in the corporation's schedule.

The format and contents of The Culture Show, which will be broadcast on BBC 2 on Thursday, have been kept largely under wraps, as its producers try to tread an artistic path somewhere above "dumbed down" and below "highbrow".

The executive editor of The Culture Show, George Entwistle, refuses to concede that the BBC "abandoned" the arts, but admits the new programme is there to fill a hole. "We've done the show because we think it's a gap in the BBC's arts and culture output," he said.

The first programme will feature an interview with David Hockney conducted by Andrew Marr, the BBC's political editor and an amateur painter. With the release of the new animation blockbuster, The Incredibles, it will also examine whether traditional animation is under threat from computers.

The team that Mr Entwistle has assembled for the task centres on five regular presenters and a team of reporters. Though mainly young, they can scarcely be accused of ignorance.

Charles Hazlewood is a conductor already well known on Radio 3, as is Verity Sharp, a specialist on world music. Kwame Kwei Armah is an actor on Casualty but is also carving a reputation as a playwright. Robert Hughes, a 66-year-old Australian critic, is being lined up to report on the New York art scene every four or five weeks. Other specialists will be brought in for comment on books, music, art, design and television.

Mr Entwistle is used to working under pressure. He took over as editor of BBC2's Newsnight less than 24 hours before the twin towers came under attack. It is notable that it was a "hard news" man who was, seven months ago, appointed executive editor of the topical arts unit and its initial two-year £8m budget. With a remit of managing the "creative direction and editorial standards" for topical arts across BBC2 and BBC4, the post was created once it was decided to produce a culture programme, now The Culture Show, and a media show, The Desk.

Mr Entwistle applied because of his love for "cultural consumption". At the time, he had been editor of Newsnight and Newsnight Review since 2001, stepping up from the post of deputy editor. He had worked on Panorama and On the Record after joining the BBC as a trainee in 1989 aged 27.

After Durham University, he had begun his working life on hi-fi and camera magazines before moving into reviewing classical CDs.

"I'd never present myself as an expert [in the arts]," he said in his only interview before the series begins. "I'm a journalist with an enthusiasm. Journalism is about stories and if I bring a story-based approach to cultural coverage I hope that will be a good thing."

It is nearly a decade since The Late Show, the last time the BBC offered something resembling a regular topical arts programme addressing issues of the day. Its passing in 1995 was much lamented by the chattering classes. But the arts world is abuzz with expectation of what the weekly one-hour programme will offer when it begins at 7pm on Thursday, repeated at 11.20pm that evening.

For cynics, it represents the BBC's attempt to fend off criticism of its arts coverage in the approach to charter renewal in 2006. For galleries, theatres and art lovers, they are hoping it will offer a rare opportunity for clever - though not high-brow - cultural debate.

It will also be defiantly national, with a unit working in Glasgow alongside the team in London. "The story about what culture is doing in Britain is a story about the whole of Britain," Mr Entwistle said.

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