Are Steps a white, middle-class man's view of high art?

Or are theyjust proof that the BBC is dumbing down?
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The Independent Online

It is the debate that refuses to go away. Two days after Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC, lambasted "white, middle-aged, middle-class" critics for accusing the corporation of dumbing down, the BBC was back in the dock.

The charge yesterday? Whether the absence of arts programmes was proof, if proof were needed, that the BBC is failing in its duty to inform and educate as well as entertain. For the highlights of BBC 1's new spring and summer schedules are not exactly brimming over with arts.

Classical music is represented by the Queen's golden jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace and a concert for the FA Cup Final in which the opera stars Willard White, Lesley Garrett and Russell Watson are to perform alongside the boy band a1 and Faye Tozer, lately of Steps.

And there is a programme to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley while Hollywood Greats examines the lives of silver screen idols.

But that's it. The biggest intellectual challenge on offer is Test the Nation, designed to reveal whether taxi drivers or High Court judges have the higher IQ.

All this after Mr Davies had announced on Tuesday that the BBC had completed a "comprehensive review" of its arts strategy and "agreed a benchmark baseline of 230 hours of arts programming per year on BBC 1 and BBC 2 in addition to our digital output [on the new BBC Four]".

"We will spend £53m on arts and music programming across our television channels in 2002/3, the biggest ever BBC investment in the genre. This... compares with £36.9 million across BBC 1, BBC 2, Choice and Knowledge for 2001/2."

The BBC has also made repeated promises in recent weeks – including to Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture – that the new digital channel, BBC Four, would not be an excuse to shunt the more esoteric branches of culture into the sidings.

Since its launch on 2 March, BBC Four has shown some programmes that would have struggled to see the light of day on BBC 1 or 2. But there have been others, such as concerts with the Senegalese musician Baaba Maal or the screening of Peter Brook's production of Hamlet, that could have easily graced the main channels – in years gone by, at least.

Michael Berkeley, the composer who presented a recent classical music series on BBC 2 that won around 1 million viewers, said there were fears for the arts on the terrestrial BBC.

"While I'm thrilled at the prospect of having BBC Four to give air-time to things like the Proms, it's imperative that it is not used as an excuse to get the arts off BBC 1 and 2," he said. "There's a huge audience there and if the arts are put skilfully to them they can be tempted on to other things.

"This could be the slippery slope. It's up to the BBC to prove that's not the case."

Melvyn Bragg, who sparked a debate last autumn when he accused BBC1 of abrogating its responsibilities to the arts, said he thought it was "very, very disappointing" there was not more coverage this season. "The BBC should be the benchmark of arts documentary-making, not only in this country, but in the world," he said.

Although Lord Bragg has come under fire for South Bank Shows on figures such as Cilla Black and Bob Monkhouse, the series still addresses the high-brow arts. "If ITV, which is under severe commercial pressure, can do 25 arts documentaries a year, I'm very surprised that BBC 1 can't do 50 a year."

Half a dozen Prom concerts every year were broadcast on BBC 1 in addition to the full coverage on Radio 3, and Lord Bragg said they were wonderful. "I scarcely miss any of them, but the Proms are the transmission of arts, not programmes dedicated to understanding and interpreting the arts for people."

A BBC spokeswoman said any condemnation of the schedule only served to prove Gavyn Davies's point – that while the white, middle-class middle-aged were the ones who complained, the BBC had a duty to reach out to everybody. "We'd be slaughtered if we're getting less than 1 million for lots of arts documentaries," she said.

And programmes such as the adaptation of Tony Parsons's novel Man and Boy, starring Ioan Gruffudd, and Fields of Gold, a thriller about journalists investigating genetically modified crops were not dumbed-down television, she claimed.

BBC 1 had other arts programmes planned, although not announced in the highlights yesterday. These included a series of documentaries on women novelists and programmes on the painter Turner and the composer Vivaldi. A special Omnibus will examine Andrew Lloyd Webber's new project, a Bollywood-style musical called Bombay Dreams, and there are also hopes for an Omnibus on the actor Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Rolf Harris, whose first series on artists won a mammoth 7 million viewers, making it the most popular visual arts programme ever shown on television, will also return later in the year.

The BBC spokeswoman said they would be disappointed if the furore over arts were to detract from the rest of a schedule that the corporation was proud to announce. "This is a spring and summer schedule when we have a golden jubilee and the World Cup. It's not exactly a quiet period," the spokeswoman said.

Lorraine Heggessey, the controller of BBC1, said that the much stronger schedule created in recent months – which saw BBC1 recently overtake ITV in the viewing stakes for the first time – meant she was taking more risks.

However, Christopher Frayling, the rector of the Royal College of Art, said a genuine question had been raised about whether there had been an objective decline in arts coverage on BBC1.

"The wonderful thing about the arts is when people discover something by accident. The idea of mixing the arts with a balanced evening's programming is wonderful. It's very sad and culturally impoverishing if that balance is lost."

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