Bragg: 'Foolish senior citizens of culture' are out of touch

Critics who claim the arts in Britain are being dumbed down are "foolish senior citizens of culture", the broadcaster Melvin Bragg said yesterday. He maintained they were taking a narrow and blinkered "Mary Whitehouse view" of art.

Critics who claim the arts in Britain are being dumbed down are "foolish senior citizens of culture", the broadcaster Melvin Bragg said yesterday. He maintained they were taking a narrow and blinkered "Mary Whitehouse view" of art.

Before picking off a few of his targets one by one, Lord Bragg said at the launch of the 25th South Bank Show series: "I don't think they know what they're talking about in the most straightforward sense."

A steady stream of ageing great and the good has led the chorus of disapproval over supposedly falling standards in British art. They include the author Sir Vidia Naipaul, the managing director of the Barbican centre, John Tusa, the former Radio 3 controller Sir John Drummond, the former MP and journalist George Walden and the former Royal Shakespeare Company producer and director Michael Kustow.

Mr Tusa criticised the BBC for suggesting arts programming could be transferred toniche channels and Mr Walden bemoaned a culture that saw "Stephen Fry as another Oscar Wilde ... and Damien Hirst as another Duchamp".

Sir Vidia (previously VS) claimed the Government was letting down the arts. Lord Bragg said of Sir Vidia: "He is on record as saying he doesn't read contemporary novels. My guess is he doesn't go to the theatre very often and he probably doesn't watch TV.

"As a commentator on contemporary culture I just don't trust him. I don't think he knows what's going on."

He said Sir John undoubtedly knew about opera and classical music, but added the arts is "a big field now".

"You don't know what's going to turn up and these guys are not looking widely enough to find it."

Lord Bragg said they were like the morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse - "someone who could hail a headline like you could hail a taxi" - in criticising things they had not seen. "I believe they're like that - they know not about what they speak and, in my book, that's a crime."

Lord Bragg said his programmes "deliberately put classical and popular cheek by jowl. In 100 years' time the voice of the young Presley might well be treasured above the voice of the young Pavarotti." In keeping with his philosophy, the new series of The South Bank Show will include high-brow culture as well as profiles of contemporary music stars such as the guitarist Carlos Santana and the singer Tom Jones, both of whom are now enjoying a new flush of success.

The Happy Days television actor turned film director, Ron Howard, and the new Ben Elton-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical The Beautiful Game also feature in the new series.

Lord Bragg's attack follows much sniping against him by the "old guard", which has referred to him, sneeringly, as "Mel B" or "Lord Spice".

Mr Tusa has been particularly critical. Sir John Drummond - who reserves most of his venom for the Birt regime at the BBC - sees Lord Bragg as a part of it.

Lord Bragg's affable relationship with New Labour also brings him into the gunsight of the critics.

Mr Tusa vehemently denounces the Blair government for an allegedly shallow, opportunistic attitude to culture.

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