The Culture Show: Strippers, gunshots and zebra sex...
Presenters Lauren Laverne and Mark Kermode tell Ciar Byrne why 'The Culture Show' is on the way up, despite being cut to half an hour
Monday 02 June 2008
It is 10 o'clock in the morning. The scene is a working men's club in the north of England and a heavily pregnant Lauren Laverne is being flicked with baby oil... from a male stripper's penis.
"Is there a time in your life when you would less like to have a stripper's penis flicking baby oil into your face than when you're sitting there really pregnant, with loads of people drinking beer and smoking all around you, at 10 in the morning?" she asks. Now the slim new mother of a bouncing baby boy, Laverne is recalling an episode from the last series of The Culture Show when she and her co-presenter, Mark Kermode, travelled the country visiting famous film locations, from The Wicker Man to, in this case, The Full Monty.
For the former Xfm DJ, who was recruited to the show as a music critic and stayed on as its main anchor – a role Laverne will now share with Kermode – the programme has offered some dizzying highs to offset the less salubrious moments.
Last summer, she found herself in Paul McCartney's studio, a converted windmill in Sussex. "I was with Paul McCartney doing a little gig for me, the other girls on the team and his daughter. We were standing going, 'This is pretty good for a Tuesday.'"
Tomorrow night, The Culture Show will launch in a brand-new 10pm slot on BBC2. There has been some criticism of the BBC for cutting the arts programme from 50 minutes to half an hour (it was originally a full hour), but Eddie Morgan, the show's eccentric editor, insists that 10pm is a better slot than its old home at 7pm on a Saturday, and if that means the programme is cut to 30 minutes, so be it.
The BBC2 controller, Roly Keating, agrees. "I think it's a higher-profile slot and more consistent. Eddie and the team have relished the later slot. The show has developed a confidence and chutzpah, ready to step into the heart of the schedule."
Later Live... with Jools Holland has already been moved to the same slot, in which it will alternate series by series with The Culture Show, establishing what Keating hopes will be "a year-round presence for contemporary culture, music and arts". On Friday nights, an extended version of the arts programme will go out at 11.35pm.
When The Culture Show launched in 2004, the BBC was under fire for making too many makeover shows and not enough arts programming. Despite filling a vacuum, it was not instantly met with rapturous applause. "It runs the risk of turning into a bland tool for the PR industry," said Philip Hensher in The Independent. "It seemed very nervous... only one item transcended mediocrity," opined Jonathan Jones in The Guardian (the item he was referring to was an interview with David Hockney by Andrew Marr).
"We were timid when we started and wanted the arts world to respect and like us," admits Morgan, a former assistant general-secretary of the Labour Party and Newsnight output editor. "I think there's a need for an arts programme that's a bit less reverent than The South Bank Show and a bit more opinionated."
Laverne is more defensive. "Why would you slag us off? It's like going, 'Fucking hobbits – if I was going to go after that ring, that's not the way I would have done it.' Nobody else is volunteering to try and take on this huge range of stuff."
In four years on air, The Culture Show has grown into its skin. No one could accuse Kermode of blandness. Having landed the only interview that Steven Spielberg did to mark his 60th birthday, the film reviewer quickly got on to the subject of why some of his films, such as Munich, were too "preachy". Interviewing Leonardo DiCaprio, Kermode baffled the star by forgiving him for Titanic. "It's a mark of respect," Kermode says. "What's disrespectful is to pretend you loved everything they did."
In a historic piece of television, Kermode was interviewing the German filmmaker Werner Herzog in Los Angeles when Herzog was shot on camera by a crazed fan with an air rifle. "Not only does Herzog not fall to his knees weeping, he barely flinches. I said, 'Don't you need to go to hospital?' He said, 'No, it is not a significant bullet', which implies there is such a thing as an insignificant bullet," Kermode recalls in amazement.
One of the hardest tricks for the programme to pull off is presenting the arts in an accessible manner without talking down to the audience. "I always assume that the audience is smarter than me," says Laverne, who views the show's team of presenters, including the art expert Andrew Graham-Dixon and the classical music buff Verity Sharp, as "a loose team of superheroes – we have our own attributes and powers".
Kermode agrees. "In my experience, it's not just that the audience is able to keep up with you: actually they're way ahead of you. You start talking about some movie and refer back to a list of other movies that may seem esoteric and then 20 people will send in texts correcting your use of the esoteric knowledge. Never underestimate what the audience knows."
The new-look Culture Show will be recorded "as live", playing to the strengths of Laverne and Kermode – they are used to presenting to a live audience – while allowing room for editing. "Previously we'd spend a whole day doing a shoot, but now we've changed to 'as live', which personally I prefer because having done a lot of radio it's more like that. It's more off the cuff and kinetic," Laverne says.
The programme is produced alternate weeks in London and Glasgow to avoid a bias towards the capital. "From the start we were determined that, even though London is a massively important cultural centre, we didn't want to be captured by the capital," Keating says. "I think that's very healthy for the programme."
Highlights of the forthcoming series include a piece by Laverne on the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition – "I spent yesterday afternoon watching Tracey Emin's team install a picture of zebra having sex with a woman in the Royal Academy... I'm not sure the woman is enjoying it, but it's impressive" – Graham-Dixon on the Gustav Klimt exhibition in Vienna and the notion of Gesamstkunstwerk, a piece on Ricky Gervais directing his first movie, and Kermode interviewing the poet Simon Armitage.
Recent series of the show have been watched by just under a million viewers on average, but Morgan is more concerned with making an original programme than winning bigger audiences. "Huw Wheldon used to say: 'The aim is not to avoid failure, but to attempt success.' I say: "Guys, I don't mind if items don't work. Let's attempt something really bold. I'd rather fail interestingly, than succeed boringly.'"
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