BBC to beef up its arts coverage

Live theatre and series on writers and painters are waiting in the wings – with some familiar old faces

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The Independent Online

The BBC is preparing to pour millions of pounds into television arts programming, as director-general Tony Hall tries to restore the corporation's high-brow reputation in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Mr Hall, who ran the Royal Opera House before joining the BBC in April, has entrusted some of the corporation's oldest hands to anchor the revamp of its television content, much of which will be broadcast on the flagship channels BBC1 and BBC2. Journalist Andrew Marr and art historian Simon Schama will front series on Scottish writers and British portraiture. There will also be live broadcasts from the National Theatre, 50 years old next year, and the Manchester International Festival.

Just before Mr Hall's arrival, National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner criticised the BBC for a "Downton ratings mentality", saying: "I don't see why there couldn't be a close relationship between the BBC and this vast performance network. That the two are separate... needs challenging."

Mr Hall will today announce the overhaul of programming, and on Tuesday he will outline his plans for the BBC in the run-up to its 100th anniversary in 2022. "Arts programming sits right at the heart of the BBC and is a vital part of who we are," he will say. "But I want us to be much more ambitious."

The regulator Ofcom last year criticised the five main television channels for spending only £44m on arts and classical music programming, down from £72m in 2006. The BBC director of strategic operations, John Tate, said that he was "disappointed" that Ofcom had laid "such emphasis on an apparent downturn in BBC content spend".

However, Mr Hall apparently agrees with Ofcom, and is looking to overturn a trend that saw arts and music programming fall from 1,860 to 1,821 hours across its four main television channels in 2012/13. He has pledged to increase funding for television programmes by 20 per cent, the financial details of which will be laid out on Tuesday.

Despite the innovations, the choice of presenters may seem predictable to some. Marr will present The Men Who Invented Scotland, a three-part series on diarist James Boswell, Rob Roy author Walter Scott, and the poet Hugh McDiarmid, a founding member of what became the Scottish National Party. Question Time host David Dimbleby will present Britain and the Sea.

Schama's programme, The Face of Britain, is made in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery. The BBC is following this partnership model with a number of other arts organisations, including the British Museum and Tate.

The Big Picture, on BBC1, will mix high culture with a talent show format, as 10 amateur artists compete to be crowned Britain's best artist.

Mr Hall has also unveiled a new arts brand, BBC Arts At …. These shows will broadcast live music, theatre and arts events from across the country, while there will also be new culture programmes for Radio 4. A spokeswoman for the BBC declined to comment on the exact amount of additional funding for the arts programmes.