Ian Burrell: Jackson hits the street in attempt to 'put a rocket up' C4's arts coverage

Media on Monday
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Channel 4 has felt out of touch with the streets for a very long time.

The broadcaster that was supposed to be closest to young, contemporary Britain, has retreated indoors – to the reality dungeon of Big Brother, the dream homes of Kevin McCloud's Grand Designs, the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and the dining rooms of an endless supply of contestants on Come Dine with Me.

Tabitha Jackson is promising to change all that. She is the Channel 4 executive planning the broadcaster's "Street Summer" season, a key statement in a programme of post-Big Brother creative renewal that has so far failed to excite the public imagination.

"Street Summer" will attempt, with Street Dance Wars, to do the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing – with attitude – as it showcases some of the world's best breakdancers, taking the moves away from the shiny floors of ITV's Britain's Got Talent and back to the pavements where they originated.

She also plans to introduce viewers to the world of urban sports through Concrete Circus, featuring the bike tricks of Danny MacAskill, the skateboarding of Kilian Martin and the BMX "flatlanding" skills of Keelan Phillips, all of whom are already stars on YouTube.

"They have filmmakers they work with and they put the films online and millions of people watch them," says Jackson, Channel 4's Commissioning Editor for Arts. "We thought it would be really exciting to build a performance of them all together."

Jackson admits that the broadcaster has been in danger of losing touch with younger viewers. "This is [about] Channel 4 being part of the conversation again and being right in the middle of what's going on," she says. "I think arts generally can suffer from being over in a quiet corner and treated like a school subject.

"It doesn't have to be like that – street culture is all around us. I'm not interested in putting my money and my hours towards arts history and arts heritage. It's about representing what it is to be alive today."

She will attempt to recognise the contribution of rap music as modern poetry in the two-hour film How Hip Hop Changed the World, presented by Idris Elba, British star of the cult HBO series The Wire.

"There's this whole generation who are expressing themselves through rhyme, rhythm, meter and stanza; it's a poetic generation and yet it's not acknowledged in the classroom," complains Jackson, who grew up in the Warwickshire village of Napton-on-the-Hill. "Is this a massive trick we are missing; not giving this means of expression the respect it deserves?" Visual art will be represented with a Channel 4 screening of Banksy's Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop and another film will examine the differences between gallery-based "Street Art" and graffiti "which could get you a two-to-four stretch".

Some arts viewers will ask whether street culture is really art at all.

Jackson, a former editor of More4, who worked for six years as a programme-maker at the BBC, is up against strong competition from the Corporation and from Sky Arts, which is ambitious and inventive, though it attracts tiny audiences. She says it is a good thing that "arts has become a battleground again", but argues that her rivals are out of step in talking down to an audience that has become used to interactive media. "There's a danger of arts broadcasters becoming cathedrals of culture and you expect your congregation to come every Sunday and have the sermon handed down and that's not how we operate any more."

Her own approach is epitomised by Random Acts, a new format of three-minute arts films which will begin in October and be shown late at night on every weekday.

Jackson hopes that the films, which will sit permanently on the Channel 4 website so that they can be shared in social media, will produce regular viral hits for the broadcaster.

"It's designed to be a bit disruptive and completely raw and I've specifically asked for it to be a late night slot so that the content isn't restrained – just to get away from that sense that arts television is often polite, conservative and boring to look at," she says.

Such a punk attitude is not present in every Jackson commission. The director Dylan Southern is filming Bjork's exploration of the links between music and science, while Story of Film, which will be shown on More4 in September, will be a 15-part history of cinema presented by Mark Cousins.

While celebrating movies and digital media, Jackson is most anxious to use the arts to excite viewers about television ("our screen") once more, citing its role as an arts medium and its ability to reach a mass audience.

"Over the last 20 years, television genres like science and history have reinvented themselves," she says.

"Arts – with notable exceptions – has remained the same. It's the cruellest irony. We are supposed to be the arts; the aesthetic bit that can innovate, imagine and surprise and yet we have retreated into a safe space. I want to put a bit of a rocket up it."