David Lister: Sky upstages the BBC in what the corporation used to do best

The Week in Arts
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Rupert Murdoch broadcasts four lesser-known Chekhov plays.

It's not a headline one would expect, but it's happening next week and the BBC should sit up and take notice. Whatever Mr Murdoch's foibles, he and his family have invested in Sky Arts, and the two Sky Arts channels are beginning to give the BBC a serious run for its money.

Next week, Sky Arts begins a series of one-act Chekhov plays to mark the 150th anniversary of the writer's birth. At the BBC, meanwhile, its arts and drama executives were unable to tell me when they last broadcast a Chekhov play on television; it was clearly barely within living memory. But then the BBC for some years now has shown distaste for virtually all classic drama – Chekhov, Ibsen, even Shakespeare – unless it happened to star David Tennant or Patrick Stewart.

And modern dramatists have not fared much better. As for the Chekhov anniversary, not a single one of his plays is being broadcast on BBC television. So Sky Arts, which has already trumped the BBC by having a regular book programme on TV, something the corporation doesn't manage, and doing more opera, dance and rock music on a weekly basis, is now stealing a march with classic drama.

But rivalry with the BBC aside, what I find particularly interesting about the Sky approach is the casting for the Chekhov series. The key stars are Sheridan Smith from the hit stage show Legally Blonde, Mathew Horne from Gavin and Stacey, Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh, and TV and movie comedy stalwarts Steve Coogan, Johnny Vegas and Mackenzie Crook.

In other words, this series appears to be aimed squarely at a relatively young audience that will follow its favourite stars into territory which might be new to it. The BBC, which seems to believe there is no audience for classic drama, might find this is one way of drawing in that audience. Once, it might have seemed gimmicky to do this as there is a wealth of stage actors out there with considerable experience of performing Chekhov. But now, with television having ignored classic drama for so long, what is there to draw in a young TV audience to it, if not the comedy stars they are already familiar with? At the same time. it announces to this audience what Chekhov himself always stressed – that he is a writer of comedies.

The BBC is criticised too often and too often without cause, but it has to do something to rectify its neglect of classic drama. Surely it must be a little embarrassed that a commercial broadcaster with no Reithian writ to educate and inform is alone in marking the Chekhov anniversary on TV? Perhaps a good old-fashioned sense of competition with Sky will provoke the BBC into a rush to screen classic drama. You can have the Carling Cup final if we can have The Cherry Orchard.

Spot the new boss in the ICA bar

Lady Myners is making her mark as the new chair of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Alison Myners succeeded Alan Yentob to the chairmanship a month ago, and I hear that unlike most people chairing an arts organisation, or any organisation come to that, she is choosing to work from the bar. She can often be spied in the ICA bar with her laptop.

The ICA bar is a well-known meeting spot in central London, and can get quite raucous on occasion. No doubt Lady Myners, who is married to former Labour financial services minister Lord Myners, manages to concentrate. No doubt too that choosing the bar over an office, she keeps ICA staff on their toes, and can observe precisely how long they take for their lunch hour. Meanwhile, anyone who fancies taking over from the departing ICA director, Ekow Eshun, should hang around the bar, talk very loudly about culture and how he or she might change the venue and make it the centre of the avant-garde once more. And don't forget to buy the lady with the laptop a drink.

Give Superman back to journalism

Now that Superman has been given a makeover by DC Comics, his alter ego, Clark Kent, appears as a rather grumpy youth in a hoodie, an "emo" full of existential angst, unsure what to do with his superhuman powers. All this I can take. What alarms me is that Superman, or rather Kent, is no longer a reporter with The Daily Planet. He's no longer a reporter at all. He is unemployed. He has to be a Superman for the present age, the executives at DC Comics say.

I suppose being an unemployed twentysomething is not unrepresentative of the present age. But it is hard for us newspaper people to have one of the few cultural icons in the trade taken away. Surely there were other roles Clark Kent could have played in a newspaper office and be true to the social mores of the 21st century and some of its press. He could have been on long-term work experience. He could have been detailed to be on permanent coverage of The X Factor. He could be a moral beacon refusing to tap any phones. We don't have many superheroes in journalism. Can we have him back, please?

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