David Lister: The BBC is too cowardly for Carmen

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I have always had mixed feelings about BBC4, the corporation's arts and culture channel. There's no arguing about the excellence of much of its output, but its existence can be and is an excuse for the BBC to rein in the number of arts programmes on its mainstream channels. Culture becomes a niche market.

The Conservative Culture spokesman Jeremy Hunt seems to have similar feelings as he has hinted that a future Conservative government would seek to see the end of the digital channel with its small number of viewers. It has just a 1 per cent share of the total television audience, and since its launch in 2002 only seven BBC4 programmes have pulled in ratings of more than one million. Now the BBC director-general Mark Thompson, pictured, is dropping hints of his own that the future of some of the corporation's digital channels is not guaranteed. Is BBC4 one of those?

I have argued here before that if Mr Hunt wants to see the closure of BBC4, then there is a duty on him to ensure that BBC1 and 2 increase their arts output radically. The same, of course, goes for Mr Thompson.

As I say, I used to have mixed feelings over this debate. But this week those feelings became less mixed, and I moved towards the Hunt camp. For what became clear in an important article in this paper praising BBC4 and airing the views of its controllers past and present was that the channel's existence has led to a change in mindset of how the BBC views the arts. It is indeed beginning to see the arts as niche programming.

This was summed up for me by one spectacular statement from BBC4's current controller, Richard Klein. "We reach a large audience," he said in the article. "Bizet's Carmen reached 120,000; that's Wembley twice over."

Well, it isn't actually, but that's not the point. The point is that the BBC is clearly afraid to put the most accessible opera ever written on its mainstream channels, and when it gets a feeble 120,000 viewers on BBC4, the corporation sees that as a cause for rejoicing. It should have got at least 10 times that figure, and could have if it had dared to risk it on BBC2 or, perish the thought, BBC1. At the same time it might have introduced many viewers to Carmen and to opera. BBC4 viewers were probably already familiar with it.

This, though, is the BBC mindset when it comes to the arts. The arts are niche; they can be catered for on a niche channel, and are unlikely to get large numbers of viewers. The battle to put all sorts of weird and wonderful arts programmes on the mainstream channels for a general audience does not seem to be worth fighting.

My own ideal remains a large array of arts programmes on BBC1 and BBC2, with BBC4 continuing to exist, as an extra specialist culture channel. But the reality is that the arts output of BBC1 and 2 is rationed (plays, for example, are virtually non-existent) and the BBC salves its cultural conscience with a channel watched by an infinitesimal percentage of the population. The arts have to be mainstream television on public service broadcasting. When the world's most popular opera is shunted on to a niche channel, and the BBC management is over the moon that it gets 120,000 viewers, then the corporation's attitude to the arts is in need of repair.

Stop this cultural vandalism

When Liverpool city council demolished the Cavern Club, venue for some of the Beatles' early gigs, and turned it into a car park, it was one of the crazier decisions of the pop culture age. Gone was a key destination for the Beatles' tourism industry and a part of Liverpool's cultural heritage. Now the same thing is happening again, this time in London with the proposed sale by EMI's owners Terra Firma of the Abbey Road studios, where the Beatles recorded all their albums, famously naming one of them after it. If the building becomes a block of flats or whatever, it's another blow to cultural heritage and another ludicrous business decision.

A studio that was used not just by the Beatles but also by artists from Edward Elgar to Radiohead could become a really imaginative museum of music. It would hardly be short of visitors. To demolish it is cultural vandalism. With luck, Andrew Lloyd Webber will confirm reports that he will come to the rescue. Certainly, EMI should be ashamed.

Anyone have a spare child?

Here's a tricky problem. What do you do if you are a fan of the theatre director Katie Mitchell and want to see her latest production? It sounds simple enough. You just go and see it. The trouble is that her latest production is a children's show The Cat in the Hat, adapted from the Dr Seuss story. And seeing a children's show, when one does not have children of the appropriate age, casts one as the man in the Bateman cartoon.

I went to see the enjoyable show at the Young Vic in London this week, trying my best to hide in the back row, hoping that the children and their parents would not turn round and wonder what I was doing there without a child companion. There were moments when I felt I ought to have a dirty raincoat, or even ask a passing child in off the street, in the same way that children once asked grown-ups to take them to an adult film.

Going to a children's show without a child – it must be the last taboo in the arts. You feel like an imposter, if not something far worse.

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