David Lister: Who will fight for the arts on ITV?

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The Independent Online

ITV chiefs must be bracing themselves. At the South Bank Show Awards this week. Melvyn Bragg promised guests that the televised highlights of the ceremony to be broadcast tomorrow would be uncensored.

As everyone who got near a microphone took the opportunity to accuse ITV of philistinism for axeing The South Bank Show, it could make pretty embarrassing viewing. It was particularly interesting that the Prince of Wales in a pre-recorded video to the gathering slammed ITV's decision, saying: "Oblivion is not the place for the arts, and so I cannot say I am encouraged as mainstream television abandons such a unique and special commitment." One may or may not care what Prince Charles says, but it's extremely rare for a senior member of the Royal Family to make such an attack on a mainstream TV channel, and unique I would suggest for that attack to be for its neglect of the arts.

ITV should be ashamed of its treatment of its flagship programme. Its executives have said that other arts strands will replace The South Bank Show. I shall certainly be watching the next season schedules announcement to see precisely what they have in mind.

But if ITV now seems a lost cause on serious arts programming, I can't say that I always get a warm glow from the approach of the BBC or Channel 4. I recently attended a national State of the Arts conference, and one of the sessions had on the panel Channel 4's director of television Kevin Lygo, and the new BBC arts editor Will Gompertz. It was a phrase of Mr Lygo's that stuck in my mind. He said how he preferred to put on a programme about the making of an opera to an opera itself, as an opera would hardly get any viewers. And there I was thinking it was the job of television arts to lead taste as well as to follow it.

Will Gompertz, formerly head of communications at the Tate, is new to television, and there is much for him to do. Putting some plays back on the BBC would be a good start. Classic drama has all but disappeared. His was an unexpected appointment, but I was encouraged, well, certainly intrigued, when I asked him about the frequent confusion of arts and celebrity. He answered that it had struck him that when Jade Goody died the news bulletins were full of the story, but Pina Bausch, the distinguished choreographer, had died at the same time and barely got a mention. He would have liked to see that sort of news judgement reversed. That's quite an answer from the man who will actually be one of those in charge of what arts coverage goes on the main news bulletins.

"The former Big Brother star Jade Goody died yesterday, but first over to our special correspondent in Germany for the latest on the sad death of Pina Bausch." Yes, I can almost picture it. Almost.

ITV's desperately bad decision over The South Bank Show and the opprobrium it has attracted is the most extreme example of the confusion that television chiefs have over what sort of profile to give the arts, but ITV is not alone in its confusion. Good luck to Gompertz but I suspect his dream of a culture-heavy Six O'Clock News will occur on the same day that Peter Fincham resurrects The South Bank Show, and Kevin Lygo broadcasts the Ring cycle.

International man of mystery

David Bowie is carving out a late career as the great enigma of rock. His only publicity so far for a new album of his 2004 tour is a short, cryptic Q&A in the NME. Few people are sure when he will next tour or make an album.

There was, though, an interesting moment in an accompanying NME article when the journalist asked at a New York recording studio about a rumour that Bowie had been recording there. The owner replied that he was "not at liberty to say whether or not David Bowie or Peter Murphy are working at my studio". A strange answer as the reporter had never mentioned Murphy, frontman with 1980s band Bauhaus. Oops, as they say.

I got to know David more than 10 years ago when he asked me to write the catalogue essay for his first major art exhibition in London. He will love leading his pursuers up blind alleys, while cementing his role as music's enigma.

Worthy winner in an odd contest

Christopher Reid was a deserving winner this week of the Costa Book of the Year for his volume of poetry The Scattering. The poems were written as a tribute to his dead wife, with lines such as "Nonplussed, but not distraught/I listened to her undress,/ then sidle along the far side/of our bed and lift the covers./Of course, I'd forgotten she'd died."

But however worthy the winner is, I feel that the Book of the Year is a mighty odd concept. Comparing a novel, a volume of poetry, a biography and a children's story makes no real sense, even if they do all come between covers and are sold in bookshops.

One might as well have a Stoppard play slug it out with a pantomime for play of the year just because they both happen to take place on a stage. The Book of the Year award is fun and glamorous as an occasion. It throws up some highly readable works. But it's faintly absurd.