The Week in Arts: BBC's arts coverage is no laughing matter

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What a story it was. The acclaimed arts film-maker Tony Palmer revealed that the BBC had turned down his new film on the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and it will be shown at Christmas on Channel Five instead. That in itself is not much of a story. But Mr Palmer disclosed that the BBC arts department had sent him a letter saying that if Vaughan Williams were to have any premieres coming up, they would be happy to reconsider.

Vaughan Williams died in 1958, so this seemed to speak volumes about the dumbing down of BBC arts and the corporation generally, even though the BBC said it could find no record of any such letter. Last Sunday's Observer ran the story over page three with a large headline about "BBC ignorance". One of its leading commentators wrote a column on cultural philistinism, pegged to this letter. The Sunday Times also carried the story. I must confess that I too was for a moment ready to use this space to lament the decline in cultural awareness at the BBC. But then two aspects of the affair began to concern me.

Mr Palmer was apparently refusing to name the person who had sent him the letter. This is strange. I think that if I had offered a project to the BBC, and some apparatchik had turned it down with an almighty great howler, I would have been only too pleased to shout his name from the rooftops. Why was Tony Palmer being so coy?

The other thing that worried me was the exact quote that Mr Palmer said the BBC executive had used. He or she allegedly wrote that the film did not fit with "the new vision for [BBC] Vision". Tragically, I could just about believe that. But the letter went on: "Good luck with the project, and do let me know if Mr V Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider."

It's that word "findability". It's one step too far. Even in an age of post-Birtist jargon, I didn't believe that a BBC executive would say that. Gulp! I've since learned that a BBC executive (the head of BBC multimedia) used precisely that word at a recent conference. But I cling to my faith that a member of the BBC arts department would avoid "findability".

I'm also curious how Mr Palmer apparently received a letter talking about BBC Vision in June 2006, four months before that awful concept actually existed. Of course, I don't want to suggest that Mr Palmer has instigated a hoax. But I do wonder whether he may not have been the victim of a hoax himself. And I do strongly wonder just why he won't produce the name of the person who wrote the letter and prove the BBC wrong.

Is it all funny? Up to a point, but only up to a point. For there is a real debate to be had about television arts coverage. There are questions to be asked about why there are so few plays produced, whether it is right that so many arts programmes are ghettoised on BBC4, why an inability to pronounce the consonant T is essential to be a presenter on The Culture Show.

A man whose name has for decades been synonymous with BBC films about composers and other artists would have been an ideal person to heat up that debate. If it turns out that he has knowingly or unknowingly been involved in a hoax, this incident will have temporarily killed any chance of having that debate, and let the BBC off the hook.

In the short term, this episode was mildly amusing. In the long term, it is not very clever.

Give women a break, Marty

I treasure the remark that Martin Scorsese made to The Independent's arts reporter that appeared in yesterday's paper. Asked why he had not cast a woman in the lead role in a film since 1974, the veteran director replied: "I'm still looking for a script."

And he said it with a straight face, too. This man has been one of the world's leading film-makers for the best part of four decades. And for the past 33 years he hasn't seen one single script that he liked with a female lead. Well, give him another 40 years and a suitable script might just turn up.

Perhaps now that the Hollywood scriptwriters have been on strike for quite a while, they will have had time to discover their feminine side. The big challenge for them when they return to work can be to write a female protagonist that is sassy, streetwise and tough enough to appeal to Mr Scorsese. Then he can find his feminine side, too.

* I resisted (just) the temptation to sell my tickets for 2,000 on eBay and went to see Michael Grandage's thrilling production of Othello at the Donmar Warehouse. There was much to admire in the central performance, but it was also one of those rare evenings when I came out talking about one of the minor roles. In the role of Cassio, the young actor Tom Hiddleston served up a definitive portrayal.

Not only did he have charisma; not only was his verse-speaking such that the language sounded effortlessly contemporary; but with his open, innocent face and winning charm, he made it unusually clear why Desdemona would take up his cause with her husband. And, for the first time that I can recall, this was a Cassio who made the audience feel his genuine pain when stripped of the rank and job that he loved.

I put this one in the notebook as an actor to watch.