As Tony Hall began his first week as director-general of the BBC and began to meet the staff, there was general agreement that the key issues facing him were the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile affair, the state of BBC news, key appointments and a battle with the unions over compulsory redundancies. So it would have been a brave member of staff who would have put his hand up to say: "But Tony, what about the arts?"
Brave but fair, for it is often forgotten that far more people consume the arts through television than by attending live performance. The BBC is the nation's most important provider of arts. And when I met the BBC chairman, Lord Patten, just before the Savile revelations changed everything at the BBC, he told me to watch what his director-general George Entwistle did with the arts on BBC TV. He had big plans. Entwistle is, of course, now gone. But BBC arts remain ripe for improvement. And once he has got more pressing issues out of the way, Lord Hall, with his outstanding success in running the Royal Opera House and playing a key part in the Cultural Olympiad, has the ideal pedigree to make those improvements.
For the undeniable fact is that the BBC has surrendered ground to Sky, whose two arts channels provide a wealth of music – classical, opera and pop – new plays in their Playhouse season, arts documentaries and much else. The BBC has shuffled too much from the main channels to BBC4. But it is BBC1 and BBC2 that have the big viewing figures, and culture should be embedded into these channels. Also, the general lack, not just of new plays, but most particularly of classic drama, from Ibsen and Chekhov to Pinter and Stoppard, is woeful.
Tony Hall must address that. But there is something else he could do. He could utilise a resource which is actually at the BBC and comes under his aegis. A year or so ago, the BBC, in partnership with the Arts Council, started a venture called The Space, which films live arts events and puts them out on the web. I suspect that far too few people know about it – but it has been responsible for a wealth of performances and films transmitted in this manner, from the Globe's all-male Twelfth Night, starring Mark Rylance, to the Royal Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Eddie Izzard, Will Self and an archive of John Peel's shows.
Is it not crazy that BBC technical staff with BBC money filmed a remarkable and historic production of Twelfth Night, but it never made it on to BBC TV? As a first step to reinvigorating the BBC's arts output, Tony Hall could take the initiative of making one of the platforms on which The Space transmits the old-fashioned one – the television. He could then turn his attention to drama, both classic and contemporary, cutting-edge shows (the much acclaimed new generation of female playwrights at the Royal Court is unknown to TV audiences). Then there is the lack of a regular book programme to address.
He has had more pressing issues this week, and might for a few more weeks to come. But the arts need to figure in that in-tray soon.
Tom's still making waves – and thank goodness for that
Some years ago Steven Spielberg phoned Tom Stoppard to ask him to write the screenplay for his movie Empire of the Sun. Stoppard (who actually did do it in the end) told him he couldn't oblige because he was working on a play for the BBC at the time. "What?" spluttered Spielberg, "you would give up the chance of a Hollywood blockbuster to do something on television!" Actually, replied Stoppard, "it's for the radio." Now Sir Tom has written a play based on Pink Floyd's classic 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon to mark its 40th anniversary. It will be broadcast on Radio 2 in August. His loyalty to the old wireless is admirable.
These trumped-up fees are getting beyond a joke
I've taken my hat off more than once to the comedian Sarah Millican for refusing on her national tour to perform at venues which charge booking fees. But reader Graham Hardinge wonders why, in that case, she is still down to do a show at his local, the Ipswich Regent, which not only charges a fee for all credit card/telephone bookings with postage of tickets involved, but has now added a £2 "transaction fee" even if customers turn up in person at the booking office and tender payment by cash. Mr Hardinge asked the venue why, and was told this was "to make it fairer for those who pay by card". He describes this as "absolute nonsense". Couldn't put it better myself. Over to you, Ms Millican.