Why does the BBC ignore the arts?

Is Alfred Brendel playing a Beethoven sonata of so little interest that it can't compete against five hours of snooker?
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The Independent Online

Over this Bank Holiday weekend, BBC1 and BBC2 will be devoting something around 25 hours of broadcasting to sport of various kinds, according to my reckoning. Most of this is taken up by snooker - three and a half hours on Saturday, five and a half on Sunday, five and a half on Monday - but also includes such popular pursuits as dressage, Superbikes, women's soccer and "Moto GP". What is Moto GP? Never mind.

Over the same period, five hours of broadcasting will be emanating from the same channels which could be loosely defined as concerned with the arts. Before you get too enthusiastic about this, I should point out that the figure is unusually high; a little over three hours of this is accounted for by the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, a competition which has until now been tootling along in the obscurity of BBC4. Moreover, some of these programmes are on at the same time, dissipating what is probably a single audience.

Apart from the music competition, there is a programme about Van Gogh's Sunflowers, which may be quite good, and a tie-in promo for the BBC's incomparably vulgar dramatisation of He Knew He Was Right, entitled The Two Loves of Anthony Trollope. I think we can safely assume this last one is not going to be a serious discussion of the novelist's craft.

The BBC has announced that it proposes to place more emphasis on the arts in the immediate future. Only a cynic would suspect that this announcement has anything to do with the run-up to the renewal of the corporation's charter, and suggest that the BBC is going to have to make a lot of effort to present itself as a serious, public-minded broadcaster, rather than the iniquitous perpetrator of Test Your Pet with Rolf Harris.

On the other hand, you don't have to be cynical to think that they have rather a long way to go, or to draw the conclusion that the priorities at the BBC are summed up by a little note in the Radio Times this week, that "dependent on live snooker coverage, [BBC Young Musician of the Year's] start time may change." Not only is music only acceptable on television if it can be made to look as much like a sporting contest as possible; it must always come second to crown green bowling, or live chubb fuddling, or snooker, or whatever.

The BBC's approach to the arts was made apparent to me recently when I heard an apparatchik unwisely remark that it had to look like a football match or a soap opera; without that, it wasn't television. Everything immediately became clear. You could get literature on the television if you turned it into a competition; The Big Read, an exercise of truly obscene philistinism, had to be mounted in order to justify some of its enjoyable offshoots, such as Mira Syal's delightful film about Pride and Prejudice. Why Miss Syal couldn't be commissioned to make a film about Jane Austen without a repulsive telephone vote subsequently wasn't clear at all.

Or you could turn literature, say, into a soap opera, scripted well in advance. A couple of months ago, I was telephoned by a lady making a film about a first novelist. The novelist was middle aged and working class; she - the researcher said - had had a difficult life. Would I, as a regular London book reviewer, comment on her novel? I made it plain that her life story was of no interest to me: I would say whether the book was good or not.

I phoned the novelist's publisher, who was outraged on my behalf that the film-makers had asked me; the novel was a low-rent, unliterary thriller without serious ambitions, of the sort I would never normally be asked to review. The point of the programme, clearly, was to set up a poor northern struggling writer against the snooty London literary clique. When some suggestion reached the producer that I was wise to the plot and might perfectly well enjoy such a novel, all contact abruptly ceased. That is what constitutes the BBC's interests in the arts today.

Can we think that there exists any country in the world where the national broadcaster would ignore the fact that one of its citizens had won the Nobel Prize for Literature? That, I believe, is exactly what has happened. VS Naipaul's publisher told me recently that no approach whatever had been made, no suggestion that it might be respectful and even interesting to make a film about a man whom many believe to be the greatest living writer in English, spurred on by the Nobel Prize. And when they do, they assume that little interest will be roused. Two interesting documentaries about writers working on novels, Rob Newman and AS Byatt, were made by the BBC a year or two ago. Broadcast at ludicrous hours, they made no impression.

Literature is treated appallingly by BBC1 and BBC2, but the other arts come off nearly as badly. Apart from the Proms, when is a concert, an opera or a ballet broadcast on the main channels? Very rarely; but can anyone suppose that half an hour of Alfred Brendel playing a Beethoven sonata is of so little interest that it can't compete against five hours a day, for days on end, of snooker? That would be treating the arts on their own terms, not on the philistine terms of competitions and narratives which it is assumed is all television can cope with: so it never happens.

It would be churlish not to admit that occasionally television does manage to do something interesting with the arts. Nick Dear's film about the first performance of the Eroica was a good piece of work, which even managed to suggest some rudimentary musicological points. The current series, The Private Life of a Masterpiece, is not at all bad, trying to consider individual, admittedly hackneyed works of art in quite serious ways.

And, little-watched as it is, BBC4 is commissioning some reasonable programmes about the arts. I've recently made a documentary about the novelist Peter Ackroyd. Admittedly, it was only made possible by the fact that he's about to present a series about London, and admittedly, it was slightly hard to prevent the show giving the impression that his television appearances constituted the climax of his career, but all the same, I hope we managed to give a good, serious novelist respectful treatment in a BBC television programme.

There's probably no chance of such a programme appearing on the main channels, even though on every single weekday next week, there are seven separate programmes about antiques, house renovations, or gardening. Still, making such a programme for BBC 4 is better than nothing, even though I hope no one will suggest that it proves that the BBC is doing its job with regard to the arts.

In the meantime, we have to accept that no one at the BBC is going to listen to complaints like this one. Despite the fact that the audience for arts, books and music in this country massively exceeds that for any given sport, any suggestion that 25 hours of sport compared to five for all the arts is somewhat disproportionate is going to be swept aside, simply by the fact that it comes from a newspaper like this one; that it is written by someone professionally involved with the arts; that we weren't grateful for the appalling spectacle of Rolf Harris trying to paint like Cézanne, so we obviously aren't interested in the arts anyway.

They aren't listening, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't go on voicing our contempt when the BBC pretends that it is fulfilling its obligations with The Big Read and the best painterly efforts of Mr Rolf Harris.