Line up for the casting couch of art and morality

'It was a stroke of genius to field Terry Christian, whose only artistic experience was limited to a Jennings book'
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The Independent Online

When historians look back and try to understand what on earth was going on in the heads of the early 21st-century Briton, they could do worse than study videos of last Sunday's late-night TV. On one channel, there was an intelligent, sophisticated debate, in which knowledgeable people discussed genetics with Melvyn Bragg. On the other, an ill-assorted odds-and-sods panel addressed, with the bewildered help of Michael Buerk, the role of the arts in modern society.

When historians look back and try to understand what on earth was going on in the heads of the early 21st-century Briton, they could do worse than study videos of last Sunday's late-night TV. On one channel, there was an intelligent, sophisticated debate, in which knowledgeable people discussed genetics with Melvyn Bragg. On the other, an ill-assorted odds-and-sods panel addressed, with the bewildered help of Michael Buerk, the role of the arts in modern society.

It might briefly surprise the historians that the high-powered, unpatronising discussion took place on ITV while the embarrassing imitation-debate was on the BBC, but they will doubtless conclude the someone running the public broadcasting channel had decided that the future of the discussion programme lay in providing entertainment rather than enlightenment.

And what superb entertainment Sunday night's The Soul of Britain provided, albeit unwittingly. A careful deconstruction of its components would help our historians to understand what elements TV producers in the year 2000 deemed obligatory in the modern public debate.

The scheduling slot. For reasons now shrouded in mystery, programmes on which matters of art or morality are discussed have to be broadcast after 11pm on a Sunday night. It is presumably thought that the few hundred people interested in such matters are layabout types (vicars, academics, househusbands) unworried about making an early start on Monday morning.

The introduction. About five minutes of filmed documentary should open the programme in order to reassure the viewer that its topic is not too high-flown. To this end, ordinary people should be stopped on the street and asked their opinions on the issues.

Statistics. The introductory film should also include the results of an entirely meaningless survey to convey an illusion of in-depth research. The figures flashed on the screen should be as general and pointless as possible - 53 per cent of those questioned thought the arts were a good thing; 28 per cent didn't know much about the arts but they knew what they liked; while 15 per cent thought it was all a load of rubbish.

The subject of discussion. This should be vague yet populist. Sunday's programme, for example, wandered about like a drunk on his way back from the pub. One moment, it was over whether Damien Hirst was really an artist, the next the challenges of multiculturalism in schools. Or whether blokes discuss books. Or whether women should show their breasts on Channel Four.

The panel of experts. These people should not, on any account, be experts, but should be cast as carefully as any drama. They should include:

* A camply outspoken semi-intellectual with a plummy accent who will drawl a few élitist comments to get the discussion going. On Sunday, Brian Sewell played the part to perfection but he has many rivals, notably David Starkey, AN Wilson and Sir Roy Strong.

* A down-to-earth anti-intellectual with a cockney accent. It was a stroke of genius of Sunday's casting director to field Terry Christian, whose only artistic experience was having read a Jennings book as a teenager and who therefore dominated the discussion.

* Alain de Botton. Gentle, well-read, able to bring Seneca into a discussion about PMT, de Botton has a middle-aged wisdom about him which goes down well on discussion programmes. He was much missed on Sunday.

* A priest. A hint of religion provides a programme with respectability, but there's a catch. As happened on The Soul of Britain, the token churchman can talk with sense and intellectual rigour about the subject, thereby throwing the discussion off-balance.

* A comedian in but-seriously-though mode. Another weakness in Sunday's programme. Where was Jo Brand? Or Jeremy Hardy? No TV debate can be taken seriously without its own stand-up intellectual.

Conclusion. Food for thought on the arts there. Next week, morality. Good thing? Bad thing? Where do celebrities stand? Tune in next week to find out.

terblacker@aol.com

Miles Kington is on holiday

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