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BBC viewers deserve a return to magisterial arts coverage


The arts have been a crucial part of the BBC’s offerings as far back as anyone can remember.

But when the Corporation’s Director-General, Tony Hall, confesses his fear of the arts being marginalised in the BBC’s output – and his intention to combat that with major commissions, funded by the 20 per cent increase in the budget for arts coverage that he announced last October – he points to an important fact.

For too long, the BBC’s arts coverage has suffered with a proliferation of lifestyle programmes – sure-fire ratings winners such as The Great British Bake Off and MasterChef. The diminution of the The Review Show, which last year went from weekly to monthly, is highly regrettable. With the BBC’s attention wandering, a gap has opened up that is increasingly being filled by the impressive Sky Arts.

In this context, the announcement that there will be a new version, 45 years on, of Civilisation, the magisterial survey of European culture fronted by the celebrated art historian and connoisseur Kenneth Clark, is very welcome and makes it clear what Lord Hall is driving at.

Lord Clark’s series, among the first to walk viewers through history, was a deeply conservative account of where we come from, culturally speaking. And it provoked the almost equally remarkable, profoundly radical Ways of Seeing series by the Marxist critic John Berger, as a revolutionary riposte.

The greatness of Civilisation was the way it made serious culture spine-tinglingly exciting – rendering redundant the sterile debate about the place of high-brow culture on our screens. It is exactly the sort of work that one would expect Lord Hall, late of Covent Garden, to promote. We wish him well, but trust that he will also seek out 2014’s answer to the brilliant iconoclasm of Berger.