I'm off plays, but I just love Classic FM

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THOSE pastimes that the British group together as 'The Arts' and the Americans as 'Culture' - theatre, television, literature, cinema, music - are in competition for dominance. In a particular decade - or even a certain year - one art form will be the unbeatable team, while another struggles with declining gates and disgruntled players. Ten years on, the former winning discipline will be mired in a long run of defeats.

These hierarchies of the arts take three forms. The first are historical or taught. For the English middle classes born before the Second World War - and for younger people educated in the English faculties of the older universities - books are more important than television, theatre more serious than cinema. This is often a hierarchy of theory rather than practice. These people may rarely see a play and seldom read a novel - their cultural highlights of 1993 were probably In the Line of Fire at the cinema and Absolutely Fabulous on the box - but they know perfectly well what they ought to like.

Then there are hierarchies of mass enthusiasm. Classical music booms because of Nigel Kennedy's persona or the unlikely striking of a national nerve by a Gorecki symphony. Opera is suddenly hot, because the BBC's choice of signature tune for its 1990 World Cup coverage accidentally implicated Luciano Pavarotti in the Gazza phenomenon. Novels catch on because alternative comics write them.

Finally, there are the hierarchies of fashionable opinion. This chart is drawn up partly at dinner tables - 'There was nothing on television this Christmas', 'We've simply stopped going to the theatre' - but mainly in newspapers. Indeed, the second arena probably encourages the first. The English novel is dead, the American novel triumphant, is what we read more or less weekly on the books pages. Biography has replaced novels; comedy is the new rock 'n' roll; people have stopped going to the theatre.

A historical hierarchy and a hierarchy of fashionable opinion will occasionally coincide - for example, in the view that no decent English novel has been written since the 19th century - but hierarchies of mass enthusiasm and hierarchies of fashionable opinion are usually mutually exclusive. The infrequent reader drawn to a book by Ben Elton or Stephen Fry has discovered that the English novel is alive precisely at the moment that the chief literary critic of the Guardian has pronounced it dead.

As 1994 begins, British theatre provides a powerful illustration of the gap in these cultural league tables between results and press coverage. David Hare, the playwright, has pointed out - perhaps a little too often by now - that the conventional metropolitan wisdom is that no one goes to the theatre any more. This is true. Yet the National Theatre, a reasonable benchmark of the art, is enjoying a run of critical and popular success rarely equalled in its history. Tom Stoppard's Arcadia was probably the finest achievement of English literature in 1993. The Royal Court Theatre established, in Terry Johnson's Hysteria] and Martin Crimp's The Treatment, the strength of the next generation of writers.

Why, then, should theatre have fallen so low in the hierarchy of fashionable opinion? The reasons are, I think: actors and inconvenience. First, due to some unwise award-acceptance speeches and interviews, it is popular to sneer at actors in their off-stage manifestation ('luvvies'). Hence, support for their on-stage activities has become difficult to sustain in company. Second, theatre is the art which entails most hassle: the booking, the prices, the journey, the seats. My own non-artistic prejudice against the theatre is that I am 6ft 2in. Most auditoriums are like flying to Australia in economy class. It is an empirical fact that if you laid Britain's full- time theatre critics end to end, they would not stretch far. If the theatre were open to an equivalent of the video recorder - by which the middle classes could watch the stuff when they had a moment - it would be trendy again.

In literature, the hierarchy of fashionable opinion places serious American novels on a roll, with the English literary novel rolled- over. Well, it may be true that this country shows few signs of a replacement generation to equal the novelists now around 40: Amis, Barnes, Ishiguro, Mantel, McEwan, Rushdie, Tremain. Yet in America, routinely hymned for its primacy in fiction, the star generation - Updike, Roth, Bellow, Heller, Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, Alison Lurie - are all, at best, of pensionable age. At least two subsequent generations have failed to refill the pool with fish that look likely to grow as big. Nicholson Baker, reputedly the coming man, is shown by his latest offering, The Formula, to have embraced sub-pornographic eroticism with an enthusiasm that makes Philip Roth look like Billy Graham.

The more noteworthy development in American writing is revealed by the hierarchy of mass enthusiam, in the rise of a literate, questioning non-spy thriller. Thomas Harris (serial killers), Michael Crichton (technology, society) and John Grisham (law) have achieved in recent years combined sales that establish a formidable, and unexpected, bulwark for the book as a cultural product in America at the end of the century.

The position of broadcasting in the artistic hierarchies is especially complex. British television, for example, has reached the stage of respectability where few people bother

to be snobbish about it, to pretend not to watch it. Yet this position as a broadly acceptable art form has been achieved as terrestrial television is threatened with disintegration through increased competition and decreased regulation. Bizarrely, television may become what fashionable opinion used to say it was, falsely - a low-rent, no-thought peep-show - at precisely the moment it becomes generally accepted that it is not.

BBC Radio - the Mother Teresa among media for a large slice of Britain in recent decades - looks a strong bet to drop down the cultural league table. The creation of a news and sport network, the fated-to-be- hated redesign of Gardener's Question Time and the political incorrectness of denigrating Classic FM are all warning signs for the wireless. Dinner party standards of the next 12 months will be: 'We've stopped listening to The Archers' and 'I do miss Radio 5'.

American cinema's cultural dominance is so strong as to make discussion for the moment pointless: it is the Manchester United of the arts. I have not mentioned opera, ballet or music at all, but that simply exposes my own artistic hierarchies.