It’s mad not to have a single books programme on mainstream TV

The BBC and Sky do literature a disservice


David Lister@davidlister1
Friday 08 January 2016 17:56
Read it and weep: Mariella Frostrup, whose Sky Arts book show was axed in 2013
Read it and weep: Mariella Frostrup, whose Sky Arts book show was axed in 2013

When the estimable James Naughtie gave his last broadcast on Radio 4’s Today programme just before Christmas, he ended by saying he would still be interviewing authors on Radio 4 and the BBC News Channel. And I immediately thought how telling that was.

Look for a book programme on the BBC and you will find one on the Radio. You will find author interviews on the News Channel. Indeed, I have also discovered, entirely by accident, some good author interview on the BBC Parliament channel, where MPs with books out have a chance to talk about them. BBC Parliament and BBC News Channel are both places where by accident you might get people talking about literature. What you won’t find is a book programme on any of the main BBC channels. Indeed you won’t find one on terrestrial TV at all.

Not that Sky is any less reprehensible on this score. It had a very fine books programme, indeed it was one of the mainstays of Sky Arts. The Book Show hosted by Mariella Frostrup was on every week, and there were special relays from the Hay Festival, where Sky was also one of the sponsors. Now it has dropped the sponsorship, dropped the relays, and more puzzlingly long since dropped its book programme.

Should a channel with the word Arts in its title not have a book programme? Should BBC television not have a book programme. The BBC tells me: “Books and authors are at the heart of the BBC's output, from TV Seasons on Poetry and Theatre and BBC One’s recent adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to forthcoming pan-BBC programming celebrating Shakespeare and Children’s literature, in addition to regular strands such as Simon Mayo’s Book Club on Radio 2, Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book on Radio 4, Harriett Gilbert’s World Book Club and the Radio 4 Book Club. “ Er yes, but sorry I don’t really count a dramatisation of War and Peace as a book programme. And I ask again, why no dedicated book programme?

What on earth is wrong with a proper, fully fledged book programme? Sky’s much missed show interviewed authors with books just out, but also had added extras such as looks at where they write, bestseller charts etc. It helped literature to come alive.

I can only think that TV controllers and producers have decided, in curious unison, that book programmes aren’t ‘sexy’, aren’t visual, aren’t viewer-friendly. How pathetically wrong they are. Viewers have never shared TV executives’ distaste for talking heads, never shared TV executives’ fear of upmarket arts coverage, never shared what seems to be TV executives’ fear of books.

When Frostrup’s book programme was axed by Sky back in 2013, she tweeted: “Not a single book show on British TV now — sad day for UK arts programming.” That was two years ago, and there’s still not a single book show on TV. Sky Arts should also take a long, hard look at itself and restore what was actually one of its best offerings.

I look forward to James Naughtie’s expertise on literature on Radio 4 and the News Channel, but can’t for the life of me see why we won’t be able to watch it on mainstream television. I also can’t for the life of me begin to understand why TV executives have such an antipathy towards book programmes.

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