A matter of a three letter word


Milton Shulman loves hating arts programmes

Syndicated to UK newspapers on 12 February 1966

IT IS PERHAPS typical of the British approach to the arts that television’s two most important arts programmes are shown on Sundays.

The scheduling, of course, is not accidental. ABC’s “Tempo” turns up early on Sunday afternoons because Channel 9 has never paid more than lip service to culture.

There must be an arts programme to grace every company’s annual report and ITV’s Year Book has to have a few titles to fill out its Arts Section, which is easily the thinnest in its glossy recapitulation commercial TV activities.

Indeed, the ITV Report’s discussion of the arts goes out of its way to defend its neglect of the arts by asserting that programmes about painting, opera, ballet and music are really not suitable to the medium.

Its excuses include the lack of colour, the small screen, the distracting influences of seeing an orchestra. The most superficial scrutiny immediately annihilates these objections.

The truth behind this tortuous apologia is that Channel 9 produces as few arts programmes as it can because the arts traditionally have only a minority appeal. And to many ITV executives “minority” is an eight-letter word just twice as dirty as any four-letter word.

But respectably large audiences can be built up for such minority activities as show-jumping, ten-pin bowling, snooker and iceskating: a little bit of persistence and courage could do the same for music, books, ballet, painting and the theatre.

Since, however, courage has never been a particularly discernible attribute of the ITV, we have instead “Tempo” – trailing behind it a reputation for failure – plopped from one unpopular slot to another as the sole, consistent, cultural symbol on Channel 9. The latest attempt at a kiss-of-life to this chronically ill programme is the introduction of a series called “Entertainers.”

Last Sunday the juxtaposition of the pop singer Tom Jones and the ballet dancer Lynn Seymour was an almost classic example of derivative banality.

They were asked whether success had changed them, did they like being photographed, did they do much rehearsing, did Mr. Jones’s voice suffer because of his aggressive singing style – and the answers were almost as trite as the questions.

The narrator, in a portentous voice, made such profound observations as “success inevitably changes people … promotion and publicity are all part of the star system…” Will somebody please soon put “Tempo” out of its misery?

The BBC treats culture quite differently. While ITV shuns it as if it were suffering from galloping BO, the BBC treats it with the careful reverence of an elderly waiter carrying a bottle of rare claret to a wine connoisseur.

Its range of arts programmes grow evermore esoteric, specialised and narrow. Except for a few panel games, the policy seems to be to please the cognoscenti and to keep the masses out.

Replacing Monitor – which occasionally made an obeisance to the uninformed – comes Sunday Night. And was there ever a title more carefully designed to discourage the hot polloi from tasting delights beyond their cultural station?

The Platonic Dialogues, an interpretation of Yeats, the madness of Robert Schumann as reflected in his music and the dabbling of the Brownings into Victorian spiritualism, are a few of the offerings of Sunday Night that I have seen.

The Platonic Dialogue was brilliant. Yeats was fascinating. Schumann was absorbing. The Brownings were interesting. But only to those with an initial curiosity, understanding or sympathy about these subjects.

The recent account by Jonathan Miller of the impression made by American spiritualist Daniel Dunglas Home, on Robert and Elizabeth Browning, is typical of the direct which this programme is heading.

A fragmentary anecdote, it was blown up to represent some sort of comment on the Victorian attitude to death. In reality it was merely a husband and wife differing about the credentials of a medium. The same argument goes on in many a middle-class home to-day.

With no technical resources to give it any TV life – the sight of Dunglas Home floating at ceiling height ought to have been within BBC capacities – we were offered merely a series of close-ups of Eleanor Bron languishing, Kenneth Haig persuading and Robert Gillespie protesting. A self indulgent little thing for the few; the rest would have fled elsewhere.

Programmes like those on Sunday Night are, of course, an essential element of the coverage of the arts. But need they be the exclusive approach to the arts?

I have never understood why the arts cannot be treated as an ordinary, everyday, commonplace adjunct to life. No more exclusive than politics; no more elite than sport: no more difficult than foreign affairs.

Why have we not had Panorama or a This Week on the arts? A programme that deals with art as news subject to the same critical, controversial, informative approach.

In the past fortnight there was Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians, Arthur Miller’s play, Incident at Vichy, with the author in England to discuss it, a row over the staging of the Covent Garden opera, The Flying Dutchman, the virtual end of circulating libraries, fresh developments at the Tate Gallery. All of these matters are exciting issues to far more people than ever go ice skating or watch snooker.

With an interest in art breaking out all over the land, with the increasing problem of more leisure, with the growing capacity of our artistic talents to help our balance of payments problem, it is about time that art on TV stopped being treated either as a pariah or a pope.

– Milton Shulman

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