Today the BBC held what it described on an invitation as its “annual arts and music television briefing”. And giving its annual nature, you might expect the Corporation had called the two-hour launch event in order to highlight its ambitions for the next year and, of course, announce plenty of exciting new arts commissions for its channels.
Sadly, none of the shows announced (of which there were far from plenty) are ones that, to my mind anyway, can be labelled exciting, and, perhaps more worryingly, arts shows.
There’s The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood, about “the story of the man who revolutionised English pottery” (which sounds to me like a heritage programme), and then there’s Northern Italy Unpacked, which will look at “the art, culinary culture, and landscape of the north” (which sounds to me like it will be a travel and/or cookery programme).
The History of the World in Three Colours which explores how the colours gold, blue and white have “changed the way we behave and even altered the course of history”, while David Dimbleby will explore “the rich heritage of Britain’s maritime arts and culture” from the comfort of his own boat.
Now I may be wrong, but shouldn’t arts include programmes about music, dance and theatre?
Granted, today’s launch saw the BBC unveil a programme about Turner and another called The Greatest Stage on Earth, which examines “the extraordinary rise of Athens in the ancient world through the prism of one of its most important and culturally crucial spaces - the theatre”.
But why does the one show about theatre have to explore the theatre of the past? Why can’t the BBC commission a series looking at contemporary theatre, and those working in it today? There are endless stories to be told — and subject matters to explore — from the theatre world that exists here and now.
I can’t help but think all of the programmes unveiled today offer a historical slant on the arts, but nothing that reflects the vibrancy of the industry as it is today. And it spoke volumes to me that a violinist they got to perform at today’s launch was a winner of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year… ten years ago.
Speaking about music, what did Jan Younghusband, BBC commissioning editor for music and events have to announce today? The answer is nothing.
She talked happily and at length about what has been on in the last few weeks and what is coming up next week. She said the BBC champions musicians (before telling us how she spotted Paul Weller outside BBC Radio 2’s studios) and talked of how the BBC has a great partnership with the Royal Opera House and how the Corporation works with conductor Antonio Pappano. This name, by the way, is one Youngbusband seems to bring up at all her arts events, even though there’s nothing new to announce.
Then, having spoken for a good five minutes about nothing, Younghusband went on to tell journalists to keep October free because she will be announcing some commissions then. What, I am forced to ask, is the point of an annual briefing if you have to do it all again in a few months?
I digress, but what I am really saying is that, given what feels to be a resurgent Channel 4 under Tabitha Jackson and the ever-increasing significance of Sky Arts under James Hunt, the BBC’s arts output seem to be falling behind channels which do not have the benefit of licence fee funding.
I asked Mark Bell, commissioning editor for the arts on the BBC, if there were plans for another series in the vein of The Story of Musicals, which recently ran on BBC4.
He replied that he didn’t commission that, but that it came out of BBC Entertainment. Which baffles me, to be honest. The one entertaining arts show I have enjoyed of late on the BBC and it wasn’t an arts commission.
And it seems Bell agrees. “I wish it had been [mine] as it was great,” he told me.
And that says it all, really.