07 May, 2009

Soon TV will have little to Bragg about

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The end of Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show is another nail in the coffin for cultured television

No more Melvyn Bragg? No more South Bank Show? The news seems to have been greeted with some ambivalence, as the inevitable execution of an old TV warhorse. That’s not how I feel. Bragg is one of the heroes of British television and the end of the programme that’s synonymous with him is another death blow for any hope of cultural excellence in the medium.

Last year I recorded three programmes with Bragg in a series on art and religion. The programmes each took one great work of religious art and were set up as debates about its meaning. Encountering Bragg in a television studio was awe-inspiring. The way he chaired the debates totally dazzled and enthused me. It opened my eyes to what television can be. I felt I’d met one of the greats of the form, an incredibly accomplished master of democratic, accessible, yet intelligent communication.

The programmes were nothing if not ambitious. In one, I had an argument with Lord Harries about Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. In another, Bragg set up a three-way competition between me, Andrew Graham-Dixon and Martin Kemp, Oxford professor of art history, to see who could sound off more cockily about Piero della Francesca’s Arrezzo cycle. It seemed almost too good to be true, to be talking on an ITV programme about detailed issues of Renaissance art history in such company.

The ITV schedulers agreed: it was too good to be true. They dumped the series deep into the wee hours of Monday morning, where no one would hurt their brains trying to follow a proper argument about art.

And now the South Bank Show is going too, and of course, the cannier commentators are saying that, well, things move on. They wouldn’t want to alienate the producers of The Idiot Hour and The Culture Nanosecond, would they?

A few months ago I missed the chance to meet another TV hero. After I wrote a blog about Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation I got a call from a researcher on Newsnight. They were looking for someone to debate Civilisation’s merits with David Attenborough. Would I take the line that Civilisation is a bit old-fashioned by today’s standards?

But I don’t think anything of the kind. I admire Civilisation and I wish there were more television programmes of such distinction. In the end I suggested she might want Matthew Collings instead. I then had to explain who Matthew Collings was. So it goes.

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