Goodbye South Bank Show

The British newspapers have been discussing the death of a long-running TV show today. I am trying not to be too parochial in this blog but the show, the long-running arts series, The South Bank Show, is one that has had a lively existence beyond these shores, certainly in the United States and, I would guess, in many other countries too.

After 31 years, ITV, Britain’s main commercial channel, has announced that the series will end next year. Another nail, some people might think, in the coffin of ITV; others will say that they didn’t know it was still running.

There was a time when Britain used to boast about having the best television in the World but then, we tended to boast about a lot of things. Green grass (because of the rain), old buildings (as if no one else has them), pageantry ( an invention to boost the flagging popularity of old Queen Victoria just over a hundred years ago) and pots of tea – now you’re talking!.

As an important aside can I plead to the world out there about making tea the English way? You boil a kettle, pour a small amount of very hot water into the teapot, bring the kettle back to the boil and pour it, still boiling, onto the tea leaves, one spoonful for each person and one for the pot. Allow it to sit for five minutes and then pour. You THEN add the milk to each person’s taste making a final adjustment from a second jug of hot water.

We may still make the best tea in the world but we have long lost that claim as far as television programmes are concerned.

Television got going in Britain and in those early days it was not just the front runner but the only runner.

First we had the BBC with its paternalistic mission to entertain, educate and inform. Then came ITV in the mid 1950’s – the so-called miracle of capitalism, it managed in many ways to out do the BBC in its pioneering political, current affairs, drama and, yes, its arts programming.

People find it hard to believe that Harold Pinter’s “difficult” play The Caretaker was broadcast on ITV in a primetime slot within a year of its theatrical premiere.

It was all to do with money – put simply, it raked in advertising so it could afford to splash out in what was, and sadly, still is minority programming.

There were only two channels so unbelievably gigantic audiences in their millions watched programmes about subjects that, they may have thought, held no interest for them.

People really did sit down and watch Swan Lake and one broadcast of Mozart’s sublime opera The Marriage of Figaro was seen by a larger audience in just one television transmission than it had in its entire history since its premiere in 1786.

People really did watch political programmes too and actually did take an interest in General Election results.

The nation also united behind the great comedy and light entertainment shows.

This all sounds like the Spirit of the Blitz and all that, I know. Those days have long gone and, undoubtedly a load of terrible programmes were made at that time

They certainly are now.

It was always a balancing act and it survived as long as British independent television was regulated by an authority that demanded a quota of so-called “public broadcasting” programmes by which they meant things that “common people” wouldn’t watch if they weren’t encouraged to do so: religious programmes, politics, local news and, inevitably, the arts. All the stuff that ITV is throwing over-board now.

It was, and still is, a middle class industry run by people trying to second guess the tastes of “ordinary people”.

Margaret Thatcher, that great destroyer of institutions, pulled the rug away from ITV in one of her last acts of destruction before she herself was sent weeping into retirement.

The regulators lost their power, ITV was handed over to the “money-makers” and the great downward spiral began.

Of course it was not all Mrs. Thatcher’s fault, not even she had that much power. She wanted market forces to rule the television world. It was meant as a trial run before she “did” the lawyers. That never happened but ITV, and therefore British television, was never the same again. The revolution in technology was just round the corner and multi-channel television with its ever populist intentions was going to do it for ITV. By then, the politicians had moved on to whatever they decided was the next big idea.

Capitalism even raised its head at the BBC. What had been an extraordinary mix of popular and “minority” viewing now joined that old balancing act but, this time, producers were meant to be more like businessmen. Audience ratings became the great, mostly unspoken, mantra. Budgetary cuts weakened the quality of programmes which would never reach an audience of more than four million. Most of the arty stuff was ditched onto a new cheapo channel called BBC4 and a whole lot more, usually full length operas and ballets were pushed out during bank holiday afternoons when people had much better things to do. This was a neat ploy to build up its art programming quota without risking exposing the great British public to too much arty stuff. The British Broadcasting Corporation had entered the big bad world of international money. An illusion of course because the BBC is funded by taxation, the Television Licence which every TV owning household has to pay no matter what channel they choose to watch.

I was fortunate enough to witness a lot of these events first hand, making arts programmes for ITV, then Channel Four and the BBC in what has now become known as “the good old days.”

I was someone who benefited from that balancing act in an independent sector where arts programmes really could exist and new ideas actually could be risked. I was responsible for a number of arts documentaries in those days, some of which which sat in the slot that The South Bank Show left open when it took its break. They were heady days and I was highly privileged to play my part. They were the days before making arts programmes, South Bank Show apart, really meant producing shows for Channel Four or the BBC with a lot of international co-production money.

The last big ITV arts series I produced reached an audience on a Sunday night of five and a half million viewers across the nation. I was very pleased, even though ratings were never flashed as a warning even in those days. A senior management figure in ITV said, whimsically, that the series had been watched by every single member of Britain’s chattering classes.

Heigh-ho! So much for those young man’s dreams of bringing the arts to a mass audience.

Melvyn Bragg is now a national institution – one of the few institutions in fact that Margaret Thatcher left in place. He sits with the Anglican bishops in the House of Lords, well, that is unfair, I assume he still supports Labour, and he is the last surviving maker of arts programmes on Britain’s main independent channel.

The South Bank Show has a distinguished reputation. It has “done” most of the great names in Arts and Entertainment over those thirty one years. Melvyn Bragg has conducted most of the interviews and he always pops up at the beginning of each show with his characteristically nasal voice and alarmingly buffoned hair which, unlike ITV, shows no sign of aging.

Being a national treasure has meant that he was a difficult figure for ITV to ditch, he was also a fig leaf covering the channel’s otherwise artistic nakedness. The programme format may have erred too much on the side of Melvyn-Meets-The Also-Greats but it worked and being interviewed on it was a bit like receiving a gong from Her Majesty the Queen or a Life Achievement Award at the Oscars.

Long gone are the days when Arts documentaries were truly adventurous in film-making terms or “edgy” in that way that did more than merely celebrate well-worn talents. Even so, the South Bank Show kept the arts slot, an increasingly late one, open on a channel which is now in danger of sinking into being just another satellite station amongst many.

That it survived for thirty-one years is an achievement for Melvyn Bragg but it is also a sign of the tiredness in British television which has been unable to find another winning formula for arts programming and shows very little inclination to try.

If ITV don’t replace the series with something equally prestigious, Lord Bragg, as he now is, will raise difficult questions in the House of Lords but it may well be much too late. He is said to have resigned because of the low budget he was offered for the next series.

Reading this you would think that the arts have died in Britain but then you look around and see that a new production of Becket’s challenging play Waiting for Godot has sold out in London’s West End, that the London Symphony Orchestra is playing to full houses and exhibitions at our main art galleries have queues which are sometimes in danger of stopping the traffic.

The arts are by no means dead in this country, in fact each new generation of Britons, no matter what you read in the papers, is better educated than the last. Maybe they have just decided that watching television is just plain boring now that it is made to appeal to some imaginary low brow, possibly brain-dead, audience of “common people”.

OK, watching Melvyn chat to glittering celebrities, just as he has done in London’s Groucho Club these thirty one years, may not be that exciting but it will be a tragedy for this country of over sixty million people if television gives up the idea of bringing new ideas to anyone more than that chattering class of five and a half million.

Lord Reith, the founding force behind the BBC is much ridiculed for his paternalism, his puritanism and his austerity but his dream of taking knowledge out from the exclusive domain of the elite and making it available to everyone was a noble one. He wanted to unite the nation in knowledge and, as that 16th Century sage, Francis Bacon said, Knowledge is Power.

Maybe we will have to look elsewhere for that knowledge, maybe television is now too much in the hands of nervous, unoriginal managers only daring to repeat tired formulas until, like the South Bank Show, they atrophy and die.

A new generation of Britons is indeed looking elsewhere. It is united with like minded folk across the world by the internet and, like the Chinese government fears, on the worldwide web, knowledge could really, for once, be power.

Meanwhile, Melvyn Bragg was on the radio this morning discussing Magna Carta with three historians in his regular series In Our Time. You can pick it up on the internet. I am sure that we haven’t heard the end of one of the media’s great and irrepressible personalities.

On the radio and on the web, Melvyn, it just doesn’t matter what colour hair you have. All power to your elbow.

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