Arena at 30

Saturday, September 3, 2005 by

Of all the ways to celebrate your 30th birthday, proffering viewers a couple of scanned pages from Broadcast magazine is perhaps erring a little too much on the wrong side of decency. In Arena‘s case, it was also to damn a praiseworthy institution with the wrong sort of praise. We didn’t need to see a list of the greatest shows of all time with Arena‘s name on it. Why were we watching this tribute programme, indeed why did the tribute exist in the first place, were it not for what we already accepted about the sparkling pedigree of such a series?

Well, a lot of other obvious key players had turned out to say a lot of other obvious things about the veteran BBC arts show, from its most influential editor Alan Yentob – interviewed behind a particularly titanic white desk – to a battery of producers and directors who’ve jostled to have their work bookended with gently lapping water, see-sawing Brian Eno electronica and the ever-bobbing neon-bottle. Unsurprisingly, one of the very first sequences was of current editor Anthony Wall trying to “find” the bottle in his office, only to discover it half-wrecked and covered in dust. This is, of course, a textbook device in any such commemorative endeavour (“You know, I’m sure I’ve got one of the original Blankety Blank ready sticks down here somewhere”) and as such was fun to behold.

Alongside these predictable eccentricities and the familiar rummage through the vaults we were promised fresh insights and revelations. As if on cue, Yentob proceeded to lean forward across his giant bureau and refer to the programme as having passed through a period of “self-indulgence”. Conveniently, perhaps diplomatically, he failed to mention when this was. Nobody else seemed to know either, or most likely didn’t want to know in case it could be demonstrated to having coincided with their watch.

So the safe way out was to coyly admit that since Arena had been conceived as a showcase for indulgence in the first place, you might as well pick any moment from the previous 30 years. BBC4 viewers might as well have picked any moment from the previous three hours, when we had been treated to some full-length episodes from the series’ library. Just what was the point of that bit in “Masters of the Canvas” where wrestling legend Kendo Nagasaki gave an interminable, immobile interview with the soundtrack deliberately removed, his words appearing – for no immediate reason whatsoever – as subtitles? Or the bit in “Chelsea Hotel” where the viewer was sent on a similarly interminable but all-too-mobile Shining-esque journey from room to room from the vantage of a toddler on a rickety tricycle?

Fortunately, nobody popped up to argue that the fact there was no point at all was precisely the point. To its credit, Arena at 30 was mostly free from bad tempered po-faced ex-employees pontificating at length upon why the programme was at its best when it was trying to do its worst, and how it was no good now they were no longer working at the BBC. Sure, we were offered all the show’s greatest hits for our perusal and estimation, but not as flawless objects of art, rather as a series of experiments that happened to come off.

More than one director conceded they’d set out to make a film with no idea how it would end up. Several testified to the benefits of working for a programme that looked generously upon mistakes. Everyone seemed to appreciate how Arena used to be on every week, and how this meant the pressure was off to deliver consistently high-class efforts.

All of this made for a somewhat refreshing ego-free and upbeat ramble through the archives, albeit one where nobody made any mistakes and nobody had a bad word to say about anyone. In a remarkable display of consistency and selflessness that also handily meant avoiding naming names, all the contributors apportioned blame for Arena‘s titillations and foibles upon, what you believe it, Arena itself. So “the show” managed to do this, upset that or piss off the other, never “Alan” or “Anthony”. Names were confined to carefully-worded tributes (“Alan always had great political nous”), whimsical compliments (“He made my life hell … for months!”) and gushing eulogies – literally, in the case of co-editor Nigel Finch who died in 1995, and who everybody dutifully remembered as if not the most professional then certainly the most visionary member of the team.

This being an entirely in-house tribute it was probably disingenuous to expect anything more robust or incisive, but at least it meant we were spared the in-jokes along with the finger-wagging and score-settling. There was also no room for the sight and sound of regular director Nigel Williams launching into any self-penned unaccompanied odes about people he hates, of the kind witnessed in the recent BBC documentary Understanding John Birt, one of the most toe-curling moments in recent television.

What we did see was a clip of Nigel quarrelling with the writer Jean Genet about why he and the rest of the Arena film crew hadn’t “taken over” his interview in the name of proletarian revolution and “pushed” Genet off his chair. Nigel reflected on how this incident had turned Genet into the person he has the “most respect for” in the whole world. An alternative view was to reflect on how this incident turned Genet into a bit of a fraud and Nigel something of a dunce for falling for such a demented pseudo-intellectual trick. You had to wonder what we were supposed to gain from such frippery, other than a petulant prod in the ribs that yes, this was a TV programme we were looking at and not, say, an antique vase. But at least we were allowed to entertain such an alternative, and were offered the footage in its unflattering, undignified entirety so as to make up our own minds.

The whole sequence neatly epitomised one of Arena‘s greatest strengths: the presentation of a scene or situation free from the clutter of a deliberately cumbersome, pre-determined point of view. It meant we could come away from the clip, indeed from the whole tribute show itself, in awe at its display of artistry and showmanship, or in two minds about its display of artlessness and showing off. Or then again, neither.

It might not be on screen every week anymore, but there’s still the prospect of another Arena around the corner to compensate for or surpass whatever we did or didn’t like about this one. It’s only the floating bottle which stays the same – which, when you think about it, is worth doffing a neon-encrusted 30th anniversary-sized hat for alone.


Comments are closed.