The Culture Show

Thursday, March 3, 2005 by

It was a little over a year ago that OTT was busy lamenting the absence of a decent choice of programmes on TV at 7pm. The solace on that occasion, Bruce Forsyth’s expert return to primetime prancing and quizzing in Didn’t They Do Well?, proved all too-fleeting. Pretty soon the same safety blanket of stubborn scheduling resumed. There’s been no sign of more Bruce either. For most of the last few months, the best thing to watch at 7pm on a weeknight has been Challenge TV’s inspired plundering of Central Television’s archives in the shape of Bullseye, Blockbusters and Bob Monkhouse era Family Fortunes.

Where’s the variety, the irreverence, the mix-and-match frippery that sets the evening off to a good-natured but essentially disposable, not-too-heavyweight start? Where’s the sorbet between the appetiser-esque pot pourri of regional news and the gristle of the big soap, drama series or feature film? Where, in other words, is the magazine show? This once cherished format underwent a period of ritual disgracing in the early 1980s thanks to the decline of Nationwide and its replacement with the short-lived and rotten Sixty Minutes. Topical chat, the magazine show’s more freewheeling nephew, flourished for a while as an alternative, before it too stalled thanks to an air of diminishing returns (Wogan) or downright ubiquity (Tonight With Jonathan Ross).

Since then, nothing. All those multiple variations on the Watchdog brand – hectoring crusader-presenters shouting down nonplussed captains of industry on behalf of unlikeable members of the public and their petty concerns – trampled on the magazine show’s grave throughout the 1990s. Richard and Judy rekindled some of the ashes to create something undeniably entertaining but utterly different, a programme where the magazine features and topical chat were of and about the hosts themselves. Even five had a go by way of Live With … Chris Moyles.

So it’s been something of fond surprise to find that BBC2′s fledgling arts strand, The Culture Show, has started entertaining more than a few traces of either genre. It’s by no means a showcase for especially overt or full-on exhibitions of topical chat or the magazine, but, well, it’s getting there. And at 7pm on a weeknight that’s not to be dismissed lightly.

Imagine if this could be the seed of the revival, the advent of the much hoped-for (by at least one viewer) re-emergence of early evenings as a space for proper doing-the-pots telly. For unlikely as it may seem, this is what The Culture Show most closely resembles. It may have been born out of a Charter-conscious Governors-imposed gesture towards some vague notion of “traditional” BBC arts programming, but thank goodness it’s nowhere like traditional BBC arts anything. In fact it’s about as far removed from the lofty talk-ins of Monitor or Face to Face and even their 1980s equivalent The Late Show. No earnest studio-bound perorations on ecclesiastical ethics, Mesopotamian sculptures or, erk, world music here. Instead: “Is the great British novel drowning in froth?” and “What’s your favourite font?”

There should always be a programme on at 7pm which you can watch while doing something else. It’s invariably that hour when you’re either in the business of finishing up (the dishes, your tea, your homework) or about to start out (of the house, on a job, on an evening in front of the TV set). Programmes that require undivided attention, and which make you feel foolish for not giving it, should not be the only thing on offer – unless we’re to throw in the towel and do without telly altogether.

Hence The Culture Show, through a mixture of default and design, makes for something approaching textbook “junction point” TV. You can arrive and depart at anytime and not feel wrong for doing so. Moreover, the whole programme is designed to withstand, if not encourage, an itinerant audience. Its patchwork line-up, roster of friendly faces, what’s-coming-up menus and absence of any long-winded or recurring obsessions caters for wandering minds and magpie mentalities. It’s the tried and tested mould that says if you don’t like this, another item will be along in a few minutes. It’s also, to all intents and purposes, the formula of the classic magazine show.

Of course the programme doesn’t market or carry itself in quite the same way as the true magazine. It’s not a mainstream proposition for starters. It doesn’t feature any particularly well-known presenters. Because its leanings towards the capricious and the wry seem to have happened almost by accident, at times it’s clearly uncomfortable at the thought of possibly appearing too whimsical or, heaven forbid, unconventional. Some of its reporters seem more preoccupied with themselves than their assignments. The fact each programme is made up of short films and interviews helmed and directed by completely different people inevitably encourages unevenness in tone. The one factor that is supposed to bring consistency to the show, its linking presenter, changes every week and only pops up for 60 seconds at a time.

But for all these things The Culture Show wears its antecedents on its sleeve with remarkable flair. This latest edition, the 13th (as rather self-consciously advertised in the opening titles), got off to a cracking start with an interview with Woody Allen. No intense, fussily-shot interrogation this, however; rather a relaxed and rambling conversation filmed on a Venice hotel balcony, with the reporter Lawrence Pollard’s thoughtful, unobtrusive questions inviting genuinely interesting and lengthy answers from the film-maker, accompanied where relevant by classic clips. Next came a straightforward opinion piece: writer Tim Lott arguing there’s too much fiction being published at the moment (“When was the last time you read a book that was as scabrous and as funny as Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm?”) and generously allowing right of reply to half a dozen authors who, naturally, said the opposite.

It was followed by a film on how the painter Francis Bacon used assorted photographs and newspapers as sources for his work. Reporter Andrew Graham-Dixon visited an exhibition and expressed delight at how “I even found a little bit of me!” in the shape of a Bacon collage containing one of his reviews for The Independent. Best of all, though, was a profile of veteran typographer Matthew Carter, creator of dozens of fonts including Tahoma and Verdana, who was glimpsed working in his studio and wandering about London commenting on famous lettering styles (“Yes, that was designed by a friend of mine”). His favourite font of all time? “This morning it’s Century Expanded.”

On top of all this was a round-up of the week’s arts news, previews of new releases, an interview with Jacqueline Wilson – just as easily eloquent as when OTT last saw her on Blue Peter – and a profile of an exhibition in Burnley of photos of Muslim schoolchildren dressed in the traditional hijab.

Not all of the programme was equally interesting, but then that wasn’t the point. It was varied and offbeat enough to cover as much ground as it could without feeling contrived. The most intriguing thing of all, though, is that when The Culture Show began last year it was nowhere near this fresh and entertaining. It’s already mutated into the closest we’ve got to a genuine magazine show on TV at the moment. Plus it feels right at home at 7pm. Who knows in what guise it’ll eventually end up? The omens, at any rate, look good: next week it’s Robert Crumb and Tony Wilson.


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