Wednesday, November 24, 2004 by

What links Jamie Cullum, The Darkness, Iggy Pop, Ruth Rendell, veteran satirist Michael Frayn and a bunch of 1950s rock and roll tunes? Aside from resembling the kind of line-up you’re likely to find on the present-day Parkinson, they’re all subjects tackled in the current series of The South Bank Show. They’re also the only subjects being tackled in the current series of The South Bank Show.

Maybe Melvyn Bragg feels he’s already devoting enough attention to other cultural topics such as political and philosophical history (In Our Time), language and anthropology (The Routes of English) and matters of ethics and faith (any number of religion-based talk shows in the small hours) to give them any more of his precious time. Maybe it’s the whims of the ITV1 bosses. Maybe it’s simply that nobody feels interested in making films about anyone other than contemporary English-speaking mainstream entertainment practitioners. Then again, given The South Bank Show‘s on so late nowadays, nobody will be watching, so who cares?

Well, such considerations start to warrant concern whenever Melvyn embarks on another of his rounds of BBC-bashing, as he did the other week: plying the hustings to trumpet the latest series of his lumbering arts showcase, gamely insisting he’s a “big fan” of whatever up-and-coming performer he’s treated to an interview this time, and banging the drum for the amount of soaps on television, or the enduring appeal of a grizzled rock star still on the circuit, or an ancient British composer who’s just turned 95 … seemingly anything at all, in fact, as long as it’s of the present and in the public eye.

Not to say things would be improved by turning the clock back to the programme’s early days, when biographies of obscure Central European modernist painters or an analysis of the harpsichord works of Renaissance composer Scarlatti forever rubbed shoulders with Melvyn’s set-piece conversations with the great and the good. But at least there was a bit more variety then, with the populist finding its way into the schedule as much as the obscure. In each series there was usually something that caught your eye, or for which you purposefully set the video.

Of late, however, The South Bank Show entertains the air of the ninth or tenth supplement in a broadsheet Sunday newspaper: stubbornly tucked away somewhere hard to find, cumbersome, superfluous. The more Melvyn talks it up, the more it feels unnecessary. It’s almost as if it loses credibility in inverse proportion to the amount of time its host (and, lest we forget, editor) invests in reminding people it’s still on screen. In any case, for all the energy he expends trying to contest the programme is a going concern and a irremovable fixture in the ITV family, it’s rarely on at the same time two weeks running, often disappears for weeks on end for no reason, and continues to get shoved out long past 11pm. Even its most shamelessly middle-of-the-road editions fail to pick up even one million viewers, but at that hour of the night it’s no surprise.

Which is where the BBC’s Imagine … strand surfaces to confront Melvyn and his non-stop sales pitches, and where in turn Melvyn insists he didn’t really mean what he said about the Beeb all along and merely has everybody’s – the viewing nation’s – better interests at heart, the old bugalugs.

The greatest advantage Imagine … enjoys over The South Bank Show is its profile. It receives generous publicity and cross-promotion, has a flexible running time to fit the nature of its subject, and above all gets broadcast when enough people are still awake to see it: just after the 10 O’clock news. None of which Melvyn can claim for his own stamping ground. Imagine … also exudes the feeling of being treated with respect and dignity by its superiors, again a quality sorely absent from its commercial counterpart. Of course, it’s only been around 18 months or so, and was conjured up somewhat pragmatically to plug a hole in the BBC’s arts coverage. But there’s nothing wrong with that. So what if the Governors explicitly ordered the Corporation to create the series? That’s their job.

Conceived and developed as a flagship effort, it has certainly lived up to its status in one regard: its subject matter, which has ranged across the world to consider pertinent cultural figures, items and movements both past and present. This week’s edition, the first in a new series, devoted 70 generous minutes to the life of American playwright Arthur Miller, denizen of many an English Literature school syllabus and still producing new work at the age of 89. A thoughtful assembly of archive clips, historical footage and new interviews added up to a lucid testimony of the man’s significance, leaving you interested enough – as all decent documentaries do – to stay tuned right to the end and to take something away from the programme, be it reflections on Miller’s legacy or the desire to find out more for yourself.

A contrary aspect of Imagine …‘s format, however, lies within the one thing it shares most obviously with its cousin: an avuncular yet headstrong presenter, themselves a grizzled TV executive of yore, who appears determined to get into shot as much as possible. When he was editor of Arena Alan Yentob used to spend as much time in front of the camera as behind, a trait that actually predated Melvyn’s own, so the fact the man is now back indulging in similar behaviour again shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Yet the manner in which, in this episode, Alan often phrased his questions in such a way as to call maximum attention to himself, or sat self-consciously across from his guest with reams of paperwork and books on his lap as if to confer authenticity on his behaviour, inevitably diluted the programme’s tone (while perversely heightening its impact: the sequence where Alan was seen not only driving up to Miller’s house but then walking dolefully up the garden path, at the top of which sat the playwright on a tiny bench looking like an embarrassed equerry, will stick in the mind for a long time).

At times we heard more of what Alan thought about Miller, and what we should think about Miller, than what the writer had to say about, well, anything else. Still, there were points where the double act worked, usually when Miller was in control: taking Alan for a drive in a battered jeep to where he’d once planted the seed of a willow, and where the huge tree now stood slowly dying; or when the pair settled down to watch some of the American Election coverage and we could eavesdrop on their small talk.

The authored documentary always stands or falls on how much you mind the author reminding you of their presence. In this case, on balance, it worked, thanks to the subject being captivating enough to wrestle your focus repeatedly onto their own contribution and countenance. Plus Alan Yentob is, at the end of the day, infinitely more likable than Melvyn Bragg, not least because he can get away with using words like “burlesque”.

Now if only Imagine … had as decent a title sequence as The South Bank Show, it will have neutralized its rival’s one remaining big gun. Who’d have thought the future of British TV arts programming might come down to a theme tune by Andrew Lloyd Webber?


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