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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Too popular by half

By Norman Lebrecht / August 6, 2002

An addition has been announced to the BBC's team of heavyweight intellectual presenters. He is Professor Alan Titchmarsh, the chirpy chap of Gardeners' World, who will be fronting a documentary series on British flora and fauna.

Titchmarsh is a stem or two light on credentials. He left school at 15 with one O-level, in art, and put in a year of further education at a Hertfordshire horticultural college. He may be a brilliant organiser of herbaceous borders, but his authority on the breeding habits of the grass snake is open to challenge.

Dumbing down? That's only half the problem. The BBC, after a decade of trivialisation, is riven with schizoid confusion over how to re-establish itself as a provider of serious information. On the one hand, it recruits Simon Schama to deliver history lessons of polysyllabic erudition and only occasional concessions to triviality and tittle-tattle. On the other, it recruits Rolf Harris of Animal Hospital to present an introduction to art.

It is about to float Alan Yentob, a member of Gregory Dyke's bonus-rich directorate, as presenter of a "heavyweight" arts series designed to counter perceptions of dumbing down. Credible on paper: Yentob, recently appointed chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, was once a respectable arts documentarist - before he joined the Birtian tendency and, as BBC1 controller, decimated arts broadcasting in both extent and content. He, better than anyone, personifies the BBC's cultural confusion - ardent about the arts, but terrified of appearing "elitist".

Paying lip service to the Reithian mission to inform, BBC chiefs are happy to commission serious programmes, so long as the script is reduced to words of two syllables and delivered by a cuddly star. Crack the atom on prime time by all means, but get Robbie Williams to show how it's done.

Last month, the Corporation promised a 40 per cent increase in arts documentaries on BBC1, with an extra £1.8 million to spend. Yesterday it appointed an insider, Franny Moyle, as head of arts commissioning, with a total budget of £50 million. Almost in the same breath, it announced that Rolf Harris had been rehired for art. Harris might, in a certain light, be considered a Renaissance man. A former pop singer, he daubs a fair likeness and can turn his Antipodean tongue to a Latin term that describes the medical condition of a dying pet. He is a popular performer, par excellence. What he is not is a popular enlightener.

The BBC claims that 6.1 million people on average were introduced to art by the master of the didgeridoo. This is hardly surprising, since the series went out at family time on Sundays, with little competition. The test of its educative effectiveness is whether viewers can remember a single penetrative phrase about a painter, or whether any child was enticed, through watching Harris, to pursue a Monet to its hanging place in one of our national galleries.

It seems, to say the least, improbable that an hour of Harris aroused half as much as pub talk as a single phrase of Kenneth Clark - Lord Clark of Civilisation, sometime director of the National Gallery. Harris's skill is to ingratiate himself with a mass audience; the job of a critic or curator is to present the unvarnished truth, heedless of personal popularity.

The BBC would never allow a Sunday golfer to present the Open or Tony Blair to replace John McEnroe in the Wimbledon commentary box. Sport is too important to be entrusted to amateurs. But arts and information have been so degraded that any celeb with a library card can qualify as a presenter.

The BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey, whom I confronted recently on Radio 4's The Message, argues that Rolf "opens the doors of art to as wide an audience as possible". His approach is balanced, she maintains, by documentaries and performances that appeal to "people who are already in the know".

It is a specious defence. Such arts documentaries that the BBC shows nowadays are poisoned by salacious celebrity and relegated to the witching hours. An introduction to Wagner? Sure, so long as it is fronted by a prominent politician. The literature of Bloomsbury? Best perceived through a prism of lesbianism. If this is meant to encourage viewers to explore culture, it would do better to present it naked of such accretions.

What dumbing down and celebritisation achieves is nothing but artlessness. Here's a sample response from Rolf 's website. "Question: What do you prefer, Impressionism or Post-Impressionism?"

"Answer: I've never been much of a one for putting labels on art movements relating to historical time, you know. I mean, I just like the painters that I like. I get a great kick out of Monet's work, and also Van Gogh, and they are completely different from each other." There you have it - the whole of art philosophy-predicated on a pinhead. Alan Yentob would have us believe that millions of viewers will rush from Rolf to the Tate. All the available cultural evidence points to the contrary.

The ultimate proof was delivered last month at the foot of Mount Fuji, where the Three Tenors gave their fourth World Cup concert. Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras justify these orgies of disembodied arias by claiming that they bring new audiences to opera. Every opera house in the world will refute that assertion. There has been no rush to see Turandot since Big Lucy soccerised Nessun Dorma. All that has happened is that Three Tenors compilations sold 10 to 15 million discs, while the rest of classical recording was wiped out. Rather than popularising opera, the Tenors gave millions the misleading impression that opera can be over in three minutes.

By entrusting natural history to a commoner gardener, the BBC is accelerating the process of Rolfisation. Alan Titchmarsh is no ornithologist or herpetologist. He can hardly be trusted on the anatomy of the chaffinch or adder. He is just an enthusiast with a teach-yourself book, the dumb leading the dumber. But to the BBC's commissioners of idiot's-guide programming, celebrity is the supreme authority. Next season, stand by for Charlie Dimmock on Sumerian archaeology.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001