March 26, 2014

Are the BBC’s plans for the “strongest commitment to arts in a generation” enough?


"The BBC's new facade" by Andy Worthington via Flickr

“The BBC’s new facade” by Andy Worthington via Flickr

Yesterday the BBC’s director general Tony Hall announced the BBC’s new season of arts, calling it “the strongest commitment to the arts we’ve made in a generation.”

The plans, which span across radio, TV and online include major productions and big names. There will be adaptations of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry VI, blanket coverage of the Hay Festival across TV and radio stations including the younger Radio 6 Music, a new TV series, “The Secret Life of Books” which will focus on Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley, Tom Hollander will play Dylan Thomas in a new dramatization, and online “Books on the BBC” will offer “treasures from the BBC’s TV and radio literary archive”.

“We’re the biggest arts broadcaster anywhere in the world but we want to be even better,” said Hall, as if the point needed to be made after such a showy roll call. Granted these are big names and big events, and it may be that smaller productions aren’t mentioned during such announcements, but behind the name-dropping and grandiose statements, this is fundamentally a boring and conservative offering.

It’s great that the Hay Literary Festival will be covered by the “One Show”, BBC One’s flagship TV show, and on BBC 6 Music, a radio station for younger listeners, two audiences that aren’t usually exposed to serious books content. But Hay is geared toward the biggest, household names in books, and towards those writers who already receive great exposure—usually on the BBC. The fact that pretty much every BBC platform will broadcast from the same literary festival leaves little room for variety: the big writers just get bigger.

This applies to canonical writers too. Do we really need another investigation into Great Expectations? Must we really sit through another TV personality enquiring into the real story behind Frankenstein? There may be a secret life of books but as for these novels, the BBC solved any mystery behind them long ago, and what remains hidden are other great, interesting and unusual works of literature that remain under-explored.

Of course, these works are set-texts in schools across Britain so might be defended for being educative as well as entertaining. But leave that for the classroom, or at least focus on lesser-known works. How did Woolf write The Waves?; what on earth is going on in Mary Shelley’s Mathilda? It’s this stuff that rarely gets taught. We can be thankful, at least, that the BBC’s Shakespeare productions will be of less popular plays, but I wouldn’t put it past them to sneak in a new production of Hamlet before the year is out (actually there’s one on Radio 4 happening all this week.)

The BBC will also team up with the British Museum, the Barbican, the Royal Academy of Arts and others in a new program, “BBC Arts At…” It’s presumably a way to bring the best of British culture, mostly concentrated in London, to the rest of the nation, and to celebrate these institutions and their artistic output. But this, and other such link-ups and live broadcasts from London theatres, is also surely a money-saving measure. Instead of creating its own productions and initiating its own projects, the BBC has found a way of piggybacking on existing ones. The National Theatre’s director Nicholas Hytner and the Tate galleries’ Nicholas Serota are both joining advisory teams: spending big on big names at a time when there isn’t the money or confidence for investing in new talent and taking risks.

However, I am looking forward to the promised online archive; the BBC has an unrivalled wealth of historic programs, from a time when the corporation didn’t just court the canon.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.