Is there a crisis of confidence in arts broadcasting?

Kirsty Wark and Martha Kearney face a cultural movement of their own as the BBC shunts The Review Show to a monthly slot on BBC4. Picture: Alan Peebles
Kirsty Wark and Martha Kearney face a cultural movement of their own as the BBC shunts The Review Show to a monthly slot on BBC4. Picture: Alan Peebles
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Does rationing The Review Show to once a month represent a crisis of confidence in arts broadcasting at the BBC, asks Anna Burnside

It’s enough to put the chattering classes off their Waitrose Essentials halloumi: the BBC is shunting The Review Show from its current weekly slot on BBC2 to a monthly berth on BBC4. No longer will they be able to “borrow” bons mots on the Man Booker shortlist, or the latest big opening at the Tate, to recycle over dinner on Saturday evening.

The BBC claims that, far from pensioning off The Review Show, it is presenting the show with a great new opportunity. The new version, which will still be made at Pacific Quay in Glasgow and presented by Kirsty Wark or Martha Kearney, will be an hour long rather than 45 minutes. It will be broadcast at the primetime slot of 8pm on Sundays rather than late on Friday night. The changes are part of a package of changes to rebrand BBC4 as the corporation’s ­primary arts channel – and of Delivering Quality First, the £700 million programme of ongoing cuts.

The corporation has tried to put a positive spin on the move, pointing out that BBC1 and BBC2 will only lose “a couple of hours” of arts coverage a year. BBC4 controller Richard Klein said last week: “It is a fantastic opportunity to reconsider how you might put topical arts out, rather than a slot at 11.20pm on a Friday night, which isn’t particularly prominent.”

Not everyone sees it like this. Allowing The Review Show to limp along on a ­Cinderella channel has pleased virtually no one. Mike Bolland, former head of arts at the BBC and at Channel 4 describes it as “like taking an old dog out into the middle of Rannoch Moor and leaving it there, then going home and telling the children it’s having a wonderful time in its new country home.

“It’s disingenuous of the BBC to spout off that this is a triumph because it will now be on at peak time. All this means is that it’s up against all the other peak time shows. I fear this one may not limp back from Rannoch Moor.”

Bolland also points out that dumping a show with high-profile women hosts would be politically sensitive. “It has two middle-aged female presenters, so it might be running scared after Miriam O’Reilly won her age discrimination case against the BBC.”

He doesn’t see the show’s move to Glasgow in 2010 as an important ingredient in its decline. “I don’t think that’s the main reason, but it’s a contributory factor,” says Bolland. “Guests don’t want to do the journey and it costs money to fly them up and put them in a hotel overnight. They are having the same problems with the Breakfast Show in Salford.”

Pat Kane, musician and cultural commentator, is an occasional guest on The Review Show. He thinks the move north is the least of its problems. “The show has been on a death dive since the days of Mark Lawson and his fantastic crew of opinionators. I also think it was wrong for the show to have two news-oriented anchors. In my experience, any reasonably elaborate line of argumentation got shut down in order that they could move through their clipboard agenda.”

The geographical shift did little, says Kane, to alter the London-centric nature of the show. “I remember being on a panel which included Toby Young, David Aaronovitch and Anne McElvoy. It was like being pistol-whipped by tethered iPads in the toilets at Soho House. Very strange to take a minicab back to Coatbridge after that experience.”

So if The Review Show – which has been around in different guises for 20 years – is in its death throes, what could replace it? Is it the format, the panelists or the presenters who need to change? Does it need to be more in-depth, along the model of The South Bank Show, or more pacey?

TV critic Graeme Virtue, who contributes to STV’s Moviejuice show, thinks round table discussions work well. “I’ll always have a soft spot for that format: live, late-night discussion of culture after a green room with a decent bar. It’s like The Word for people who’ve read, or at least skimmed, Balzac. It’s more visceral and combative than printed reviews, so it can be thrillingly immediate, if not necessarily lasting.

“It feels like the BBC want to tailor BBC4 to go toe-to-toe with Sky Arts. ­Instead I’d like to see BBC4 do what they’re doing with Top Of The Pops to other old shows such as Bookmark and Did You See?”

Writer and critic Hannah McGill, ­another Review Show contributor, thinks radio ­offers an alternative model for ­culture coverage. “Radio 4 offers lots of good ­examples of how to do discussion programmes.”

Virtue agrees: “The most interesting and inventive arts show on the BBC is Radio 4’s Front Row, which is short but daily – if they could apply some of that fleetness and imagination to their BBC4 plans, they might attract an audience.”

Kane, while maintaining that ­“Radio 3’s Night Waves is the best regular arts show in the UK,” thinks the future lies elsewhere. “On the web there are no ­boring, mediocre broadcasting constraints on time, topic or participants. My podcasts app on my iPhone gives me a rich, globally sourced conversation about arts and ideas, wherever, whenever and for as long as I want.

“I do think there’s a big appetite for smart, passionate, expert talk about culture, current affairs, technology and lifestyle. I just don’t think that broadcast telly, with its prim wee middlebrow formats, is the place to do it any more.”

Twitter: @MsABurnside