Imagine... Art In Troubled Times BBC1 A Town Called Eureka Sky One
NOW that the South Bank Show's days are numbered, Alan Yentob's Imagine… has become the flagship arts programme on British TV – surprisingly, because the bearded BBC executive's series initially seemed like a vanity project. But, despite some controversy over inserting his nodding head into interviews at which he hadn't been present, he, or whoever actually puts the programmes together, has actually turned out some excellent and quirky films.
This latest, a timely two-part exploration of how recession affects the arts, was a big weighty slice of history and argument wrapped up with some rather lovely images. It looked back at President Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, where the US government didn't just invest in infrastructure projects such as bridges and dams but in art, too, paying all sorts of starving artists a salary to produce things to cheer and inspire everyone else.
The idea of government-sponsored art sounds awful, until you consider what the commercially funded, fashion-led art culture of the recent boom years brought us: Tracey Emin's bed, Big Brother, James Blunt and the movies of McG and Brett Ratner. Compare what came out of the Great Depression in the US alone: the murals of Diego Rivera, The Grapes Of Wrath, Woody Guthrie, the films of Frank Capra, the photography of Margaret Bourke-White – and Orson Welles, who made his name with a New Deal-funded black production of Macbeth and whose later "cuckoo clock" speech in The Third Man comes to mind.
They had grinding poverty and a looming world war, but they produced all that and more. We had 20 years of giddy prosperity and what did it get us? Twitter. Okay, that's a sweeping generalisation, but of such things arguments are made. And Yentob's programme was not quite advocating a wholesale imitation of Roosevelt's methods; for a start, things are rather different over here. By hiving off the British experience to next week's part two to concentrate on the US model, a lot of inevitable questions were left hanging.
As was fairly pointed out, state funding brings no guarantee of any quality – would people just milk it and churn out rubbish? And who decides what rubbish is, anyway? The prospect of artists feeling obliged to toe an official line would also be tricky – can you bear to imagine the kind of state art someone like Harriet Harman, for instance, would regard as acceptable?
Yet in raising the idea and suggesting the comparison, Imagine… made an important contribution to the debate over what and who the arts are for. While its second instalment should be interesting, a proper follow-up discussion could be even more so.
A Town Called Eureka is a peculiar series: a kind of cross between Twin Peaks and Scooby-Doo. It is about a reg'lar guy who's the sheriff of a small town where everyone else is a scientific genius secretly working for the government to build magical inventions. They speak fluent technobabble, he scratches his head and says "gee, shucks" but he always saves the day, because, of course, reg'lar guy common sense always beats geeky brains, a moral George Bush would no doubt have appreciated.
No-one, however, seems to have noticed one of the main scientists is played by Joe Morton, who invented Skynet and led to robots taking over the world in The Terminator, so it will probably all end badly.