Walking down the South Bank last night to the funeral of arts broadcasting on British commercial television, I tripped over a red carpet and asked WTF it was there for.
National Movie Awards, apparently. This is where people who go to multiplexes get to nominate their favourite heart-throbs and win a chance of attending the ceremony. As I am digesting this information, a limo draws up and Tom Cruise comes walking towards me. Some women start screaming and a clutch of bald men rush towards him with photographs to be signed, and posted on e-bay within hours.
Tom, who probably wanted a part in my new film, gave a shrug and did his stuff. He’s a pro. I waved, and walked on to the National Film Theatre where Lord Bragg, Melvyn of the Glens, was presenting the last edtition of his South Bank Show, axed after 33 years and 736 episodes by the visigoths of ITV.
It was a sentimental occasion, the final show consisting of chats with two of Melvyn’s directors, Ken Russell and Tony Palmer, and a short disquisition on his own interviewing technique. Melvyn refused to be maudlin but, as I left the party, someone muttered in my ear, ‘you’re looking at a room full of talented people who will never work again.’
Which is dangerously close to the truth. Arts documentaries are almost dead in the UK. BBC4 has picked up the baton for niche audiences but the mass audience has eluded the BBC which persists with a yoof-oriented Culture Show of no discernable quality and the noisy self-puffery of Alan Yentob’s fawning and visibly compromised Imagine strand (its last edition was a tie-in with a reissued Rolling Stones allbum).
Melvyn could be fawning, too, but he was always informative. As a young man, I would rush home Sunday nights to catch the South Bank Show at 10, avid to learn about artists. It wasn’t always great, as Melvyn readily admitted, but its heart was in the right place. One week it did Harold Pinter, the next Paul McCartney, Tracey Emin or Iggy Pop. I had completely forgotten the early collector’s edition interview with Ingmar Bergman, recalled in Melvyn’s new book of the series, called Final Cut.
The difference between Melvyn and his imitators was always the vocabulary. The South Bank Show was always well scripted, easy on the ear, Melvyn singing its shapely cadences with an agreeable lilt. The Imagine films, by comparison, are verbally incoherent, barely articulate. Yentob habitually mumbles. Melvyn knows what to do with a labial consonant.
The killing of the South Bank Show, after it was pushed over recent years to ever-later slots, was an inevitable piece of corporate vandalism by Peter Fincham, the ITV boss, who performed similar acts while he was in an executive chair at the BBC. A pox on him.
SBS is irreplaceable. Television will never again attract audiences of 4-5 million for living art – or much else, except bloated spectator sports and soap opera. Sic transit media mundi.