TV UK, 26 April

'TV doesn't seem to do in-depth or advanced programmes about the arts, never mind stretching itself as a medium for them.'

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

There is nothing I like better on a Saturday evening than to settle into my weekly bath with a good opera Live from the Met on BBC Radio 3. (When I say ‘weekly bath’, don’t forget that I also have a shower most Wednesdays.)

This week (28 April) is Verdi’s Otello, but it is preceded in the afternoon by The Marriage of Figaro on TV (BBC2, 1.30pm). Sadly, the widescreen TV won’t fit into my pathetically small bathroom.

Still, Figaro is a jolly way to spend an afternoon. Like the radio operas, this one is from the New York Metropolitan, which means an allstar cast and an all round snazzy production. The only downside is the audience’s appalling habit of applauding after each Act. This is particularly annoying on TV. I mean, yeah, bravo: get on with it already. It is sad that opera on TV seems to be as much about the occasion as the thing itself.

In fact, opera and TV could be perfect for each other given the right approach. There’s a great episode of Seinfeld (very) loosely based on The Barber of Seville that gives a taste of the fun the two forms could have together. A full-scale production of something like Figaro, with multiple locations, clever editing and special effects could be an explosive bit of TV. And Wagner: there’s a challenge!

This performance of Mozart’s little offering follows last week’s Art that Shook the World in which the soprano Barbara Bonney sang the opera’s praises. This is part of a series of programmes in which individuals with a passion for a particular work of art explain its importance. So far we have had Tom Paulin on Ulysses; Saturday 28 April is Renny Bartlett on Battleship Potemkin (BBC2 at 7.20pm) and the following week is Andrew Graham-Dixon on Claude Monet’s Impression: Sunrise.

Inevitably these programmes vary in quality, but the general idea is a good one. The programmes serve as informative and inspiring introductions to modern literature, opera, film and painting as much as to the specific works in question. They are very much introductions though. TV doesn’t seem to do in-depth or advanced programmes about the arts, never mind stretching itself as a medium for them.

Aside from introductions, the other common type of arts programme is the celebration of institutions. The acclaimed docusoap The House took us inside the Royal Opera House, and the BBC can be relied on to broadcast high-profile Proms concerts every year. This week sees the anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall. There is a documentary to mark the occasion on Wednesday night (BBC Knowledge, 7pm) and a themed evening on BBC2 on 12 May. Essentially these are a reminder that the hall is still there, still keeping up the good work. Well, somebody has to, right?

As it did last year, Channel 4 will broadcast the Turner Prize award ceremony in December, and will no doubt back up the occasion with a documentary or two about the visual arts. More mischievously, the channel puts the wind up the art world with Faking It on Tuesday 1 May (10pm). The programme takes a painter and decorator with no artistic knowledge or experience and tries to pass him off as the next big thing in British art.

Essentially, Faking It plays to all our secret (or not so secret) doubts about contemporary art by parading a naked emperor for all to see (or not). You don’t have to be a total philistine to see the fun in this. It’s conceptual art about conceptual art; and there’s still time to nominate it for the Turner Prize should you be so inclined.

Not that it stands much chance against ‘Widescreen TV stuck in bathroom door’. That piece is so…true.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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