Apollo Magazine (UK)
From the Archives Robert O’Byrne on art and television
Both during and since Britain’s recent general election, the culture of the BBC has been subject to much scrutiny, not least the state of its political impartiality. The word ‘culture’ can now be interpreted in any number of ways, but as a glance through past issues of Apollo makes clear, it used to mean only one thing: high art. The BBC’s cultural contributions used also to be very much at the upper end of the artistic spectrum, as a piece published here 70 years ago, in March 1950, demonstrates.
Television at the time was still a relatively new medium. Regular broadcasts had begun in the 1930s but by 1939 these reached no more than an estimated 20,000 households. The service was then suspended for the duration of the Second World War and recommenced only in 1946, with the BBC maintaining a monopoly until 1955, when Independent Television, or ITV, was launched.
As W. Sydney Robinson’s amusing book The Last Victorians (2014) makes clear, the attitudes of the BBC long remained those of its founding father, John Reith. Accordingly even in the 1950s, programmes continued to adopt a de haut en bas approach, the station’s primary function being to educate rather than entertain its audience. Only gradually did styles of presentation relax, but even so a strong pedagogic element remained: one of the BBC’s popular successes in the 1950s was Painting for Housewives, presented by Mervyn Levy (a series this publication did not deign to notice).
‘The New and the Old: Television Notes’ was written for Apollo by Bryan Bellamy Gardner, a balletomane who mainly contributed to The Dancing Times. From the start, Gardner’s tone was laudatory. ‘For collectors of antiques,’ he began, ‘seekers of knowledge and lovers of all things rare and beautiful, television is the newest – and possibly most valuable – means of seeing and hearing of the treasures of the world.’ He went on to discuss the various means by which the BBC opened viewers’ eyes to those treasures, thanks to broadcasts like the monthly Round the Galleries. ‘The way in which this is televised,’ he enthused, ‘is important because it does show how an informational programme can be made interesting not only to the artistically inclined observer, but also to the ordinary layman.’
The format sounds straightforward: a studio would be fitted out to look something like a gallery with work on display. The presenter would then walk into shot and proceed to describe what could be seen on screen before briefly discoursing on the artist’s working method and its results. If something were permitted to appear on the BBC, its inherent merits could be taken as understood; the presenter’s judgement was not open to question. This was a style of presentation that would reach its apogee at the end of the following decade with Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. By the time that series appeared, a television set had become the norm in every home, and programmes were broadcast in colour, but unquestioning faith in an oracular authority could no longer be taken for granted. Hence an Apollo editorial in April 1969 entitled ‘In Defence of Civilization’ concluded: ‘this country, and indeed Europe as a whole, requires not a further wave of cynicism and nihilism but the waging of a fierce struggle on behalf of those magnificent values which are so embedded in the traditions of the West.’
Back in 1950, the embedment of those traditions looked far more secure, at least as far as Gardner was concerned. Moving on from Round the Galleries, he briefly touched on occasional transmissions devoted to subjects the ‘average viewer’ was unlikely ever to see, such as the wall paintings of the Lascaux caves. He then turned his attention to consider another monthly broadcast, Private View. This appears to have been little different from Round the Galleries, other than that instead of being drawn from temporary exhibitions, the works under consideration were to be found in national institutions such as the British Museum. ‘The first programme,’ Gardner informed readers, ‘featured such objects as the Gold Cup used by the Kings of France, ancient Egyptian relics, and some of the valuable documents from the Manuscript Department.’ A compère would introduce the item and then an expert in the relevant field would speak of its history, point out finer details and explain why it was considered so important. ‘The expert is able to talk fluently on his subject,’ Gardner writes, before loftily observing that ‘it is sometimes necessary to keep the talk down to an earthly level which the average viewer will be able to understand.’ Whatever its political leanings, it is impossible to imagine the culture of the BBC today permitting such attitudes. Ⓐ