Apollo Magazine (UK)

From the Archives Robert O’Byrne on art and television

- Robert O’Byrne

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. Ⓐ

 ??  ?? Kenneth Clark in front of Notre-Dame de Paris, from the BBC television series Civilisati­on (1969)
Kenneth Clark in front of Notre-Dame de Paris, from the BBC television series Civilisati­on (1969)

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