The Daily Telegraph
Radio 4’s arts shake-up is a game of spot the difference
Who is Radio 4’s arts coverage for and what should we expect from it? The station has just announced a shake-up of its arts and culture output, allocating more airtime to some programmes, and creating some new strands focusing on film, music and long-form cultural interviews. And yet, the refreshed coverage all feels rather familiar. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find much that’s even new about it.
The Film Programme has been axed and replaced with a new film programme, but this one is called Screenshot, presented by Mark Kermode and Ellen E Jones. But Kermode already presents an excellent and widely adored film show on Radio 5 Live with Simon Mayo. Will this just be more of the same, but on Radio 4?
The sense of deja vu is strong. A music programme called Add to Playlist will be presented by Cerys Matthews and Jeffrey Boakye. But again, like Kermode, Matthews is already a regular voice elsewhere on the BBC. There is to be a new extended interview series for cultural figures called This Cultural Life – the title of which must be slightly annoying for Radio 3, home of interview series This Classical Life – presented by John
Wilson, who has until now presented
Front Row for two decades.
Front Row, meanwhile, is being extended by 15 minutes, presented by Tom Sutcliffe and Samira Ahmed, with a promise to retain its critical bite. Let’s hope so. All of these changes come from Radio 4 controller Mohit Bakaya, whose first BBC job was working on
Front Row, and who clearly still carries a torch for it. You’d hope that this means he would want to safeguard it as a place of serious critical engagement with the arts, all the more needed now that Tom Sutcliffe’s former arts review programme, Saturday Review, is confirmed to have died a death.
But, with the exception of a few fresh-faced co-presenters fastened securely next to BBC veterans, perhaps to ensure they don’t venture too far off-leash, what’s actually new here? On the evidence of the announcements so far, it seems as though Radio 4 arts is intended for people who already listen to Radio 4, don’t listen to any other radio (otherwise they’d already know where to find Matthews and Kermode), and already know what they like. But that may not be enough. People who love the arts tend to be wide-ranging and voracious in their tastes. It takes a lot to satisfy them, to say nothing of the task of drawing new culturally minded listeners to what Radio 4 is offering.
There’s precious little in the plans to surprise or challenge us. Will the coverage provoke, explore and ask difficult questions? It’s hard to say. The newly announced programmes all have very good broadcasters working on them (Wilson, Sutcliffe and Ahmed, in particular, have impressive broad spectrum knowledge of the cultural scene in this country and beyond) and they will make enjoyable radio, but one cursed thought keeps coming to mind: is Radio 4 playing it too safe?
Intriguingly, in the same week that Radio 4 announced this plan for arts and culture it also aired a show called Safe Space (Radio 4, Thursday), exploring the growing obsession with “safe spaces” in the arts.
It was a masterpiece of documentary radio, produced with deft style and real balance by Simon Hollis. There was no presenter; instead, Hollis brought together a range of arts practitioners and psychologists expressing their views on what a safe space is, and why it has become a growing presence in rehearsals and performances.
Daniel Kramer, recently the artistic director of English National Opera, said that safe spaces are “essential to how the great institutions must operate… There is a way of creating expressions on stage that do not have to re-traumatise audience members.”
This is an approach shared by director Ola Ince, whose production of Romeo & Juliet at The Globe this summer was accompanied by trigger warnings for audience members.
But Hollis’s finely crafted programme also included views from artists that strongly disagree with the concept of safe spaces in the arts, and those who take a nuanced view. Comic Tom Walker (aka Jonathan Pie), said that a safe space is a place where you’re “protected from things you don’t want to hear.” He worried that the promotion of safe spaces turned the arts into a retreat from the world.
After listening to Hollis’s extraordinary programme on the subject, you have to think: how did we get to this point, where culture is becoming a cosy, cocooning escape from reality? Shouldn’t art be engaging with all the gritty mess of real life from every angle? Shouldn’t good art be at least a little bit dangerous?