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Putting culture in the public eye

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There was a discreet little launch in a St James gentlemen’s club last week for a new TV heritage series.

Britain’s Secret Homes will be a fascinating look at some extraordinary domiciles around the country, from the third class railway carriage an elderly Cornwalian lives in, to the humble end of terrace Harrogate home of the man who invented cats’ eyes and continued to live in it after his invention made him a multi-millionaire, cramming his top-of-the-range Roller in the makeshift drive way, to the ancient Jew’s House in Lincoln, now a shop, from which the money-lending Jewess owner was dragged to be charged on trumped up charges of coin clipping. The bubbly Bettany Hughes and reverend Michael Buerk will present.

Sadly, though the subject matter is fascinating, the presentation is still the tired old formula of irritating background music bumbling along in case we get bored with history, and squealing lady presenters whose faces demand camera precedence over objects – instead of the starched Michael Portillo and the hysterical Ronnie Ancona as “reporters”, I’d rather have the EH scholars who really know about this stuff. Why do we have to be treated like small boys with attention deficit disorder by TV producers who think that secretly we’d rather be watching Big Brother?

[pullquote]English Heritage needs to get their name and work as much in the public eye as they can this summer, with the Comprehensive Spending Review looming like a behemoth in July when everything is up for grabs again[/pullquote]

But what all these secret homes have in common is that they are listed mostly by English Heritage (the ones in England), which is behind all the interesting stuff. It’s a big departure for EH, switching from the BBC where they made their last big hit with the Restoration series. Simon Thurley, EH’s CEO, is full of admiration for ITV and its factual TV commissioner Katy Thorogood for shifting the company into the cultural sector against the Beeb’s pre-Sky Arts hegemony on cultural broadcasting – even if they can’t trust the material to speak for itself. EH’s equivalents, CADW in Wales, Historic Scotland and the Northern Ireland Heritage Agency, have made offerings too, but it’s EH’s showcase.

The series, initially four one-hour shows, goes out across the summer and is timely. English Heritage needs to get their name and work as much in the public eye as they can this summer, with the Comprehensive Spending Review looming like a behemoth in July when everything is up for grabs again. The last time, two years ago, EH was stuck with the worst settlement of anyone in the sector, a massive 38% cut, which has meant a total rethink of the operation and much valuable talent lost to redundancy.

This time Thurley, like everyone else on the DCMS payroll, has been told to plan for 5%, 10% and 15% cuts, in which there hopes of 5% as a positive result, but fears of another devastating 15%, so the more public airing its operation can get to persuade Mrs Miller and the Cabinet that it’s worth dealing with comparatively lightly.

Expect more high profile from our cultural leaders. Peter “Big Brother” Bazalgette, ACE’s new chair, is well versed in the ways of TV, but there he was on the Radio 4’s Question Time last week, answering questions on all sorts of current stuff except the arts. Which is fine – the likes of Baz, Thurley and other fluent cultural mouthpieces will want to be seen as contributors to the whole national discourse because they are sentient and wise, not because they know about nothing but the arts, but emphasising that the arts are in every part of our lives, even silently. And they need to be supported.

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