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Lyn Gardner: BBC drama is built on theatre – it’s time for payback with proper coverage

BBC Broadcasting House. Photo: Deatonphotos/Shutterstock BBC Broadcasting House. Photo: Deatonphotos/Shutterstock
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The BBC’s overall cultural output has often been impressive in recent years. But its coverage of contemporary arts and culture, particularly theatre, has often been either absent or over-concentrated on starry, high-profile arts events.

The BBC’s On Stage season offered a quaint, outdated view of theatre production across the UK, and the once-a-month Radio 4 Opening Night series is no substitute for sustained regional arts coverage.

Coverage is particularly crucial outside London. Critique of the arts – whether by national newspapers or the publicly funded BBC – brings recognition, adding value, status and credibility.

Those making and regularly seeing the  work may be well aware of its quality, but  affirmation from others never hurts. The wealth gap in the arts between London and the  regions is not just about core funding; it is widened by philanthropy and business sponsorship, too.

The BBC has a role to play in supporting the arts through helping increase visibility. At a time when newspapers are facing financial disaster and theatre coverage is one of the first casualties, the BBC should step up to the plate in a way it has neglected in the past. Particularly  because its drama output is the beneficiary of the craft learned by actors and others working in theatre.

There have been odd moments of giving back and innovation in BBC presentation of the arts, most notably the Performance Live strand of programming curated with Battersea Arts Centre. But beyond Radio 4’s Front Row there is often a strong whiff of philistinism around the way BBC editors and presenters approach the arts.

If Radio 5 Live can have sports news every half-hour, why can’t it have a few minutes of arts news too? Just as many people would be interested to know about the casting of Follies or National Theatre Wales’ plans to make a show about the NHS as would want to know who is in the England cricket team.

But apparently while Radio 5 Live boasts about its football coverage, it deems it perfectly acceptable to neglect coverage of the arts.

During the election campaign, one presenter scoffed incredulously when a member of the public said she wanted to talk about the different parties’ policy on culture. He seemed hazy on what constituted culture, finally settling on Madame Tussauds as an example.

So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the theatre world has reacted with such outrage to a controversial interview promoting the launch of Front Row on BBC2, a spin-off from the Radio 4 arts show. The frenzy followed comments in the Radio Times that revealed none of the three presenters – Giles Coren, Nikki Bedi and Amol Rajan – are fans of theatre.

Of course, a presenter doesn’t have to know everything about every subject: with good researchers back-up, all they really need is an ability to ask the right questions off an autocue.

After all, an arts editor on a national newspaper isn’t going to be an expert in all the arts, and will have preferences for some art forms over others. Personal experience tells me that when an arts editor does have a genuine interest in theatre, then theatre will often get a proper slice of the cake in terms of space and coverage. When they don’t, it gets the crumbs.

Will theatre be reduced to the crumbs on the TV version of Front Row? Given their pronouncements about how “inconvenient” they find theatre and the fact that it requires going out in the evening – which they don’t seem too keen on – will the presenters be prepared to travel to Scotland, Wales and all over the UK to see shows? Or will Sloane Square mark the limits of their willingness to travel?

Coren, Bedi and Rajan are not being employed for their expertise but for their personas and the fact they look and sound comfortable on TV. They can of course all learn about theatre while on the job. Nonetheless, I suspect the BBC wouldn’t employ presenters on a gardening programme with minimal expertise about gardening and who declared a dislike of flowers.

It perhaps reflects the fact that increasingly dismissing all theatre – on the grounds that you went once to see one show a very long time ago and didn’t really enjoy it because the seats weren’t comfy – is seen as being perfectly acceptable, even if you are employed on a high- profile BBC arts programme.

If BBC2’s Front Row genuinely embraces the range and scope of available theatre performances taking place around the country, at the very least it will provide an eye-opener to its trio of presenters as to what theatre can and might be.

More to the point, it will prove that our publicly funded broadcaster is at last facing up to its responsibility to serve arts lovers as well as it currently serves sports lovers.

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