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Judith Bumpus on the launch of the BBC’s new digital arts channel BBC4

Here’s hoping that they keep their trousers

The launch of a new digital TV arts channel, BBC 4, is the biggest media development in Britain this year, and potentially a gain for the arts. It promises to be the thinking person’s niche, but propaganda alone won’t persuade us. Only a consistently high quality of programming will tell. The channel seems to be in the right hands. Roly Keating, an Oxford classics graduate with broad interests in the humanities, is convincing in conversation. I give my verdict on part of his opening menu below.

BBC4 replaces the now defunct BBC Knowledge, with a promise to extend our understanding. Reassuringly, the BBC’s commitment to broadcast at least 230 hours of arts programmes on its analogue channels, BBC1 and 2, and its collaboration with the Open University, continues. Some of BBC4’s output will also be shown on BBC2. At the moment some 40% of TV owners have access to all digital channels. The BBC has not yet released details of 4’s audience figures, but says that its reach for the launch night on 2 March was 7 million (a figure that includes those watching on BBC2 which broadcast simultaneously for the evening). BBC Knowledge received a meagre £8-9 million for 17 hours a day of mainly archival re-runs. BBC4, operating on an enormously enhanced budget of £35 million, transmits six hours of programmes, from 7pm to 1am, including late repeats of the early evening broadcasts. Its funds derive from general efficiencies and the increased licence fee. Cash priority will be given first to major documentary originations, transmitted 9-10 pm, and second to news, current affairs and topical output, 8-9pm. The 9pm documentary slot is where BBC4 is likely to establish its reputation and where visual arts interests will mostly be catered for with programmes on Goya, Michael Landy, Brit Art, and the like.

Following a now established pattern, its programme-makers are 75% in-house, with the rest commissioned from independents. Standards are set high—good news for producers, accustomed to the order for art programmes with a populist, entertaining, touch. “Programmes must be well researched, surprise, delight and challenge their audience,” Mr Keating says. As for level, the channel encourages “debate between experts that a lay audience can enjoy a sense of privileged access to, without compromising the level of discussion.” I put it to him that visual arts programmes frequently failed in this respect, where other disciplines succeeded. In Robert Hughes’s documentary on Goya there had only been one or two hints that he might have taken the subject further. Mr Keating agreed that Goya followed an “A to Z story-line”, but pointed out that the programmes celebrating BBC4’s launchlast month on BBC2 had been carefully chosen to lure a mainstream audience. He hoped that people who came to the channel itself would discover its “distinctive voice”. “Distinctive voice”? “We care about words as much as about what is seen,” Mr Keating emphasised. The first two documentaries broadcast on BBC 4’s launch night sampled its agenda-setting aims to profile emerging artists and those out of the limelight, or offer new takes on well-known artists.

Nadia Haggar directed a lively tale about a man who destroyed everything he owned bar his cat. If the result, “Breakdown” (2001), was a sign of mid-life crisis, as Michael Landy’s girlfriend Gillian Wearing suggested, Landy is through it now. But, ironically, he’s had to buy his world back. As he says: “‘Breakdown’ is something you can pick holes in, and there are holes to be picked in it...I conceived it as an artwork and people think it’s a way of life now, and I should live that life. In the end you end up being some sort of saint for everybody else’s sins. And I don’t want to be ‘cos I’m a sinner. I love sinning”

Michael Landy, the 37-year old son of Irish immigrants, is a natural TV performer. An engaging mixture of canny innocence, of dedication and foolhardiness, he gives the impression of transparent honesty. No wonder his dealers, Karsten Schubert and Thomas Dane, believe almost blindly in his commercially crazy projects. Michael Craig-Martin, Landy’s tutor at Goldsmiths’ College in the 1980s, gives sounder reasons for investing in his ideas. Landy’s “Scrapheap services” (1995) was an extraordinary installation showing innumerable paper people being suctioned into a rubbish cart. Dealing with one of the issues of the time, it could have been “worthy, but empty in the hands of someone who didn’t know how to transform it into some very particular experience,” Craig-Martin says. “Michael is able to create a visual image of something which is itself a social abstraction.”

Haggar made a splendid record of Landy’s culminating act of social protest, now memorialised in a landfill site. But the larger themes of consumerism and waste, and the relation of the artist to consumer society in general, were not explored. Although considerable thought has been given to the embarrassment of riches, it was barely aired here.

Words counted for more in Goya: crazy like a genius, Robert Hughes’s retelling of the story in the light of his near-fatal accident. His nightmarish visions made him think again about how Goya’s stone deafness might have affected his sudden change from Court Painter to a creator of black, introspective images. Mr Hughes is a superb narrator with a vivid conversational tone and turn of phrase: of the Chapman brothers’ echo of Goya’s “Big risk with dead man” from the Disasters of War: “Compared to the original —with colour added—it’s Barbie doll Madame Tussauds”; before Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba: “A visiting Frenchman once remarked...that ‘there was not a hair on her head that failed to excite desire’—and she was a fairly hairy girl!”; of the “Witches in the air”: “They’re gobbling like owls at the flesh of their prey. It’s horrible and totally real, almost mundane—which is part of Goya’s point—just part of the world.” Given the seductive quality of the digital picture, what a pity that Hughes’s “admiration for the formal qualities of the painting” of the Nude Maja are passed over in favour of his feelings of “unmodulated lust”. Paint was only mentioned once when talking movingly about the assassinations of the Third of May: “The blood is paint, but the blood has that kind of scrabbly, scratchy, half-dried quality that looks as though it actually is blood, as though the application of that pigment to the surface was done by the twitching hands of men who were dying.”

This was an old-fashioned, if imaginatively realised, account, approached mainly through biography and subject matter. First-timers would be hooked. If you looked for fresh thinking and debate about Goya, you would have been disappointed.

oThe man who destroyed everything, BBC2 and 4, 2 March. Narrator Chris Tarrant. Editor Paddy Lynas. Director/Producer Nadia Haggar.

o Goya: crazy like a genius, An Oxford Film and Television Production for BBC and RM Associates, BBC 2 and 4, 2 March. Written and presented by Robert Hughes. Executive producers Nicolas Kent and Vanessa Phillips. Producer/Director Ian MacMillan.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Here’s hoping that they keep their trousers'