Monday, March 31, 2014

The strange case of the BBC's decision to abandon "The Review Show" - a murder mystery

I remember "Late Night Line Up". It was probably the first of the regular "Talking Heads" programmes on The Arts on British television. It was eclectic, often slightly eccentric but always worth watching. It ran for just under ten years in the 1960s and early 1970s. Such programming was low cost but of high perceived value. Intelligent people talking engagingly about The Arts and entertainment. Nothing really quite replaced it until in the 1990s "The Review Show" came along. It's a simple format going back to the earliest days of broadcasting with wireless programmes like "The Brains Trust" . Put three or four articulate, knowledgeable people together on a panel - preferably people with a mix of opinions - and ask them to talk about something. The "something"  for "The Review Show" was The Arts.

Under the chairmanship of first Mark Lawson and later Martha Kearney and Kirsty Wark panels would discuss television, film, exhibitions, the theatre and the rest for half an hour or so, sometimes with filmed extracts of what they had seen, or read or visited. There was nothing distracting about the programme - this format has stood the test of time. The quality of the programme came from the skilled and informed chairmanship of the panel but above all from the quality of the particants. My favourites in recent times have been Sarah Churchwell, Bonnie Greer, Natalie Haynes, Paul Morley and James Delingpole (the latter, a bit of a right wing ranter in his day job, turned out to be engaging and interesting when talking about The Arts!).

The programme started as a once-a-week follow on from Newsnight - it shared Newsnight's brand and followed on without a break. Then it was cut adrift from the current affairs programme and developed its own identity, albeit in the same late night Friday slot on BBC2. A year ago it was removed from BBC2 and transferred to BBC4 and worse it went from being once-a-week to once-a-month. That was the kiss of death. Someone in the Beeb obviously had it in for the programme! 

Quite what was wrong with "The Review Show" escapes me. It can't have cost much to produce - modest fees for the participants and a bit of studio time. In its BBC2 day it got decent audiences  - I would imagine its cost per viewer rating was good. Particularly if you take account of the special nature of the arts-loving audience. And that's the key point. BBC DG Tony Hall has underlined his personal commitment to The Arts in the BBC's output. The Review Show reached exactly the people that this output is aimed at. And in its role as a public service broadcaster surely the BBC can feel proud that The Review Show generated interest in a wide variety of arts events some of which we viewers might have otherwise missed. I bought books, went to movies, visited exhibitions etc. because I had seen them reviewed on "The Review Show" - the wider arts world will surely miss it.

I wasn't consulted about the decisions first to marginalise the programme and then to stop it completely. Nobody asked me or any other viewer. Why was it done? And why would Lord Hall, who presided with such skill over the Royal Opera House, see fit to remove a programme aimed at a similiar arts-loving audience. Mystifying. 


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