From Civilisation to The Culture Show: 50 Years of Arts Programming on BBC Two

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This Sunday BBC Two will enter its Fiftieth year of broadcasting. Launched on the 20th of April 1964, the channel was established to provide more special interest programming than its BBC One counterpart. From its inception, BBC Two’s remit was for more educational, ‘serious’ programming with a focus on the arts, culture and drama. The Reithian values instilled within the channel by its content led to BBC Two developing a reputation for providing ‘highbrow’ entertainment.

The Visual Arts in Colour

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In 1967 BBC Two became the first European channel to transmit programmes in colour. To mark this landmark in television history, the BBC commissioned its first blockbuster arts documentary, Civilisation. Presented by Kenneth Clark, the 13-part series that aired in 1969 took viewers on a journey through the history of Western art.

It seems rather fitting that a programme about the visual arts should be chosen to mark the transition to colour television. The use of colour signified a more accurate depiction of reality. Art was no longer just represented on screen; it was reproduced. The great works of Western culture that Clark and his team travelled hundreds of miles to see were now available in the living room of any home in Britain (providing you could afford a colour TV set!) in vivid colour.

Civilisation proved to be immensely popular with audiences in Britain and abroad. Its legacy and influence is still evident in the array of pundit documentaries that populate our television schedules today. There are even plans for the series to be remade for contemporary audiences in line with Director-General Tony hall’s plans to expand arts coverage on the BBC.

Another ambitious project examining the visual arts was the aptly named One Hundred Great Paintings (1980), which comprised of one hundred ten minute episodes, each devoted to a particular painting and broadcast five nights a week. Each episode comprised of what could be described as ‘mini essays’, analysing the paintings in surprising depth for a programme so short in length.

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Reviewing and Critiquing Art

BBC Two has broadcast a whole host of arts and cultural programming over the last fifty years, including such thought provoking programmes as Ways of Seeing (1972) and Shock of the New (1980), both of which have been revered for their more critical approach to art and culture. These programmes exemplify BBC Two’s experimental nature in the sense that they push boundaries in terms of deconstructing dominant ideologies within the art world and British culture in general. Rather than just providing an authoritative account of historical ‘fact’, as in the case of Civilisation, Ways of Seeing and Shock of the New provide a basis for critical thought and analysis through their episodic illustrated essays.

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Over the last fifty years, BBC Two has also featured a number of arts magazine series including the very first arts programme to be broadcast on the channel in 1964 – New Release. More contemporary series include The Review Show (1994), which started life on BBC Two before moving to BBC Four in 2013 and ultimately being cancelled in 2014, and also The Culture Show, which after its launch in 2004 became BBC Two’s flagship arts strand, encompassing both weekly magazine programmes and thematic one-off specials. These topical weekly programmes have covered a wide variety of subjects from the world of arts and culture. Their short features and coverage of current developments and events have enabled viewers to feel engaged with the contemporary art world without even having to set foot in a gallery.

BBC Two Today

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Fifty years on, the BBC Two of today is one that must continually carve out its identity within an increasingly media saturated world. Although the strength of the channel still lies in its output of educational and special-interest programming, the introduction of BBC Four and an ever more competitive digital broadcasting environment has led to these programmes becoming increasingly more mainstream in their approach. Once synonymous with arts and culture, arts programming is increasingly vacating BBC Two to occupy a sort of ‘cultural ghetto’ in the form of BBC Four. The move of high profile series such as The Review Show has led to concern that the BBC are neglecting the arts in favour of attracting more mainstream audiences. Whereas the arts once had a place amongst a rich and diverse range of programming, they are now being grouped and packaged to even smaller audiences.

In the advent of digital television it would seem that new, specialist channels such as BBC Four have occupied the place once held by niche channels like BBC Two. However, with Tony Hall planning to expand the coverage of arts on the BBC, there is still hope that BBC Two will once again showcase innovative and informative arts programming. But in order to engage audiences with the arts within today’s increasingly competitive television environment, arts programming must evolve to avoid being confined to late night slots or specialist channels. Adapting arts programming to appeal to a wider audience is not inherently a bad thing. The elitism that surrounds the arts has led to their segregation from BBC Two as it evolves to accommodate a broader audience. But as the success of landmark series such as Civilisation has demonstrated, arts programming can have popular appeal without sacrificing quality. BBC Two could play a crucial role in Hall’s plan to engage more mainstream audiences with the arts, while re-establishing its identity as a provider of high quality cultural programming.

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