Tag Archives: Arts Broadcasting

Public Service Television Inquiry and the Future of Arts Broadcasting

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Over the past year the state of public service broadcasting in Britain has been something of a hot topic. Following the publication of the government’s green paper on the future of the BBC there has been much debate around the relevance of public service broadcasting in an age of fragmented audiences and digital media abundance. However, although often the centre of such discussion, the BBC is of course not the only UK broadcaster with public service commitments. In September of last year Channel 4 hit the headlines over rumours that it could be facing privatisation to much public outcry. The past decade has also seen a significant reduction in ITV’s public service obligations, particularly in terms of specialist factual provision. These developments and the discourses that surround them signal the need for a broader examination into the place and sustainability of public service broadcasting within the contemporary media landscape.

It is these concerns and others that are currently the focus of an independent inquiry launched by Lord Puttnam entitled A Future for Public Service Television: Content and Platforms in a Digital World. Based at Goldsmiths, University of London, the inquiry aims to ‘address how public service content can be most effectively nurtured taking into consideration a range of services, platforms and funding models’. The inquiry has also run a series of events across the country, including one at Cardiff University which featured on its panel Angharad Mair of BAFTA Wales, the chair of S4c, Huw Jones, Head of Nations and Regions at Channel 4, Ian MacKenzie, Head of Strategy and Digital at BBC Wales, Rhys Evans and Angela Graham of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

The inquiry has also invited submissions addressing the key issues affecting contemporary television. A number of these key issues are identified by Lord Puttnam in a statement on their website which argues:

Public service broadcasters remain at the heart of our broadcast landscape in the UK but we are seeing a worrying fall in investment in key areas such as arts, news and drama as well as the tendency for younger audiences to migrate to new digital platforms.

Indeed, the increasingly competitive media landscape that public service broadcasting finds itself in has proven to be a chilly climate for specialist factual provision, and the arts in particular. Once seen as synonymous with public service values, the narrative of arts provision in Britain over recent years has been one of relative decline. This trend is also evidenced by the media regulator Ofcom, who found that despite hours of factual programming increasing by 20% between 2009 and 2014, spending on arts and classical music content across all UK public service broadcasters fell by 24%.

In our submission to the inquiry Dr Caitriona Noonan and I outline a number of recommendations. These include:

  1. Given the likely changes to both funding and content provision (e.g. the introduction of the BBC studio system) after charter review we would recommend that greater consideration of new and existing models of funding be considered for genres ‘at risk’ such as arts.
  2. While Ofcom and its associated research have signaled issues with the provision of arts content the regulator has yet to offer any viable strategies for the future. We would like more detailed monitoring of arts by the regulator and greater consultation about future provision.
  3. Whether the BBC Trust remains or is replaced by another system, we recommend that arts remain a visible part of their agenda and that there is sufficient accountability regarding the provision both in terms of the quantity and nature of the programming.
  4. While we lament the decline of arts on Channel 4 in peak-time we also acknowledge the creative risks it has taken and its partnership with both artists and arts organisations (e.g. the short-form series Random Acts). We believe that this activity is dependent on Channel 4 being publicly owned and we see this as yet another reason to keep the ownership of channel as it is for the time being.
  5. Further investment should be made into developing innovative content 
creation and distribution strategies for engaging young people with arts and encouraging them to see the arts as a viable career aspiration thereby strengthen the sectors.
  6. We believe there is a need for greater diversity in arts broadcasting in terms of subject matter and form, and in the diversity of those working in this genre behind and in front of the camera. 
We advocate an ongoing commitment within all PSBs to diversity through paid training opportunities extending access to this professional space beyond those from more privileged backgrounds.
  7. We believe there is a strong argument for maintaining BBC Four in terms of protecting specialist factual provision (not only in the arts) and as tangible support for the wider arts ecology in Britain.
  8. Our research highlights that many arts organisations, venues and artists outside of London feel excluded from the mechanisms of broadcasting and its coverage of the arts despite their critically acclaimed and successful work. We would like to see further investment in developing on-going relationships between 
national broadcasters and arts organisations to bring audiences coverage of events from across the UK.
  9.  Our research indicates there is a dearth of specialist factual content that represents the arts and culture in Wales both on network and opt-out services. If one of the duties of PSB is to represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities, then it is crucial that there is a strong voice for Wales that reflects the contemporary cultural life of the nation. In order to address this significant weakness in the overall public service provision, we would advocate the need for a more coherent strategy for arts programming that both serves licence fee payers in Wales and promotes Welsh creativity and culture across the network.

(click here to read the full report)

In many ways the mixed fortunes of arts programming and those of public service broadcasting have run in parallel to one another over the years. It could be argued that any weakness in the arts proposition is only symptomatic of the wider challenges facing public service broadcasters as they fight for survival in a competitive, multi-channel environment. The future of public service broadcasting is also the future of arts broadcasting.

 

 

Is the Future of Arts Broadcasting Online?

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Despite the high profile campaigns, petitions and hashtags, this month BBC Three is set to go off air and become online-only. Although the decision to move BBC Three branded content to the iPlayer will reportedly make savings of around £30 million a year, the BBC Trust acknowledged that ‘almost 1 million younger viewers could desert the corporation as a consequence’.

With young people spending more time online than watching television for the first time ever, changing consumption habits seem to provide a strong rationale behind BBC Three’s departure from the linear broadcasting landscape. However, when asked back in 2014 to comment on what the axing of BBC Three as an on-air channels means for the future of other niche services such as BBC Four, former controller, Danny Cohen stated that “if future funding for the BBC comes under more threat then the likelihood is we would have to take more services along the same [online only] route [as BBC3].”

More recently, concerns around the future of BBC Four and other key platforms for specialist arts and cultural content were raised after a speech by Tony Hall in September of last year in which he stated:

“In summary the BBC faces a very tough financial challenge. So we will have to manage our resources ever more carefully and prioritise what we believe the BBC should offer. We will inevitably have to either close or reduce some services.”

In my own research interviews with media professionals and those who work within arts organisations in the UK, the possibility of more arts content being distributed online as opposed to traditional broadcasting has been met by both enthusiasm and concern in equal measure.

In theory you might expect that having more arts content online would encourage what many would argue is a much needed increase in diversity in terms of both form and content.

Online platforms allow for a wider variety of ways to create and consume content, such as articles, vlogs, images, along with more traditional long-form video including documentaries and live relays. Further to this, commissioning online content tends to involve less risk as the costs involved both in production and distribution is generally less than that of traditional broadcasting. Of course even further reduced budgets is not good news for those creating the content and in turn may lead to fewer producers specialising in the arts, particularly within the independent sector.

Another advantage to online platforms is that they are not constrained to the comparatively limited space of radio and television schedules, enabling a potential increase in the amount of arts coverage available. Along with this, the internet allows for a more immediate reaction to events than traditional media. You can be watching an interview with a curator at the opening of their new exhibition just hours after it opens before switching to a livestream of an opera direct from Covent Garden.

In line with the BBC Three model, being able to access more content online and on demand is also about responding to changing media consumption habits, particularly those of young people. The audience for linear broadcast television is ageing and this trend is even more concentrated in the arts.

So could online arts provision be the solution? In 2014 the BBC launched Private View, a series of iPlayer exclusives with a younger demographic in mind. The films consist of prominent figures from pop culture such as musician Tinie Tempah and fashion icon Lianne La Havas taking the viewer on a ‘series of personal tours of blockbuster exhibitions’. The series has proved something of an online success with Goldie’s Private View of Matisse being the most watched arts programme on iPlayer.

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However, there are concerns around whether arts broadcasting could actually suffer more than other genres in this more fragmented, menu-based system. Back in the days when you had perhaps only three television channels to choose from you might watch an arts programme just because it happened to be the next thing on. Even now, decades after the Reithian diet of ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ programming sitting alongside each other in the schedules has been rendered obsolete by digitalisation, you might still see a trailer for an arts documentary that catches your interest at the end of Eastenders.

There’s no escaping the fact that the core audience for arts programming is small, and while online platforms may be great for ‘binge watching’ the latest hit drama, there seems to be little opportunity in this user-led environment for broader audiences to be introduced to new content and ideas.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for public service broadcasters, if the resurgence of event television in recent years tells us anything it’s that there is still nothing like the impact of mainstream broadcasting. Social media and live-tweeting have in many ways strengthened traditional media by making programmes talking points for live online discussion. Advances in media technology may mean that people are consuming more content online and on demand than ever before, but linear broadcasting still has an important role to play in creating a sense of shared experience and engaging people in a national conversation of which the arts must surely be a part.

40 Years of Arena in 24 Hours

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Created in 1975 by the then head of BBC Music and Arts, Humphrey Burton, Arena has been a platform for some of the most groundbreaking arts documentaries on television. From My Way (1979) to The Chelsea Hotel (1981) and The Private Life of the Ford Cortina (1982), the multi award-winning arts strand has received critical acclaim for its high quality, avant-garde approach to the arts in terms of both form and content.

Introduced by the writer and broadcaster, John Lloyd, Night and Day celebrates the creativity and diversity of filmmaking that has come to define the strand over the past forty years:

“The film you’re about to see brings together the work of many producers, directors and their teams, but it demonstrates a commonality of purpose that characterises the six hundred or so films in the Arena canon. […] Rather than make a best of compilation to mark the anniversary, the decision was made to try and bring the past into the present and make a new film. It’s an evocation, drawn entirely from Arena films, of the one experience common to everything thing and everyone on the planet; the inextricable twenty-four hour cycle of night and day.”

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 The film takes the viewer through footage spanning a range of subjects, eras and locations, cut out and stuck together to form a video collage of a day. From Pete Doherty diving into a rooftop pool against a pre-dawn Barcelona skyline, to Sonny Rollins walking over the Williamsburg Bridge, we watch as the world rises to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Night and Day’. Breakfast is then served by Mary Jenkins Langston, Elvis Presley’s personal cook who featured in the 1996 film, The Burger and the King and charted some of The King’s more eclectic dietary tastes.

The morning commute is a montage of suits, trains and umbrellas from the streets of cities around the world. Amongst them is Mel Brooks arriving on set in Hollywood from Alan Yentob’s 1981 iconic portrait of the film director, screenwriter and sometime actor. We then join the Spectator columnist, Jeffrey Bernard in his home office as he taps out the latest entry for the weekly column that earned him his cult following.

While noon brings a liquid lunch down the pub for Bernard and actor Tom Baker, The Beatles are taking a break on their 1967 Magical Mystery Tour to visit Smedley’s chip shop on Roman Road, Taunton.

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In the afternoon Richard Rogers guides us through the financial marketplace housed in the Lloyds building, London. Scenes of bankers in suits become street vendors in coats as we are taken along with Linda McCartney as she photographs bustling marketplaces of a different kind. At the Partagas Cigar Factory in Havana the workday continues, while seemingly worlds apart George Martin takes afternoon tea with his oboe teacher, Margaret Eliot.

The sun sets over busy highways and tranquil beaches as day fades into night. At Elstree Studios, London, Jack Nicholson is brushing his teeth and preparing to go back on set for The Shining, while over at The Chelsea Hotel in New York, pop artist Andy Warhol and novelist William Burroughs are engaged in rather surreal conversation over dinner.

As both the 24 hours and the film draw to a close, the cycle of night and day is completed as a passage from Under Milk Wood read at the beginning of the programme is repeated once more.

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In some ways this 90 minute feature-length film is reminiscent of Life in a Day (2011), which used crowdsourced video clips to tell the story of a single day on earth ‘through a multitude of perspectives’. Although the two films seem rather juxtaposed in terms of production, with Night and Day centred around creative use of archive footage and Life in a Day around more everyday content creation in the digital age, the central theme is still that of shared human experience governed by the perpetual cycle of the 24 hour day.

However, more importantly Night and Day bears testimony to the exceptionally broad remit of Arena over the past forty years. From Francis Bacon to George Formby, Marilyn Monroe to Henry Moore, popular culture and high are presented with equal attention and depth across the strand. What is also striking is the creative and imaginative ways in which these range of topics have been presented on screen. Through this Arena has built a reputation as a strand that is willing to be experimental with both form and content. Night and Day and the films featured within it don’t just serve to document art and culture, but also stand as significant cultural artefacts in their own right.

Contains Strong Language: Some Highlights

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On the 8th of October the BBC marked National Poetry Day by launching a week long season of programmes celebrating both professional and amateur poets.

As the Director of Arts stated on the BBC’s Media Centre homepage:

From BBC One to Radio 3, the BBC is devoted to celebrating and showcasing the extraordinary arts and culture of the UK, bringing it to the largest possible audience wherever and whoever you are. To mark National Poetry Day, Contains Strong Language will celebrate the urgent and disruptive power of poetry, putting it at the heart of schedules, across the BBC’s channels, stations and online.

On World Poetry Day itself, the BBC Radio 4 schedules were taken over by We British: An Epic in Poetry, a series of programmes presented by Andrew Marr exploring ‘British history and identity through poems’. Arranged in a chronological fashion, the programmes featured readings, archive material, and interviews with a number of actors, media personalities and poets including Ian McKellen, Graham Norton and Carol Ann Duffy.

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I must admit, a particular highlight was Marr accidentally calling the poet Liz Berry “Mary Berry”, which I’m sure he’d put down to the final of The Great British Bake Off airing the previous evening.

Listeners were also asked to join the discussion through Twitter with the hashtag #WeBritish. Alongside this there was a special edition of the Shipping Forecast which invited people to ‘sum up their mood or activities in 10 words or less, using the style of the Shipping Forecast’ and submit their poems to Radio 4 via email, Facebook or Twitter. A number of these were then featured on a later edition of the programme.

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However, it seemed that the centrepiece of the season came a couple of days later with BBC Two’s 90-minute feature length documentary, Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death.

Broadcast at 9pm on a Saturday night, the scale of the documentary presented itself through cinematic aerial shots of sweeping green landscapes and rustic towns. This was then juxtaposed by stark black and white footage of countryside scenes permeated by flocks of birds and lone foxes, mirroring the imagery of nature that dominates much of Hughes’ work.

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Speaking for the first time on television Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, discusses her father’s work, life and relationship with her mother. Her accounts, alongside those of others who knew Hughes well form something of a narrative thread throughout the programme, taking the viewer behind the poems to understand the circumstances in which they were conceived.

In lieu of a single narrator or presenter, the use of interviews to weave this narrative thread throughout the film also creates a sense of authenticity. By hearing the accounts of those closest to him, alongside a few more recognisable faces such as the poet Simon Armitage and arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, it becomes a far more human story beyond the black and white indifference of newspaper headlines and English Literature anthologies.

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For me, another particular highlight of this poetry season was BBC Radio 3’s special episode of ‘Between the Ears’ entitled ‘We are Writing a Poem About Home’. In this programme, the writer Kate Clanchy takes us into her poetry workshop to meet some amazingly talented award-winning young poets. Speaking 54 languages between them, the students of the former grammar school recite poems around ‘home’ that takes us beyond mere bricks and mortar to touch upon themes of heritage, belonging and acceptance.

BBC Four also broadcast a repeat of Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, an elegy to the young woman who was brutally attacked and murdered because of her appearance. The screen adaptation of Simon Armitage’s poignant poems about the tragedy is both beautifully rendered and deeply harrowing.

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This isn’t easy viewing and nor should it be. If one of the functions of art is to provoke empathy within the observer, then it should not be overlooked that art can also give a voice to the silenced.

In a media landscape in which tragic news stories saturate our television screens and Facebook feeds, it is sometimes only in the steady rhythm of poetry that we can stop to think.

‘Everything is Arts’: The Theoretical Challenges of Arts Broadcasting

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The question of how arts broadcasting is actually defined is something that I’ve discussed numerous times on this blog. From an early post entitled Defining Art Within Broadcasting to a more recent piece examining the line between history and the arts in programmes such as Treasures of Ancient Greece, a concrete definition of what I was proposing to study seemed at best elusive, and at worst impossible.

This on-going theoretical challenge was brought to the fore in a recent research interview. From the very beginning the participant made clear that he was fundamentally – and philosophically – opposed to the very notion of ‘arts broadcasting’:

‘Everything is arts. If you wield a camera, or a pen, or a microphone and you make content, that is art’

As persuasive as his argument for Eastenders being considered arts broadcasting was, I think the key thing to take away from this isn’t the need for practical change to the research design in the form of widening the parameters of the study to include everything ever created. Rather, the key area of interest here is how the arts are defined institutionally within the BBC, both from the perspective of those creating content and those in charge of arts strategy and commissioning.

But that still doesn’t completely answer the question of how we define the area of study. How do we set the parameters within which empirical research may be carried out?

Firstly, BBC Arts as a brand and ‘cultural institution’ within the BBC has been central in providing a starting point when trying to map a field of study. Forming something of a categorisation for programming, production and commissioning, BBC Arts has been the most visible way of identifying relevant content and people involved in arts broadcasting on the BBC.

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However, I must make clear that I don’t think it’s enough to just go by what is ‘branded’ as arts alone. If you are subscribed to the weekly BBC Arts newsletter, you will notice that not all of it is what many would consider arts, even if at first glance it may appear so. For example, one of the programmes listed in this week’s newsletters is Timeshift: The Engine That Powers the World about the history of the diesel engine. Perhaps not what many people would consider an arts documentary in the traditional sense?

So if we’re using BBC Arts as just a starting point, and not an end point in itself, how do we further understand the ways in which commissioners and content creators define the field in which they work? A standard a question I ask all of my participants is how do they define arts broadcasting. When asked this, many of the people I have interviewed so far have referred to the notion of the arts as culture, and that in turn encompassing a wide range of creative activities and means of expression.

So even when interviewing those directly involved in the creation of arts content there seems to be no clear-cut answer or concrete definition as to what ‘arts broadcasting’ is. There are as many different answers to the question as there are people to ask. However, rather than conceptualising this ambiguity as a challenge to overcome, it is perhaps more useful to consider how this provides the space for certain forms of creative expression to be elevated above others.

If all broadcasting is inherently arts broadcasting in a philosophical sense, then the question is perhaps not ‘what is arts broadcasting?’ but ‘who defines what arts broadcasting is?’

Decoding in the Dark: Radio and the Visual Arts

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“It’s late on a Parisian evening in 1882. The newly opened Folies-Bergère is busy. Here up on the first floor gallery, the mirrored bars are dazzling with lights for the trapeze performers flying about the main auditorium. Make your way through the jostling crowd, some watching the show, many others chatting, drinking and being seen, and you find one of the newly permitted female bartenders is free. You think you’ve caught her eye amidst the frivolity going on around her. Or have you? She’s certainly caught your attention even though she’s not really looking at you. It’s those eyes. And those eyes belong to the girl at the bar of the Folies-Bergère here on one of the walls of the Courtauld gallery in the heart of London. And you can find it by typing the title of the painting into your internet search engine. Type in Bar at the Folies-Bergère”

And so begins the first in BBC Radio Four’s new series Decoding the Masterworks, which yesterday featured an in-depth examination of Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bèrgere’.

Presented by art historian Dr Janina Ramirez, along with various other experts, the three-part series ‘examines famous and familiar works of art in minute detail’ to ‘provide context, biographical background and artistic insight’ and ‘decode these masterworks for today’s audience’.

Recorded on location and complete with the sound of reverberating footsteps and voices echoing across the open space, on closing your eyes it isn’t too hard to imagine yourself right there at the Courtauld gallery.

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Indeed, the commentary the programme provides might put you in mind of those audio guides that are often given out at tourist traps around the country, and no doubt leave a number of disgruntled human tour guides out of work.

But of course, just like walking around a gallery with your eyes closed, you cannot see a painting through radio anymore than you can listen to an opera through a newspaper.

It would seem inherently obvious that the visual arts are a particularly tricky subject to present through the medium of sound. Often when the visual arts are featured on radio it is in the form of interviews with the artists themselves or the human-interest stories that surround the work and its creation. Rarely is the aesthetic analysis of a piece the primary focus.

But could the Internet be changing this?

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As I stated in a previous post that also briefly touched on this subject:

It seems that the Internet is the new Radio Times in terms of providing material to accompany radio broadcasts. Where once the listener would sit at home listening to football commentary while referring to their numbered pitch diagram to follow the action, we are now directed online for supplementary visual content to accompany broadcasts.

For those listening to Decoding the Masterworks online, in the text description box below the programme iPlayer radio helpfully informs you that:

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The use of the Internet as a platform for visual content in radio broadcasting may indeed be expanding radio’s coverage of the visual arts in a variety of different ways. But at what point does such additional content become necessary rather than just supplementary?

There seems to be an assumption that most listeners tuning in to Decoding the Masterworks are already quite familiar with the pieces being discussed. As Ramirez states towards the beginning of the programme:

“Even if you can’t get to your computer or tablet at the moment, you probably know this image. It’s ubiquitous; you find it on biscuit tins, t-shirts, posters…”

However, the ‘minute details’ of the paintings being examined are surely far beyond the capability of even the most photographic of memories. So is the Manet aficionado who is listening while driving to work still being left in the dark?

Indeed, when it comes to aesthetic analysis in the visual arts, it could perhaps be argued that in many ways it is not the image that supplements the radio broadcast, but in fact the radio broadcast that supplements the image.

Grayson Perry’s Grand Design

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Sunday night saw the return of Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry in a programme charting perhaps his most ambitious project yet.

Grayson Perry’s Dream House (Channel 4) follows the creation of Perry’s “most personal public work” as he takes on the challenge of designing a house inspired by his early life growing up in Essex.

With the scenes of half built structures set against green fields, surrounded by scaffolding and tarpaulin, it’s hard to not draw parallels with Grand Designs. There’s that familiar narrative of extravagant ideas, apprehensive architects and even the threat of winter descending upon the build before the roof is finished. But unlike the Channel 4 hit show, the overall focus is still very much on Perry’s artistic process. The aesthetics of the piece seem to always come before the practicalities of the building.

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Identity is often a very a prominent theme in Perry’s work and this proves to be no exception. The half-finished bricks and mortar are given a human element as Perry reveals his mythical tale of an Essex woman named Julie who serves as the inspiration behind the piece.

Like in his previous projects around class (All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry) and portraiture (Grayson Perry: Who Are You?) the piece is driven by a strong narrative element. Storytelling seems an intrinsic part of his art across the multiple mediums through which he expresses his creative visions.

However, as with his previous work, the house is not just telling the story of one individual. The narrative of Julie’s life presented through the artworks within the building also chart how this fictional individual identity merges and crosses paths with the perceived collective identity of “the ordinary Essex woman” taken from his own experiences growing up in the area.

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As with the previous programmes based around his work, there’s also the sense of a “big reveal” at the end to the people from whom Perry draws his inspiration. After the piece is completed, we see Perry take a selection of Essex women named Julie to see the house and get their personal reactions to his work. As he states while waiting for the women to arrive: “it’s not enough for me to like the building. I want the women it’s about to feel it too.” There’s a sense of the artwork as a collaborative process, even if some of the collaborators were previously unaware of their contribution.

Following from his 2014 series Who Are You?, Grayson Perry’s Dream House is another genre-bending contribution to pushing the boundaries in terms of what we think arts programming should be.

But I think the real strength and originality of this kind of programming lies in how the lives of ordinary people and their stories are presented as a source of artistic inspiration, creating a unique synthesis between both television and artwork as complementary narrative forms.