The popular touch

Television - Two arts strands are entering their old age more and less gracefully, finds Andrew Bill

Time, I thought last weekend, to check out those two warhorses of arts coverage, Omnibus and The South Bank Show, 33 and 22 years old, respectively. The most obvious signs of wear and tear are that Omnibus has this season quietly been shifted from BBC1 to BBC2 and that Melvyn Bragg's pride and joy steals ever further back into the night. Otherwise, the conventional insult to hurl at them is that these days they chase ratings by covering showbiz rather than art.

Although the previous edition had been on Stanley Spencer and the following week's show was due to look at Botticelli, there was certainly an air of self-justification as Omnibus took on the Royal National Theatre's revival of My Fair Lady. Indeed, Camille Paglia, whose contributions were otherwise revelatory, ended the programme weakly by insisting "we are not dealing with popular culture; we're dealing with art".

The programme's argument was actually more interesting, asserting that the Lerner and Loewe musical was better art than the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, on which it was based. The New Yorker critic John Lahr summed it up, saying: "What Shaw gave to the musical was thought. What the musical gave to Shaw was joy. And when joy and thought come together, it does not get better than that." This was a film that relied heavily on the commentary of critics - Harold Bloom, Sheridan Morley, Michael Holroyd, Alexander Walker, Clive Barnes, Paglia, Lahr - but they were the right critics.

Before setting out its thesis, the programme had to dispose of its viewers' idle curiosity about whether Martine McCutcheon, the ex-EastEnder who is to play Eliza, would manage to posh up for the second half. McCutcheon reminded us that she was an actress, told us off for being narrow-minded and then enunciated perfectly where the rain in Spain mainly fell. Doubters now felt themselves much worse snobs than Professor Higgins, who, of course, was no snob at all, but a radical out to undermine the English class structure with forged phonetics and taboo words ("not bloody likely" and, at Ascot in the musical: "Come on Dover, move your bloody arse").

Omnibus, however, was persuasive in suggesting that female emancipation, not class conflict, was the real heart of My Fair Lady. The programme was topped and tailed by the question of Higgins's slippers and whether Eliza, having become his living, breathing Galatea, would come running to him with them. "This," said the producer Cameron Mackintosh, with a neatness that evidently surprised even him, "was Cinderella where the girl has the balls at the end of the night as well as the slippers." McCutcheon felt that when in his last line Higgins calls out "Where the devil are my slippers?", he knows Eliza is the last person to know or care.

This was a highly intelligent analysis of a Broadway show, but it was also a celebration that, to echo Lahr, caught its joy, too. Director Kate Scholefield's fluid filming of an early, rumbustious rehearsal of Dennis Waterman's big number, "With a Little Bit of Luck", may have been the best transposition of musical theatre to television I have ever seen.

The next night, The South Bank Show chose to profile Greta Garbo, its only excuse being that some love letters to a girlfriend, Mercedes de Acosta, had surfaced. De Acosta, who was described as the first celebrity stalker, had her five minutes of fame in Steve Cole's film but neither she, the letters, nor Garbo's bisexuality was at the centre of it. But, then, what was?

Early on, a biographer suggested that Garbo, too, had been a Galatea, the "rough clay, cast by the Swedish director Mauritz Stiller", but the Pygmalion analogy was not pursued. As much of a theory as there was emerged around the idea that the mystique of the silent Garbo was an invention of the studio publicists, alarmed by an early interview in which she had chirruped that she lived with Stiller. But the final part of the programme contradicted this, demonstrating that in the long late years of her life in New York, she truly did want to be alone.

With so many clips from her films, this could not be an uninteresting hour - which is just as well for, with ITV schedule-lag, the programme barely got you to bed before midnight - but it was dilatory, not so very much different from what you might find any afternoon on the Biography Channel. There was one, too brief, moment of filmic grace when a sad screen test of an older Garbo attempting a come-back in Italy was allowed to flicker out into darkness. Otherwise it was documentary-by-numbers: interviews, clips, and commentary over generic black-and-white footage. "She was the quintessential glamorous woman," was the best quote Cole could come up with to end the programme, surpassing even the banality of Bragg's epitaph that she had "played the role of Greta Garbo to the end".

The programme, in other words, demonstrated none of the rigour that Bragg shows towards his subjects on In Our Time on Radio 4 and very little flair for modern documentary-making. Under Basil Comely, Omnibus has a spring in its step. Under Lord Bragg, The South Bank Show is treading water. ITV might consider whether it is time to make a change.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard