Heaven for eggheads

Television - Andrew Billen likes the new, self-assured face of the arts on BBC4

It was wonderful watching BBC2 on 2 March, wonderful and nostalgic, for it recalled nothing more strongly than watching the BBC2 of my youth, when an actor called Joe Melia would spend all Saturday evening hosting a recondite arts programme called Full House. The effect was achieved by BBC2 simulcasting the first night of a new digital channel, BBC4, the one devoted to "cultural enrichment". For one brief evening, there exuded something you had not sensed from BBC Music and Arts for a while: self-confidence.

The theme of the debut night was the affinity between madness and creativity, which was as good a start as any for a station with a budget as big as BBC4's and as small a likely audience. (Roly Keating, the BBC4 controller, has £35m a year from the licence fee; John Hambley, his rival at the commercial channel Artsworld, took years to raise the £20m to launch it at all.) The market would certainly call it mad - but then, the viewing tax is designed to tell the market where to go.

BBC4's first offering was The Man Who Destroyed Everything, a documentary about Michael Landy, who shredded his every worldly possession, even his credit card, in the old C&A building on Oxford Street last year. Landy emerged as a minor figure in Britart, minor not just critically but, lacking an agent as he did, commercially. The director, Nadia Haggar, concentrated on how Landy rebuilt his life and possessions, starting with ordering a new credit card. For an anti-materialist, he was, we discovered, surprisingly fussy about where his suits came from. The programme concluded that there was an element of mental disintegration in his anti-installation - it was, after all, called Breakdown - and found witnesses to the manic quality of his previous work, but it kept enough distance to refrain from dubbing him a tortured genius. Would this tortured non-genius have been worth 60 minutes on Omnibus? No. But then, was Mario Testino?

Goya: crazy like a genius was the real thing, however, a beautifully made, fully authored documentary by Robert Hughes about a major painter. Hughes should have been too opinionated for the job at hand, which was the greater glory of Goya not Hughes, but his judgements stuck - even when he was grumbling that there should be more pink on the right nipple of Goya's most famous nude. Despite the best efforts of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's heirs to crowd the soundtrack with spooky mad sounds, despite Hughes's occasional repetitiveness (Goya was "one of the greatest topographers of femaleness" as well as an expert in the "topography of the inner self"), and despite the cape he donned at the end, this was a documentary to send you rushing to Madrid.

After these two successful contributions, BBC4 exercised the artist's all-important right to fail with Surrealissimo, a terrible comedy-drama based on Salvador DalI's "trial" before his fellow surrealists. Ewen Bremner played DalI as a less bright version of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Stephen Fry looked sick and wan as Andre Breton; so did Vic Reeves as Paul Eluard. The plot was unfollowable, the level of analysis no higher than alternating shots of a wall clock with a slab of runny cheese. But the sheer folly of wasting so much talent was perversely encouraging, a reminder of such grand follies of the past as Ken Russell's composer biopics for Omnibus.

A further sign of self-assurance was the spoof arts magazine The Gist, a parody from the Sunday Format people of every art show from Mainstream in 1979 to The Late Show. It revelled in getting the language of tele-crit slightly wrong, but hinted strongly that the greater crimes were being committed by the artists. If Britart: the definitive story, starting on 8 March (9pm), takes the sceptical view it is rumoured to, BBC4 may well make a name for itself by leading the intelligentsia's counter-offensive against modern art.

There was such exuberance in the arts coverage that I began to wonder how well BBC4's sober world news bulletins at 8pm and offerings such as The Trials of Henry Kissinger (4 March) would sit within the schedule. Trailers declare that "the art of documentary is alive and well" on BBC4, but - despite a powerful series of Correspondent on Sunday nights, including John Sweeney's comically intrepid incursion into Zimbabwe (3 March) - this is largely because the art has gently passed away on Jane Root's BBC2. Shoving current affairs documentaries on to the new station may make for a mix as awkward as 5 Live's dual life as a news and sports network on the radio.

I was intrigued to note that last Monday, when BBC4 was in current affairs mode, Artsworld was aggressively (if that's the word) pushing a highbrow arts project, Journey Into Fear, the first of a 34-part video installation (blimey) linked to Stan Douglas's exhibition at the Serpentine. The safe way to attract confused BBC4 fans would have been for Artsworld to put on one of the popular operas it usually shows on Monday nights. But the subscription-only channel is far less ratings-obsessed than the BBC. It would be a happy outcome of the digital muddle if Artsworld and BBC4 spent the next decade competing for kudos, not viewers. Allow me to dream on. Against this competitor, Artsworld will be lucky to survive.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard