Culture club

Arts on TV - Arts programmes on British television have endured third-class status for years - but R

Not so long ago, everyone despaired over television's baffling reluctance to deal with the arts. Apart from the irrepressible Rolf Harris, all references to literature, drama, film, architecture and art seemed to be vanishing from our screens. Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show looked at one stage like the sole survivor of more enlightened times. He rightly hit out at the BBC's failure to honour its cultural obligations. And the commercial channels had become equally culpable. Anyone watching television in Britain might well have concluded that we were deteriorating, irredeemably, into a nation of shameless philistines.

The truth could not be more different. Our concert halls, theatres, cinemas and art galleries are often packed with devotees. Tate Modern is a symbol of the expanding audiences. Its overwhelming popularity made the dearth of art on TV appear even more weirdly misplaced.

Thanks to a belated reversal in attitudes, hope has returned. To general astonishment, Channel 5 suddenly began looking beyond its customary diet of violence and soft porn to discover the existence of the creative imagination. It started screening feature films of real calibre, some-times by directors with impressive track records. Tim Marlow was commissioned to talk, with enthusiasm and insight, about a wide-ranging array of artists. The same channel has enabled Loyd Grossman to look at the history of British sculpture. At the moment, Waldemar Januszczak is proving the old adage that Every Picture Tells a Story, looking week by week in vivid half-hour programmes at images including the Mona Lisa and Caravaggio's Boy Bitten by a Lizard.

Channel 5 is not alone. Alongside Boys With Breasts, Channel 4 is also finding time to insert a stimulating prime-time series, Lost Buildings of Britain, presented by the architectural historian Simon Thurley. Thurley communicates passionately, most winningly about how he reconstructed the tantalising ruins of Fonthill Abbey: he blames its owner, the reclusive William Beckford, for the disastrous collapse of his colossus.

Thurley's approach provides a refreshing escape from BBC2's insistence on treating historic buildings as contestants in a nationwide competition, as it does with Restoration. Why should these ailing structures be treated in a winners-and-losers format, with a shaggy-haired comedian, Griff Rhys Jones, as the principal presenter? This showbiz approach implies that viewers are prepared to consider architecture only if they can do some voting on the subject. The end result is like a feeble-minded Pop Idol contest.

Better to have faith in the inherent fascination of your subject. The first controller of BBC4, Roly Keating, deserves an accolade for refusing to indulge in the game-show formula. And even though Keating has now moved on to BBC2, his legacy continues to yield great rewards. The other night, a screening of Fellini's 8f was preceded by the first part of My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese's illuminating and highly personal history of Italian cinema. It set the context in a very satisfying way, just as Vanessa Engle's recent series on Art and the Sixties proved essential viewing for anyone seeking the background to Tate Britain's current exhibition. Particularly rewarding was her programme devoted to the "Destruction in Art" events, which dramatically removed all the cliched ideas about pop art and Swinging London. Gustav Metzger, the intensely private prime mover of the destruction fest, agreed to be interviewed for the very first time, albeit from the back only. And the period footage of young Yoko Ono's garment-slashing performance proved a corrective to anyone sated by her later, remorseless exposure in bed with Lennon.

Such inspired programming makes me eager to discover how Keating will set about making his mark at BBC2. He will doubtless be commissioning ambitious arts series there, and I look forward to discovering how BBC2 finds room for them alongside its current infatuation with sport.

Right now, an augury of things to come can be found on Sunday evenings, with the repeat of Alan Yentob's three-part portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Although dramatised elements occur, featuring Mark Rylance playing the genius in full Renaissance gear, they do not dominate.

Instead, Yentob darts with infectious zest between Leonardo's drawings, paintings, sculpture, notebooks and scientific inventions. We see his pioneering parachute, which he made only in diagram, tested in the skies above Africa. And we marvel at the prodigious versatility of a man who studied nature with searching attentiveness while indulging at the same time in the sheer imaginative exuberance of work such as his large, unfinished Adoration of the Magi. With the kind of resources at Yentob's command, television can bring the wonder of Leonardo's mercurial talents to full, convincing life.

The most significant change to arts programming on BBC2 will come in November, when The Culture Show arrives. It promises to be deliberately eclectic and, like its forerunner The Late Show, will deal with a disparate array of subjects in each hour-long programme. Too many years have passed since television attemp-ted to embrace the richness of the arts as a whole in a topical programme. Going out twice every Thursday, first at 7pm and again after Newsnight, The Culture Show promises to become essential viewing. It will aim to catch the pulse of the arts as they happen, all over the country, and television is the ideal medium to convey that kind of energy with compelling vigour, excitement and wit.