The South Bank Show
Melvyn may be a grinning ninny, but I'll miss him
So, the final series of The South Bank Show is under way, which gives us the opportunity to consider whether its presenter, Melvyn Bragg, is right when he says (I paraphrase) that its disappearance from the schedules is one of the Greatest Crimes Ever Committed Against Arts Programming. The most recent film (20 September, 10.15pm), the second in a series that will also include programmes about Nick Hornby and the Bury band Elbow, starred Coldplay, and, for my money, it only showed up TSBS's weaknesses.
The show's obsession with treating high and low culture equally seriously is fine in principle: I dislike a certain kind of intellectual snobbery as much as the next wannabe-cool middle-class person. But, in practice, Coldplay was never going to make for a rich hour's television. You've only to listen to Chris Martin's lyrics to know that the band ain't got anything to say.
What's more, in the absence of both Coldplay-fixated academics and halfway decent music journalists - no halfway decent music writer is going to admit to loving them - Bragg's team was unable to dish up any talking heads even to unpick the mechanics of their harmonies, much less find someone to (whisper it softly) criticise them. Instead, we got Bono.
Tell me this: is there any man alive more annoying than Bono? I agree, there isn't. Now tell me this: has he ever said anything that you thought even remotely original, interesting or insightful? Right again! No, he hasn't. As a consequence of this inadequacy, the programme consisted more or less entirely of live footage of, and interviews with, Coldplay. Result? The film that I watched looked very much like a DVD mailout to loyal members of the Coldplay fan club. The narrative went something like this: "They're super. They're polite. They went to university. Now here's another clip of Chris Martin warbling 'Yellow'." When Martin sang "I Want You Back" with Gary Barlow as his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, bobbed around in the background, I had only two thoughts in my head. The first was: "I love Take That." The second was: "Oh my God, Gwyneth Paltrow is halfway through a glass of red wine." I'm guessing this is not the response that Bragg was after.
The thing I've never understood about TSBS is why the makers include several dozen clips per programme of Bragg smiling and laughing and generally sucking up to his interviewees. Not that I blame him for smiling and laughing and sucking up. I make the greater part of my living from interviewing famous people, and believe me, when I play back my tapes afterwards, the sound of my insincerity is enough to make you sick. But the point is that I save readers from this nauseating twaddle by editing it. Bragg edits all the South Bank Show films, and has boasted of his ruthlessness in this regard. So, why does he leave this stuff in? I've no idea. It's unfathomable to me. Hard to believe that this grinning ninny is the same man who presents In Our Time on Radio 4, a programme so piercingly clever that I would pay my licence fee for it alone. Oh, well. Life is mysterious. Some people think Coldplay are a great band.
Does all this mean that I won't mourn TSBS when it disappears to the great video library in the sky? Weirdly, it doesn't. It's always bad when dedicated programming goes, and with ITV, who knows what we'll get instead? (It dumped World in Action and look what happened: Martin Clunes on dogs is what passes for documentary on ITV now.) Yes, we could have done without its programmes on the Darkness and the 'ecky-thump Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan. But it has also given us, over the years, films about Paul Bowles, the Smiths and Francis Bacon.
Perhaps the truth, if I'm really honest, is that whenever I've been a fan of its subject, high or low, it has worked like magic: I've gazed on my idols, sucked up every ill-considered word, and generally enjoyed the thrill of ersatz intimacy. The rest of the time, it has often made me blush. But then, I could always just have switched it off and headed for bed. Better that, I think, than for it to be switched off permanently.