Art for the masses: the working-class roots of The South Bank Show

Forty years of making the arts accessible for all.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In 1977, when John Birt, then controller of features and current affairs at LWT, invited me to start a new arts programme, I was surprised to realise that I wanted to do it. I had started making arts shows for the BBC back in 1963, for the series Monitor. The job was worlds away from any work done by my parents, or their parents. I couldn’t believe my luck. When Birt approached me to move channels, the BBC still seemed the best home for arts programmes. It had been in the bloodstream for many years and provoked adhesive loyalty.

At that point, I was making a series of 90-minute interviews on BBC Two, talking to Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Günter Grass, Tennessee Williams and others. On BBC One, I was editing and presenting Read All About It, a new books programme. That show is what made me sympathetic to John’s proposal.

When I set up Read All About It, it was sniffed at by some of our more snobbish literary gatekeepers – frankly, I thought, because it was available to a wide television audience, “the mass”. That was the point I set out to make. I took the most common form of television – the panel game – and applied it to books. Anyone turning on their set would see all the familiar apparatus, including a desk of celebrity experts: Martin Amis, Antonia Fraser, Gore Vidal, Clive James, Fay Weldon, Jonathan Miller… There was Christopher Booker’s “quiz” and Paul McCartney played us in with “Paperback Writer”, which he said chuffed him. We dealt not with the latest hardbacks, as had been customary with books programmes, but in paperbacks. They were a year old, much more available to criticism, and much more available to our audience. The show was a hit. Antonia’s choice of The Slave, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, sent book sales through the roof.

Read All About It taught me that arts programmes could reach the democratic scatter audience, television’s great bounty. Shows could be accessible without dumbing down. I wanted to do this not just with books but with everything. To be a bit fanciful, I wanted to replace the pyramid with the rainbow. Birt and LWT executive producer Nick Elliott, with whom I had several weeks of discussion before committing, were open to my ideas and so, reluctantly, suffering some scorn from my superiors, I left the uplands of the BBC for the jungles of commercial television. As it happened, ITV was in terrific form.

My agenda for putting the arts on screen went back to the roots of my own experience, and my work as a novelist, in which my drive was to put front-of-stage people from my own background – working class. When I began writing, at university, it seemed to me that – save for glorious exceptions such as Hardy and Lawrence, and comparatively recent novels by some fine Northern writers – English fiction had largely neglected or ignored the mass of English people. They were servants, clowns, pitiful – at best rude mechanicals. I know now that there is a raft of working-class representation in fiction over the past 200 years, but I was largely ignorant of that at the time.

Even if I had known, I’d have felt no less strongly. It felt as if we had been left out, sometimes no more than part of a number: “with 14 men”, “with seven servants”. English history, as taught, skated above the people. For instance, we had to swallow the ridiculous claim that at Waterloo the battle was won “on the playing fields of Eton”. Simply untrue. The battle was won by armies of men from Britain and Germany well led by Wellington and Blücher.

And so, in 1969’s The Hired Man, I wrote in anger, provoked by my grandfather’s imminent death. He had been a number all his life. He was born into a family of 16, undereducated, a farm labourer at 14, then a coal miner, a soldier throughout the First World War, and a father of eight children, all of whom led worthwhile lives. He was as thoughtful, talented and sensitive as any of those who wore fine clothes and dominated fiction. Naively, I thought the novel could “show them”.

It makes sense to me, looking back, that the opportunity to set up a much more democratic arts programme related to my upbringing. In the 1970s, almost anything at the Royal Opera House was still ipso facto “better” than any stage musical, or pop album. West End theatre was necessarily superior to television drama, which often beat it hollow. The only dance in town was classical ballet. There was no place on the arts rostrum for such high-definition performers as Victoria Wood, Billy Connolly and Ken Dodd, and television comedy was somehow excluded as an art form.

The great enabler for artistic change was, as if often the case, the advance of technology. Through the taping of television and decisive advances in sound recording, the popular arts at last had full access to posterity. They could be heard and seen again and again, just like books. And, just like books, they could be reassessed and absorbed as part of the tradition.

On The South Bank Show, the aim was to collaborate with artists to discover how they had started, why they did what they did, and to illustrate it: a variation on rags to riches, a classic story that I thought would make the programme accessible. The artists we chose were contemporary – which often provided another layer of identification – and the subject, not the director, was to be the star, even though The South Bank Show directors were to mop up awards by the score. They bought into the idea that, in the end, talking heads rule. Andrew Lloyd Webber gave us our title music – a rock version of Paganini’s 24th Caprice. Over the years, we have tracked Andrew’s unmatched career, challenging the might of the American musical.

You never know where art turns up. You can’t legislate for it. Early novels were disdained; the flicks were considered a trivial amusement; television was originally thought unfit for artistic purpose. All have triumphed. To prove we were serious in our mission we led our first programme, on 14 January 1978, with Paul McCartney. It seemed to me then that his work would last as long as that of any other composer/lyricist of his generation.

Some critics were damning but those that mattered to me, such as Clive James in the Observer, saw what we were doing. In the interview he did for our 40th anniversary programme, he said that he had feared we might be pretentious about popular arts and fail properly to represent classical arts, “But that,” he said, “was the problem you set yourself to solve, and you did.”

I went to interview McCartney in autumn 1977 in the Abbey Road studios. It was evening and the studio was  still full of the clutter of the 90-piece orchestra that had been rehearsing during the day. Paul and Linda strolled in from their house around the corner as if they were going from one sitting room to another. They were about two hours late, as friendly as could be, Linda taking photographs from the moment she arrived and Paul taking his time  before we moved over to the piano for the interview. He was witty, reserved, cool – a well-mannered, working-class young man.

In the first few programmes, we opened with a 15 minute digest of the week’s arts news. We dropped it. We didn’t have the resources to make it as good as it should have been. We concentrated instead on the films. Some of the press were antagonistic. I was regularly roasted, and there were mutterings that we could be hauled off after one season. The only way forward was to go flat out: Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic; Satyajit Ray; Ingmar Bergman’s first interview in English; Ken Dodd; television drama by Dennis Potter; David Hockney, whose career we have followed over the years; and a documentary on the opening of Kenneth MacMillan’s new ballet, Mayerling, which won us our first Italia Prize and helped save our bacon.

We made films with about 900 artists, a list competing with the genealogies in the Old Testament. We were lucky to hit a new wave of American cinema directors – Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese – who were wonderfully communicative and insightful about their work. We were on to the YBAs – Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread. We featured Eric Clapton, twice – once when drunk, and later reflecting on this after 20 years of sobriety – and Michael Flatley, who attracted an audience of nine million. Peter Maxwell Davies, Joseph Heller, boogie-woogie, Tamara Rojo, Yinka Shonibare. There were artists well advanced in their careers – David Lean, Laurence Olivier, Francis Bacon – and those near the beginning, such as Cecilia Bartoli, Amma Asante, Ian McEwan and Dizzee Rascal.

Sometimes, it was tricky. With Harold Pinter, in our first season, I was very nervous – partly because I admired him so much. He let me flounder on hopelessly in the interview while he watched carefully, smoking a black Sobranie, silent and perhaps enjoying the sport. When I saw it in the cutting room there was egg all over my face but I also thought it said a lot about Pinter and his work, so I kept it in. A few weeks later, when he saw the film, he got in touch and said: “I’m sorry about that.” I also retained a particularly drunken encounter with Bacon, for similar reasons.

We wanted to hold on to the old forms, to stage plays by Arthur Miller, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, but also track the powerful new national theatre of television drama with Jimmy McGovern, Sarah Wainwright and Kay Mellor.

These names are a fraction of The South Bank Show’s still-growing output. The programmes are now lodged in the archives of Leeds University library, together with more than 8,000 cans of unseen rushes. These will soon be available for research.

Eight years ago, I parted company with ITV when a not-unusual downturn in advertising revenue caused panic and I was asked to cut programme numbers from 20-plus a year to four. I refused, and the show moved to Sky Arts, where it goes on, and where we have started other strands, producing 30 South Bank Show Originals a year, recut and updated films from the archive.

Over the past four decades, appreciation of the arts has grown rapidly. Arts programmes have been part of this, and must continue to reflect and add to this. We neglect the arts on television at our peril. l

“The South Bank Show 40th Anniversary Special” will be shown at 9pm on 14 January, on Sky Arts

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief