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28 September 2017

Front Row is a new low for the arts on TV

Could this be one of the dumbest, most anodyne arts programmes ever made?

By Rachel Cooke

I wasn’t planning to review the television incarnation of the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row (23 September, 7.30pm). The spectacle of one journalist having a go at another (or, in this case, several others) is boring and a bit detestable, particularly when she knows some of those involved (I have, from time to time, appeared on the radio version).

But then I saw it, and I was so gob-smacked I began to think such a swerve would only look self-serving. Could this be one of the dumbest, most anodyne arts programmes ever made? We are indeed nudging that territory.

Things they didn’t discuss in the first show: the opening of JT Rogers’s acclaimed play Oslo at the National Theatre; Simon Rattle’s triumphant return to the UK; the forthcoming novels of Jennifer Egan and Alan Hollinghurst; the new TV series The Deuce by David “The Wire” Simon; the arrival of the Turner Prize show in Hull. Things they did, albeit only for about a minute at a time: Michael Winterbottom’s new film, On The Road (OK); what they thought about the winners of the Emmys (good); what they “thought” about… Harry Potter (good, and not so good).

Alas, we never learned what they made of Gilbert & George, but this was hardly their fault. After watching a film in which the actor Luke Evans, wearing a special arty scarf, was sent to fanboy the artists in east London, doubtless they felt nothing at all. I know I didn’t.

The programme was presented by Giles Coren, still punchy after his announcement, made via the Radio Times, that the theatre makes his botty hurt (naturally, on air he went straight to it, sarkily insisting that he couldn’t wait to see Oslo). His guests, perched on a sofa in a pound-shop Newsnight studio – it appeared to be constructed of Duplo and lightsabres, as if its designer had simply nipped to Hamleys in their lunch hour – were the writer and comedian Viv Groskop, and the DJ Nihal Arthanayake. Am I imagining how uncomfortable Groskop and Arthanayake looked? Maybe. Or perhaps I just couldn’t see how they could have been anything else.

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Implicit in the interviews that Coren and the series’ other presenters, Nikki Bedi and Amol Rajan, gave to the Radio Times was the message that sincerity in the matter of certain kinds of culture is stupid and affected, which leaves Front Row with a serious problem. How can guests risk sounding interested, let alone knowledgeable, when they know this will only earn them the contempt of the chair?

Who’s Front Row for? Clearly, not those who already enjoy Radio 3 and BBC Four. But if it’s aimed at a new, younger crowd, why did no one stop to think what effect such an atmosphere might have on its prospect of reaching it?

Contrary to the beliefs of those who commissioned this programme – if I am pretentious and soppy-sincere, they are full of internalised condescension – the way to get the attention of those who dread, say, the prospect of the theatre isn’t to confirm their assumptions. Nor is it to talk down to them. It’s to give them access. It’s to prove to them that sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – art can be so beautiful and funny and sad and true and (oh, God) relevant that you cease to care whether or not your seat is comfortable.

So, that’s BBC Arts: stalled in some weird, patronising cul-de-sac. Its drama department, however, is lately on the up. Unlike seemingly everyone else, I don’t think the difficulty with Ian McEwan’s 1987 novel The Child in Time lies in its horrifying opening, in which a little girl is lost; it’s the rest of the book, hippyish and sentimental, that’s problematic – something Stephen Butchard’s TV adaptation (24 September, 9pm) didn’t do much to alleviate.

But I loved the challenge of this almost theatre-like piece, the fact that it wasn’t easy or straightforward (no police procedures, no press conferences, no obvious forward trajectory). Director Julian Farino drew exquisite performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kelly Macdonald, Saskia Reeves, and Stephen Campbell Moore, and when I first saw his film in a screening room at BAFTA at the end of a very long Monday, I never once thought about my backside.