The BBC is bravely dedicating its Saturday nights to art – but will it work?

Rosie Millard, former BBC arts correspondent, investigates

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What are you watching this Saturday? Strictly? The X Factor? Quite possibly. But what if shiny-floor shows aren’t your thing? Where can you find something more challenging – a guaranteed three-hour oasis in the sandstorm of sequins? More than two years after BBC director-general Tony Hall pledged to reinvigorate the BBC’s arts coverage comes a season of dedicated programming. This cultural push isn’t destined for “arty” BBC4. Neither has it been snipped up and sprinkled over weekday nights – instead it’s out there loud and proud on Saturday BBC2.

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“We will make Saturday nights a place to indulge in culture away from the light entertainment on BBC1 or ITV,” says new(ish) channel editor Patrick Holland.

Wow! Out go the weary repeats – though not Dad’s Army – out go the quizzes, out go arts review shows. No more rows between arty types sitting on bright sofas, discussing Tracey Emin? Holland laughs. “Well, The Culture Show hasn’t been on for 18 months now…”

Quite sensibly, he and director of BBC Arts Jonty Claypole sense that with instant reviews of nearly everything online, the audience’s appetite for chitchat about what books to read and what films to see has been slightly dented. All right, goes the thinking, why not replace arts magazines with shows that are art in themselves? Performance art. Poetry. Arty documentaries. It’s brave. But won’t it have everyone bar committed culture fiends running for the hills?

Holland believes not, thanks to a deliberate mix of the famous and the daring. “We are making programmes about Willy Russell and Sue Townsend, as well as performance art. By curating them together on the same night, rather than spreading them through the schedule, you will have a breadth of shows which… speak to each other.”

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Kate Tempest will be performing live as part of the arts coverage

Holland points to new commissions such as this week’s contemporary version of WH Auden and Benjamin Britten’s 1936 film Night Mail, which has six poets including Sabrina Mahfouz and Imtiaz Dharker observing human stories on the train from London to Glasgow. Yet Holland’s new schedule also boasts programmes featuring Michael Palin and Alan Bennett.

“We need to be engaging with cutting-edge new artists who reflect the world we live in. But we also want to be making films about our national treasures,” says Holland. “So after a documentary on Roald Dahl, for example, there will be BalletBoyz’ first full-length feature.”

Driving audiences to arts shows has long been a struggle for the BBC, even though arts coverage is clearly central to its Reithian core. Do you cover art by pointing a camera at a stage (à la Sky Arts), do you make art yourself, or do you go to an exhibition and get Alan Yentob or Andrew Graham-Dixon to wander around it, talking? 

It seems as if Holland favours a bit of all three. He’s clearly determined to wrest the culture baton away from Sky Arts – and even BBC4 – with an unapologetic line-up of performance, observational documentary (he’s sent cameras around Christie’s, for example) and actual art.

BBC2, which covers the Man Booker Prize, is about to announce a new deal with Tate, to cover the Turner Prize. And this Saturday, the first arts night will even include poetry in the continuity breaks. What, instead of “Here’s the news and weather”, there will be someone reading a poem? “Yes. Only there is no news and weather on Saturday nights on BBC2. Which makes it easier,” says Holland, smoothly. It might work.

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Arts on Saturday Nights begins with Railway Nation: a Journey in Verse tonight