Saturday Review — the long-running Radio 4 arts review programme that was due to come off air in the autumn — has been given a reprieve that has stunned and delighted people in the arts and beyond.
The decision to drop the programme — presented by Tom Sutcliffe and featuring a rotating cast of critics — was widely criticised, and last month a petition to save it gathered hundreds of signatures, including from such prominent figures as the writers Philip Pullman, Philip Hensher and Francis Wheen.
It’s not clear what impact the campaign had, but an about-turn was announced today [Wednesday] by Radio 4’s Controller Gwyneth Williams “The initial decision to close Saturday Review was a difficult one to make,” she said, “but after a great deal of consideration I will be keeping the show on air at this time. Bearing in mind the challenging financial climate I am glad that, for now, I’m able to have both Front Row and Saturday Review as part of Radio 4’s ambitious and wide-ranging arts content.”
Radio 4 has increased its arts coverage this year, with new series including Only Artists, Behind the Scenes and, soon to start, a monthly strand focusing on the regional theatre scene called Opening Night. But all these programmes — along with the weeknight arts programme Front Row — are interview- or magazine-style in format, and there was a growing feeling in the arts world and among Radio 4 listeners that the element of criticism that was the essence of Saturday Review was being lost in the mix.
“Disinterested and knowledgeable debate is something the BBC needs in the arts,” Hensher wrote on the petition to save the programme. “It’s not good enough to promote the arts without discussion. Saturday Review is a very good thing. (I declare an interest as an occasional participant).”
Other regular participants include the critics Natalie Haynes, Linda Grant, Sarfraz Manzoor and David Benedict. The format involves a trio of critics, under Sutcliffe’s chairmanship, reviewing a new film, play, novel, and visual-arts exhibition. The programme is noted for the liveliness and occasional heatedness of the debate. A Christmas special in 2016 opened things up to listeners, who contacted the programme with their own cultural highlights of the year.
In the wake of the news, Sutcliffe tweeted his thanks to “all those who wrote with kind words. I really appreciated the support. You can go back to being annoyed by us now.” A subsequent tweet from him read: “Saturday Review: heals the sick, reconciles the divided, lubricates rusty machinery, kills moths. And reviews things.”
A Radio 4 insider said: “I think it is an extraordinary volte face. They said it was going because it is too expensive and suddenly they have found the money. Maybe they found a lot of money down the back of the R4 sofa.”