Going since January 1978, The South Bank Show has finally been choked to death by the all-encroaching polystyrenisation of terrestrial TV. In the shopping mall that is weekend broadcasting, it came to resemble a beleaguered secondhand bookshop — quirky, cranky, unapologetically interesting — in the midst of a wasteland of junk food franchises. And now it’s gone.
And with its goes the second-best TV theme tune ever! And that’s not faint praise. First place goes to the Alice-down-the-rusty-plughole theme to pre-eighties Doctor Who, which is religious music, as far as I’m concerned. (Third goes to Big Ron for Have I Got News For You.)
There were two criticisms people who didn’t like The South Bank Show had about it. One was that it was always about people you’d never heard of. It wasn’t, but when it was, then — duh, dat was duh point. The other was that it was pretentious. “Pretentious” in the sense of “It embarrasses me when people talk about things with any degree of curiosity or intelligence, so I’ll call them pretentious then run giggling for the exit.” So I don’t care about “pretentious” as a criticism either.
My favourite episode was the Clive Barker interview from 1994. I videoed it and watched it till the tape stretched, went snowy, and got tangled in my VCR. Then I transferred it to audio (having no way of getting it onto digital video at the time), and still listen to it on occasion when I need a dose of inspiration. (You can find it on YouTube, though the sound’s not in sync. I’d quite happily pay good money to have a proper DVD of it.) But The South Bank Show didn’t do much fantasy, nor horror. (There was a J G Ballard episode, and the inevitable show on The Lord of the Rings when the Peter Jackson film came out, but that was about it.) In fact, it hardly ever did the writers, musicians or artists I wanted to see on it. But I still watched it without fail. Even when I knew enough about whoever was on it to know I didn’t like them. I either ended up liking them, or spent a good hour arguing with the TV. Now that’s entertainment! Generally, though, it was just the air of books, art, films, or whatever creative pursuit it was — the atmosphere I like to breathe. I usually recorded it and watched it the following Monday evening, as a welcome corrective to the first weekday back at work. Now what am I going to do?
Well, it’s not the end of the world. Melvyn Bragg is still doing In Our Time on Radio 4 (which gets podcasted — thank you BBC!), and because it’s Radio 4, he can be as obscure and pretentious (or interesting and curious, as I prefer to put it) as he wants to be.
And Imagine… But, no, that’s no substitute. It ought to be, but it just isn’t. To my taste, Alan Yentob puts himself that little bit too much in the picture. Melvyn Bragg always began The South Bank Show with a quick, “Hello, tonight’s film is about so-and-so,” and then we were off. Alan Yentob has to make it a personal journey — his personal journey. We have to have interpolated shots of him wandering around with his hands in his baggy trouser pockets, looking thoughtful. The one Imagine episode I should have liked the most — on Haruki Murakami — was in fact about nothing but Alan Yentob, with no Murakami in it at all. And, yes, Melvyn Bragg did appear again to do the interviewing, but he always asked intelligent questions. Alan Yentob does the interviewing too, but, sorry, he just asks naff questions. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe it was just the crap theme music which put me off from the start. (I mean, the show’s called Imagine. So why have the least imaginative theme music on TV? Even QI‘s plunky piece of nothing is a step above Imagine‘s. They’ve changed it for the latest series, but I can’t remember what the new music’s like, so it may be an improvement, but it’s still not Variations.)
But there’s BBC4, so that’s alright. It’s not like the demise of The South Bank Show is leaving TV a total cultural wasteland. (There’s the Culture Show, too. A bit magaziney, and it somehow always ends up covering the same subjects as Late Review, but at least it interviewed Alan Moore, which The South Bank Show never did.)
Still, The South Bank Show has always been my favourite, and I’ll miss it. And so, till Melvyn Bragg reincarnates into a younger looking boffin with a redheaded Scottish sidekick… Oh no, that’s the other programme. Oh well, goodbye, South Bank Show!