Point of View: Lost in The Space

Richard Stevenson contemplates the benefits of the BBC's new online arts venture

I don’t normally shout at the TV, and if I do it’s only to encourage proponents of major sporting events, such as Foxy Boxing. It’s rarely an outburst at the factual information programme BBC News at Ten. But on the launch day of the BBC’s most forward-thinking initiative since iPlayer, the online arts platform The Space, I found myself in tooth-spitting form.

You see, I am quite a fan of ‘the arts’ generally, and even went to see Macbeth at Stratford once – although as the opening sequence didn’t have quite the pace and drama of Casino Royale, nor any decent LFE action, I admit I fell asleep before anyone got knifed. Fine art has an even greater appeal. I am first in line for a Dali exhibition and have been round the Louvre three times – once in long trousers.

However, the arts industry is beset by pomposity and fact-blind pundits so far up their own orifice that you would need a Damien Hirst cross section just to see their face. In fact I just don’t care much for contemporary artists like Mr Hirst, or pieces of art like Tracey Emin’s infamous unmade bed. While I salute both artists for earning many millions of pounds from their endeavours, I can’t help wondering if they sit at home at night thinking, ‘I just can’t believe I am getting away with this.’

Anyway, the VT narrated by the BBC’s superbly eccentric Will Gompertz focused primarily on how The Space was a new digital platform aiming to revolutionize the way we consume the arts. Against a backdrop of rare John Peel footage, performing arts and theatre, The Space was portrayed as a vehicle to bring arts to the masses and open the whole concept to a wider audience. But for the sake of balanced reportage they wheeled out playwright David Edgar. He noted that if the performing arts are done digitally everyone will sit at home and watch it on TV, rather than going to the theatre. Our great national institutions would no longer tour the country and that would be the death knell for live theatre.

While everyone is entitled to their opinion (obviously outside of this column) Edgar’s view is so misguided you just know he is a Damien Hirst fan. For instance, back in the day of VHS and Betamax you had to wait over a year for a movie to be available on either format, sometimes longer. The opinion among film producers was that if people could watch movies at home they would no longer go to out the cinema and that would be downfall of the movie industry.

Fast-forward 30 years through VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, 3D and more ways to access movie content at home than ever before and where is the film industry? According to IBISWorld research, in 2012 worldwide movie production is expected to top $127 billon, up 1.4% for the year. Last year UK box offices alone took over £1bn in revenue in the midst of a recession and recorded the best admissions figures since 1971. The very same is true of the music industry, which has experienced constant year-on-year growth in live gig attendance since the advent of the industry’s supposed nemesis, MP3.

A help not a hindrance

The fact is that high-quality digital distribution of media actually grows awareness of the arts, and with it public enthusiasm to attend live events. The Space is an absolutely brilliant idea from the BBC and, far from denigrate the theatre industry, I expect it to bolster box office numbers throughout the UK. I’m confident that its six-month trial will see it become one of the world’s leading digital hubs for all forms of the arts. Except Damien Hirst, because he is just as rubbish on television.

Do you go out to the cinema less than you used to?
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This column first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Home Cinema Choice