BBC Front Row on BBC Two: not a complete disaster

The BBC’s new arts show has attracted quite a lot of negativity.

Front Row on BBC Two is a TV version of the successful Radio 4 show, fronted by three presenters each taking their turn to play host to two studio pundits.

The first edition went out on Saturday, fronted by Giles Coren. This in itself wouldn’t otherwise be a problem. Coren is surprisingly cute, if a little awkward on-screen.

The fact that he’s not regarded as an arts journalist doesn’t especially help, although there’s a rebellious quality about him which makes him slightly endearing.

Don’t be an arse, Giles

His unfortunate interview with the Radio Times has certainly drawn attention to the new programme (for all the wrong reasons), but its interactions on Twitter which have done the most damage for me.

His exchange with Bonnie Greer and Joan Bakewell on Twitter in particular, projected an image of Coren as a belligerent, uncaring, and privileged individual lacking in empathy, intent on adopting a cavalier approach to his role. His comments about classical music were especially dispiriting.

We’re not a bunch of snowflakes Giles darling, but if you’re looking to sell a TV programme to a dubious audience, less bullishness and a little more respect would probably pay dividends.

All that said, the first edition wasn’t quite as bad as everyone feared it might be.

Charlotte Higgins is right – it does smack of the BBC’s fear of talking ‘expert’ on TV about any cultural experience. A long string of BBC Proms programmes couched in a similar vein reinforces the point.

In Front Row‘s defence however, it’s worth stressing that in a long tradition of first episodes, the programme needs some tweaking so it can be a whole lot better than it was.

Give it an hour not half-an-hour

In terms of subject matter, it all feels a little too ‘light’. A half-hour programme doesn’t allow anyone to go in especially deep, hence discussions and packages tended to be superficial.

Quite why anyone thought it was worth discussing the merits of Harry Potter or JK Rowling’s success is a little beyond me, but I’m working on the basis that things will improve editorially in future. Have the programme stretch to an hour, and there’ll be a little more time to dig around.

Earnest, smug and dismissive

The pundits – the painfully earnest Nihal Arthanayake and sound Viv Groskop – conversed despite the fact there seemed to be little or no chemistry between them.

The fact I was shouting at the television when I watched it wasn’t in itself a massive issue (I used to do the same whenever Paul Morley was on the couch during Newsnight Review), but there were some shocking moments of the kind I imagine we’ll not see again.

Nihal’s contribution to the discussion around the adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams in particular appeared reductive, dismissive, and, at times smug. He didn’t shy away from explaining his feelings about the show, but it appeared unable to explain why the Channel 4 drama didn’t work for him, other than saying “It’s just boring.”

Viv Groskop strove to present a more balanced and informed view on the subjects she contributed to. However, the inclusion of Nihal dismissing Groskop’s assertion about the drama’s cinematography had more than a whiff of ‘mansplaining’ about it.

Must try harder

Coren isn’t a natural presenter and he’s done little no work ingratiating himself in the run-up to the series. Expectations have as a result been set very low. But it wasn’t a complete disaster. And there’s every chance it might just improve.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water just yet. There just needs to be a little more rapport in the studio, otherwise the atmosphere there and at home is going to be really quite tense.

There are two more presenters to judge yet, and assuming Front Row will go through the same line-up changes Top Gear did after the revamped series returned, I’m assuming there’ll be some radical changes. Fingers crossed.

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