Sarah Todd: Strictly culture sounds like good idea from BBC2

GOOD news for those of us sick to the back teeth of Saturday night television. BBC2 is taking on the likes of The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing with programmes dedicated to arts and culture.

Sarah Todd is not a fan of Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing.

First things first. There is no point pretending to be a culture vulture when it comes to viewing habits. It has to be confessed that hardly an episode of Coronation Street is missed and there is just something about American Pickers (especially the slim one Mike) on the Freeview channel Dave. In mitigation, or some may say another nail in this correspondent’s cultural coffin, the children know never to come into the kitchen at 7pm when The Archers is on. Radio 4 you know …

The internet signal, or whatever you need, isn’t good enough where we live to get Netflix or any other fancy channels. The Husband is too tight for Sky so we are one of the few families who have never seen the cult on-demand programmes more than half the population seem to be talking about.

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Unable to work whatever bit of equipment has replaced the video recorder, viewing is, for this technophobe, whatever is on mainstream television.

Over the years the odd contestant on Strictly has been supported, such as the Yorkshire lads Darren Gough and James Martin. But as the years have gone by, fewer names have been recognised; let alone faces. In the 2016 line-up there’s only the lady from BBC Breakfast, Naga Munchetty, who we’ve ever heard of. Among the men, there’s the pop star Will Young and that ‘former’ MP Ed Balls. Least said about him the better.

Like its rival The X Factor, it was a good format but bringing these shows back year after year serves nothing more than scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Like a good wine, if they were forgotten about for a few years, they could then be brought back to the table as one-off specials and served with pride.

The children love ITV’s Geordie duo Ant and Dec. They are staples of Saturday night television but perhaps the secret of their success is that they don’t appear to take it all very seriously. When Simon Cowell or Bruno Tonioli are deliberating, you’d think they had the result of the Presidential election in their hands. Get real. Does it really matter? Do we really care?

BBC2’s Saturday night season started last week with a deliciously watchable programme presented by the ever-affable Rick Stein. A decade old, his reflections on the parallels between his love for Cornwall and those of the late poet laureate John Betjeman, proved that good television never dates. He even read this household’s favourite poem – Hunter Trials – and took the crew’s mickey-taking rhyme about the prices in his restaurants on the chin. The extra magic ingredient was that with it being a repeat from his Food Heroes series he was accompanied by his late (and much lamented) Jack Russell terrier Chalky.

Next, a contemporary twist on WH Auden and Benjamin Britten’s Night Mail, with a documentary featuring six British poets interpreting the human stories they saw on a train from London to Glasgow made for thought-provoking viewing. Very watchable.

To be honest, artist Kate Tempest (who “merges hip-hop, poetry and theatre”) giving a live rendition of her album, Let Them Eat Chaos, hardly had me reserving the best chair in front of the television.

But stay with it though, because later in the season Michael Palin will make an appearance, along with Julie Walters interviewing Willy Russell, the writer of Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers.

Other commissions include a programme about the Adrian Mole creator, Sue Townsend, and a behind-the-scenes film about auction house Christie’s, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.

Come Christmas and the channel will be showing Alan Bennett’s Diaries, a programme documenting the 82-year-old writer over the course of a year. It follows the Leeds-born playwright as he travels to New York to accept an award from the city’s public library. On the flipside, it then follows Bennett to his local community-run library in London which, he despairs, some would rather see turned into a Pizza Hut.

Mark Bell, the BBC’s commissioning editor for arts, wisely admits that “they are not all going to be back of the net ratings-wise”. As an aside, it would be interesting to know if anybody said that when Great British Bake Off was first launched on BBC2.

The station has grasped the nettle and hopefully started a movement away from slack-jawed acceptance of tosh on TV. There is a thinking audience and it’s about time the BBC and all its overpaid suits realised they don’t necessarily live in London.

Three Saturday nights in October will be devoted to books and reading, including profiles, interviews and documentaries around the 2016 Man Booker prize. Great stuff, but let’s make sure that it’s not elitist in tone so that those of us who also enjoy a Jilly Cooper aren’t excluded.

So, television programmes on a Saturday night presented by (and dedicated to) real talent. Sounds like a winning formula. Funny nobody’s ever thought of it before...

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.