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Last Updated: Friday, 28 January, 2005, 10:11 GMT
Why mixing art and news adds drama

By Mark Lawson
Presenter, Newsnight Review

On the set of Newsnight Review
Mark Lawson: 'In a Newsnight Review panellist, energy and eccentricity helps'
When Newsnight was 21 or so, it gave birth to an offspring slot: Newsnight Review.

In fact, the parenting was strictly an adoption, as the new arrival had already lived for several years on BBC2 as Late Review and then Review.

The move to a new home in news, though, was the first time that a round-table barney about the arts had been given a weekly presence on the channel.

To some - who perceive news as hard and arts as soft - the programmes seemed an unlikely match but it seemed to me in theory, and has proved to be in practice, an exciting combination.

Review, in its previous forms, had always tended towards punch rather than puff in coverage of culture: a show with regular panellists including Tom Paulin, Ian Hislop and the Greer sisters Bonnie and Germaine was never going to be a publicist's friend.

The most-remembered moments involve high conflict... John Harris and Paul Morley on whether Bono of U2 is a guru or another four-letter word entirely
This energy has only been increased by the experience of picking up from a fast-moving, hard-hitting news show - the presentational equivalent of jumping aboard a moving train - rather than starting cold in a separate studio. New panellists - Ian Rankin, Mark Kermode, Julie Myerson, Michael Gove, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Paul Morley - have added to the edge.

The discussions are never rigged - there is always the risk that all the guests will like everything - but the most-remembered moments of the show involve high conflict: Tom Paulin and Germaine Greer needing a demilitarised zone between them while discussing a drama-documentary about Bloody Sunday, John Harris and Paul Morley savagely outlining their opposite positions on whether Bono of U2 is a guru or another four-letter word entirely.

As with a drama, the success of Newsnight Review depends on casting and choice of subject-matter. Guests are selected on a basis known in American television as "soap opera casting": i.e., on character and difference rather than the opposite approach of "thematic casting": an undertaker to review Six Feet Under, a lady boxer to comment on Million Dollar Baby and so on.

Eccentricity

Tom Paulin and a statue of James Joyce
Newsnight Review aims to take on both high and low-brow arts
In a Newsnight Review panellist, energy and eccentricity helps. One regular reviewer believes that Howard The Duck is the second greatest movie ever made and another has, on three separate occasions, declared on air that he has never previously seen a Star Wars movie.

These are contentious positions to hold but they encourage discussion and dissent, which are the strength of the programme. The point is that it isn't possible to be wrong on an arts review programme.

Well, it would be wrong to discuss Martin Scorsese's direction of Finding Neverland or Clint Eastwood's work on The Aviator but there is no error in arguing that either or both of these movies rank among the best or worst ever made.

Critical opinion is never wrong: the measure is the intelligence and persuasiveness of the evidence called in support.

And, in terms of choice of subject matter, the lesson of the show is that there is no relation between the strength of the topic and the power of the item. A long-awaited novel or blockbuster exhibition can produce a dutiful review while an undercooked book or piece of television trivia might provoke a captivating debate.

High and low art

The fact that the discussions range across the disciplines - so that a typical show might include a film, a book, a play and an art show or television programme - has led some to think that we are suggesting equivalence: that high opera and television soap opera have the same cultural weight.

That isn't so but works of art do not exist in isolation - theatre and opera, for example, have been influenced by the style and popularity of cinema - and most consumers of culture now are promiscuous: enjoying both high and low art.

The format of Review places different kinds of art against each other in the same way that they must compete for public interest in the listings pages and the adverts on tube station walls.

Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer walked out of the reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother
And, through being half of Newsnight, Review can also put culture in the context of the news. Only the heartiest of arties can enjoy entertainment with no reference at all to what is happening in this country and others and so the proximity of real events informs the discussion.

This has been a particular benefit in the last year when so many of the works under discussion - by Michael Moore, David Hare, Philip Roth, Nicholson Baker, Ian McEwan - were inspired by events in America and Iraq.

The only serious worry about the move from arts to news was that the pressure of news events would constantly cut into our time.

It seemed to me inevitable - and understandable - that, on any given Friday, the drama of the Tory party leadership would always seem more important than any play or a dossier would trump a novel.

In fact, the programme has only once been cancelled (on the day the Iraq War began) and once been seriously truncated: on the night of Ken Bigley's murder in Iraq.

Even the edition of September 14th 2001 survived, though becoming a themed discussion of the reflection in culture of the attacks on America.

This record of continuity even at times of mass distraction suggests that the relationship has worked. Although this is only my view and the panellists may well disagree with me as they have on everything else.


Newsnight Review is broadcast every Friday on BBC Two at 11pm immediately after Newsnight.

Newsnight is 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the links on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.




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