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Theatre launch flags up lack of TV arts show

The announcement this week of the first collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and what we must learn to call the National Theatre of Great Britain on three new Scottish "history plays" by Rona Munro was followed that evening by an event at the Traverse Theatre putting the stories of James I, II, and III in the context of the rest of the NTS's 2014 Dear Scotland season.

While we invited guests (and the press presence was significantly outnumbered by friends and associates of the national company) made up the audience in Traverse 1, artistic director Laurie Sansom - insisting that this was the last occasion on which his job title took the prefix "new" - interviewed some of the writers, musicians, directors and performers who will make the upcoming productions.

It was an interesting way for Sansom, who has the challenge of staging the James plays at the Festival, to present the first full programme of his tenure, and it was also, I think, difficult to imagine his predecessor, Vicky Featherstone, taking the same approach. Sansom transparently, and with acknowledgement, treated the whole event like a TV chat show, inviting participants "onto the sofa" and casting himself as the night's Graham Norton. He pulled it off with some style too, and the atmosphere was a fine advertisement for the collegiate approach of the company to making work that covers a great deal of thematic and geographical ground, and reaches a vast potential audience.

It also looked particularly familiar to me, the Norton-esque flourishes perhaps excepted. Back in the last decade of the previous millennium, for a couple of years I held the reins of a Scottish television arts magazine show on which much of the discussion I heard last week would have sat happily - if the programme still existed.

We certainly put people on a sofa while I asked them (hopefully illuminating) questions about their forthcoming work, perched on a tea-chest. We showed inserts of pre-recorded video (although I don't remember actually saying "run VT" as Sansom delighted in doing), and we had readings and musical interludes, which the Traverse evening also featured. I'm sure many of you can just about remember such programmes even if you don't recall STV's Don't Look Down (it was often broadcast very late).

Where, I found myself thinking, would the Laurie Sansom show find a home on the box of today? I don't see daytime TV, but I don't believe it has much in the way of contemporary cultural and arts commentary. The last vestiges of BBC arts programming is migrating from BBC Two to corners of BBC Four, and less of that tells stories about what is actually happening now, out in the wide cultural world beyond television. STV long since dispensed with the services of people who made programmes like Don't Look Down.

Yet we do have programmes, on STV and BBC Scotland, as well as on other networks, made in other places, that feature a rolling cast of sitting people being asked questions by a presenter. Almost without exception, these people are politicians, or journalists with an interest in politics, or academics with expertise on a topic that is being debated by politicians. These are (crucially) inexpensive shows, with the same set and furniture, but that would be true no matter who is talking. Why has television stopped inviting anyone else to its party? Would I be less bored of the late evening dingdong if it looked more regularly beyond Holyrood and Westminster? That's a rhetorical question, obviously.

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