By David Thomson
Under plangent chords written by Brian Eno, an empty bottle floats into view on dark blue water, coming closer, until we read the pink message—”Arena”—on the glass. No, it’s not a cola elixir or the best bottle of beer you ever threw away—but it’s the opening to one of the greatest television shows ever put together and sustained for 40 years.
As a BBC program it was launched in 1975, led by Humphrey Burton, the then Head of Music and Arts, as a way of extending the traditional attempt to cover the arts on mainstream television. But as time passed—and as leadership was taken up by Leslie Megahey, Alan Yentob, Nigel Finch, and then Anthony Wall—the format has been flexible enough to take on various shapes and sizes, and very different emotional moods. Indeed, the initial air of celebration of art and its participants acquired deeper tones of melancholy and even tragedy, as if to show that creative work for all its glory and popularity could be a hard life to pursue.
Arena does not appear regularly, and it frequently surprises its own admirers in the directions it takes, but in nearly 45 years it has produced more than 600 shows, ranging from a four-part survey of jazz musician and bass player, comedian, motel manager, and orange farmer Slim Gaillard, to a two-part biography, The Private Dirk Bogarde (2001), directed by Adam Low, that gently revealed the closeted homosexual in the great actor and that deserves a key place in his filmography alongside movies like The Servant (1963), Death in Venice (1971), and The Night Porter (1974).
On several occasions, Arena’s ambitious programs have become stand-alone feature films that have won theatrical distribution. These include Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), with Lili Taylor winning several prizes as Andy’s would-be assassin Valerie Solanas, Jared Harris as Warhol, and Stephen Dorff as Candy Darling. Then there is Martin Scorsese’s 208-minute documentary on George Harrison, Living in the Material World (2011). But maybe the most remarkable of all is director James Marsh’s somber film essay, Wisconsin Death Trip (1999), inspired by Michael Lesy’s book, published in 1973 and haunted by events in the Black River Falls area from 100 years earlier. The book is a unique marriage of text and archival still photographs. The movie followed that model but acted out several voices from the book, and included an austere but poetic narration by Ian Holm. It also had an original score composed by DJ Shadow and John Cale.
The television show had its roots in theater and music, but it quickly reached out to literature and cinema. Over the years, Arena would deliver classic portraits of Luis Buñuel, Orson Welles, and Ingmar Bergman, all of which were notable for searching interviews that lasted several hours before being shaped and edited for the show.
The range is so open, and so dedicated to a personal vision in its every work, that Arena deserves to be recognized as an essential element in British culture, along with the BBC itself, Penguin Books, the several enterprises gathered on the South Bank in London, and the unique British respect that can take things all the more seriously through a mixture of irony, fond challenge, and reverent mockery. There’s no need for all arts commentary to be solemn, academically high-minded, or elitist. The imagination may be our most democratic function, and Arena has always preferred to bypass those institutions and doctrines that feel they control art.
So Arena has delivered groundbreaking studies on punk, on the relationship between Princess Diana and the media, on the subversive TV program Spitting Image (1984-2014), and on such diverse iconic figures as Amy Winehouse, Sister Wendy, Harold Pinter, Jonathan Miller, V.S. Naipaul, and Edna Everidge. And don’t forget the program that explored the bonds between Charles Dickens and cinema.
But Arena has adored America, too, even if it sometimes finds our cultural landscape hard to credit as anything other than a surreal movie. It is remarkable that it took a British team to deliver Wisconsin Death Trip, and it’s just as important that Arena has also covered Sonny Rollins, New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Dave Brubeck, Hedy Lamarr, Phil Spector, The New York Review of Books, and The Burger and the King: The Life & Cuisine of Elvis Presley (another James Marsh film).
The versatility of the format, the apparent eccentricity in some choices, and the consistent depth of attention are not easily balanced. In its heyday, the BBC turned wayward impulses into huge hits (like Monty Python’s Flying Circus), but that has raised problems in a schedule more and more drawn to system and repetition. The BBC once so open and impulsive has been subjected to cost analyses and business plans that can have a chilling effect. That leaves the continued presence of Arena all the more remarkable. It is a tribute to Anthony Wall who has stayed in charge of the show since 1985, and who has some bruises and unhealed wounds from that experience. Not everyone at the BBC has admired the castaway bottle. It would require unreasonable optimism about British bureaucracy to feel confident that Arena’s messages will keep floating into our thoughts. In so many ways, the show has now earned the right to deliver a program about itself (it would require many parts) that presents both the achievement and the dismay of Anthony Wall, and the team he has worked with.
More recently, the program created Arena Hotel, a rich website archive of its many episodes and invaluable background materials that may not have reached the screen, which is as absorbing as the sketchbooks of a painter or the early drafts by a novelist. No wonder Werner Herzog once remarked that Arena was “an oasis in the sea of insanity that is television.”
In giving the Mel Novikoff award this year to Arena, the Festival honors its small army of men and women, an attitude that maintained independent ideals and—most important of all—the notion that television might be a medium through which we the people stay attached to the human imagination in an age when technology, materialism, and unconsidered or unmediated “progress” are owning and controlling our airwaves.
David Thomson is a film historian and critic. He the author of the oft-revised The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and many other books, including his most recent work, Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire (2019).