I don’t think I’ve ever seen an hour long documentary about an Arts Council scheme and thought, ‘you know, the only thing missing there was some criticism.’ But last night’s BBC 1 Imagine documentary on the Own Art scheme was so absolutely positive it could almost have done with someone going ‘hang on a minute, what about…’ The programme, with Alan Yentob, explored ‘a small revolution in art collecting’ as a result of this interest free loan scheme. (Declaration of interest: I chair ArtCo, the trading company of Arts Council England which runs the scheme, alongside a similar one relating to musical instruments.) It was a really fascinating programme, warm, affectionate and optimistic.
It was a great demonstration of not just the worth of the scheme, but of the fascinating and glorious variety of ordinary people. Whatever I might have thought personally of their taste in visual arts, I'd fight for their right to exercise it. Each person spoke eloquently and with passion about their works, and the impact on their lives, their families and how they saw the world. They all contained a little surprise which defied expectations and reminded me how easy (and silly) it is to pigeonhole people and the arts position in their lives. The sculptures next to the collection of Jean Genet books, for instance, turned out to belong a gentle policeman in Yorkshire. And the down-to-earth keeness and curiosity of the Darlington mod and his wife commissioning a portrait - he thought it was mainly of his scooter, but as Alan Yentob pointed out it was entirely of him - made me mad again at how working class is more often used these days as a synonym for dysfunction than as a positive description of decent people like these. Here was an intelligent, discerning and culturally demanding working man, ordinary and unique like most people are if you scratch the surface, without pretension. I could, though, hear snootier parts of the art world sneering even as his portrait was unveiled. Well, to adapt a great new Malcolm Tuckerism, when I want their opinion, I'll give the signal -which is me being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. (Non-British readers: that's a quote from The Thick of It.) Meanwhile, I'd suggest the BBC occasionally add the couple to the commentators on the Culture Show - not instead of but in addition to the expert regulars.
Anyway, dismounting my hobby horses before they gallop away with me, it's a lovely film and I won't let any purists tell me otherwise. I'd say there was something quintessentially English about it, and there is, except that the Scottish Arts Council are very strong partners in Own Art, so will go for British. It's available on the I-player here until 29th December.