Mark Brown Arts correspondent
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Mary Beard is to be the new regular presenter of the TV version of Radio 4’s Front Row, with the BBC returning live arts debate to a Friday night slot.
The Cambridge classicist has been named as the anchor for a series of six programmes that will be broadcast after Newsnight at 11pm, promising “cultural debate, critical reviews and interviews”.
Beard presented one episode of Front Row last year and enjoyed it. “But more than that I really think it is important to bring good arts comment and discussion to television,” she said. “If I can play my part in that, I’m up for it.”
She said it was too early to say what the style of the programme would be, but suggested it would be different from the old Newsnight Review. “In general I never think it is a good idea to try to recreate past successes. You have to strike out on your own, for better or worse.”
The Front Row job confirms Beard as one of the BBC’s most prominent presenters. She will be on screen next month presenting two episodes of Civilisations, regarded as the most important arts programming commission for a generation.
Beard said her cultural tastes were both high and low. But she added: “I’ve never been much interested in the divide. The world is full of what was originally ‘low’ culture being incorporated into the ranks of the ‘high’. And, to borrow an example from the classical world, ancient Greek theatre also tends to challenge any easy division.”
Patrick Holland, controller of BBC Two, called Beard “one of the most thought-provoking intellectuals in the UK and a defining voice for BBC Two”.
Front Row has been Radio 4’s flagship arts programme for 20 years, but its transition to TV last year was a bumpy one.
After the demise of BBC Two’s The Culture Show in 2015, it was announced that a TV version of Front Row would be shown on Saturday night but would be hosted by a new team and not the regular Radio 4 presenters: Kirsty Lang, Samira Ahmed and John Wilson.
That worried some fans. More alarm bells rang when Giles Coren, Amol Rajan and Nikki Bedi were announced as TV hosts and gave their opinions on theatre. Rajan said he did not go that much as he had a young child; Bedi said she struggled with shows with no interval and Coren said he found plays too stressful and theatre seats too uncomfortable.
Those comments sparked a backlash and Coren announced last month he would not be returning to Front Row. He tweeted: “The arts (and especially theatre) world will be wearing black armbands today, as they learn that a bursting diary has forced me, very regretfully, to stand down from presenting the next series of Front Row on BBC2.”
For the record, Beard enjoys theatre. “You can hardly be a classicist and not be interested in theatre,” she said. “I enjoy good theatre ... and disturbing theatre and, yes, I enjoy a night out at the theatre, like last Saturday in Cambridge ... important to remember it doesn’t just happen in London.”
The new format is perhaps an acknowledgement that the first TV series did not work as well as the BBC had hoped.
The BBC said the series “is continuing to evolve”. It outlined the format of the programmes with a broad brush, saying: “Mary and her guests will focus on vibrant and challenging discussion of the big ideas behind the week’s artistic developments.”
Many arts lovers struggle to keep up with the details of the BBC’s regular arts programmes.
There was anger after the BBC announced last April it was scrapping the Radio 4 show Saturday Review, ironically for a Saturday version of Front Row. In August, after an online petition, a reprieve of the programme was announced.