Philip Edgar-Jones interview: ‘Arts programmes can’t always be accessible’

Sky Arts director Philip Edgar-Jones
Sky Arts director Philip Edgar-Jones

When it was announced in July that Sky Arts was to air on Freeview, it felt a little like a declaration of war against Broadcasting House. With the future of BBC Four uncertain, the new visibility of the 13-year-old Sky Arts was clearly going to be a boon to those who lament the dearth of arts broadcasting.

So it is surprising that the main ambition of Philip Edgar-Jones, director of Sky Arts, regarding the BBC is one of collaboration. “You might not believe it,” he tells me over coffee at Tate Britain, “but I would like to work with them on a big participatory project that unites the nation.”

Like what? Edgar-Jones, a quietly spoken, courteous sort of chap says he doesn’t know, before adding: “Something like our Landmark project.” This is a series, part of the new line-up, in which artists join forces with local communities to create new public art all over Britain. Indeed, this sounds very BBC, Reithian even (“I don’t have a problem with that,” says Edgar-Jones) and surely, I suggest, something that the BBC ought to be doing. “There is no reason we can’t serve the public.”

Of course, he is wary of sounding combative, insists that there is room for both Sky Arts and BBC Four and gently admonishes me for using the latter channel as a synonym for the Corporation’s arts output. “People always conflate it but they do arts everywhere – BBC Two, radio.” He does, however, admit one crucial difference. “We take the arts seriously, but perhaps a bit more lightly.”

That lightness has been crucial to the success of Sky Arts, which rose from the ashes of the unloved Artsworld (which had a classical music bias). Performers such as André Rieu and series such as Portrait Artist of the Year (and lockdown hit Portrait Artist of the Week) afford the channel their highest audience figures (around 600,000 per episode) and show the benefits of accessibility. Edgar-Jones sounds like he is still floating on air concerning Portrait Artist. “I loved the fact that there was this community sharing tips on how you paint lips or how you paint hands long after the series finished,” he says.

Natalya Romaniw in ENO's La boheme - Robert Workman
Natalya Romaniw in ENO's La boheme - Robert Workman

But then I suggest that there are some people who believe Rieu has no place on any self-respecting arts channel. “I know, and I think the snobs are wrong,” says Edgar-Jones. “There is a place for him as much as there is a place for anything else.”

Edgar-Jones is keen to point out that one of the things about Sky Arts is that people will stumble upon something they know nothing about and suddenly gain a quick education (he cites a letter from a viewer who tuned in for Rieu and got a Norman Mailer documentary instead and was perfectly happy) and it is true that there is plenty of high-end content to keep those with more recondite tendencies happy.

He lauds Portrait Artist… where the “clear purpose of the judges was to explain things in an accessible way. But that doesn’t work for everything. If you are making a documentary about Tintoretto you have to be academic and I have no qualms about that… But also you have to treat all sorts of subject matter – say Wagner and the Isle of Wight Festival – with the same amount of respect”.

Danny Dyer (with Kenneth Cranham) in his new programme about Harold Pinter - Andrew Muggleton
Danny Dyer (with Kenneth Cranham) in his new programme about Harold Pinter - Andrew Muggleton

I say that the need for rigour is refreshing in a culture where there is so much hand-wringing over accessibility, and Edgar-Jones agrees. He does, however, want to “demystify” the arts, to be “popular, not populist”.

In his career, Edgar-Jones has certainly been the latter. He was the producer of notorious Nineties Channel 4 show The Word and, after that, was the creative director and executive director of Big Brother. However, he had a clear desire to exalt the trashy reality show, telling me about the time when he contacted the Tate, suggesting that they assemble all of the Big Brother audition tapes on monitors and stack them up in the Turbine Hall. “It was meant to be about the nature of celebrity,” he says. Did they bite? “No, they didn’t like it.”

Edgar-Jones was born in 1966 and grew up in Edinburgh. He was inspired, artistically, by the city’s International Festival and by the persuasions of his grandfather, a grocer who had left school at 15 and was an enthusiastic adopter of the cine camera and a lover of the works of HG Wells. The family’s creative tendencies have been passed down to the next generation, with Edgar-Jones’s 22-year-old daughter Daisy finding success very publicly this year, starring in BBC Three’s surprise hit Normal People, based on the novel by Sally Rooney.

Philip Edgar-Jones's daughter Daisy in BBC Three's Normal People - Enda Bowe
Philip Edgar-Jones's daughter Daisy in BBC Three's Normal People - Enda Bowe

He also tells me that when he was young, in the Eighties, “there was a lot of culture happening during Thatcher’s reign. I mean, you always get a lot of creativity during periods of unrest. You had great working-class art then, people like Dennis Potter. It wasn’t a bunch of old Etonians giving you art.”

Certainly this latest period of unrest has been good for Edgar-Jones in some ways – “Lockdown has demonstrated that people are hungry for creativity” – and viewing figures have risen 25 per cent since March with a weekly reach of about 2.5 million. He does, however, worry about the future of the arts in general.

“I worry about this generation coming out of art college or drama school who don’t have the opportunities that they would normally have.

“That sets diversity back, and if we don’t diversify we won’t change our audiences.”

For if Edgar-Jones is relaxed about intellectual accessibility, he is passionate about social accessibility. Currently, he is looking at ways for Sky Arts to help sustain those arts organisations who are pumping out free content on their website to little commercial gain, and the channel is also starting a £30,000 bursary scheme to allow emerging artists to work alongside established practitioners.

“The Arts Council can try and save buildings, we can try and save people,” he says.

Popular violinist Andre Rieu
Popular violinist Andre Rieu

If this sounds proselytising, there is an element of arts zealotry about Edgar-Jones. He talks about wanting to reinvent arts TV, and one of his ideas (not yet greenlit) is to allow artists to take over the channel for four or five hours at the weekend and create their own shows.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster but he says that he revels in the freedom he has at Sky: “If I made lots of traditional programmes, they would be disappointed. They want us to be bold.”

Of course, boldness costs money. Sky doesn’t disclose its programming budgets, but the forthcoming raft of programmes must seem eye-wateringly flash by certain quarters of the BBC who yesterday announced a fairly spindly autumn arts line-up, although it should be noted that the Corporation is launching a book group, something which Edgar-Jones tells me he had also been thinking about.

“We fell behind on books,” he admits. “But doing books on TV has always been tricky. It is all right with biographical pieces on authors the viewer is familiar with, but it is harder doing stuff on new work.”

As well as Landmark, there is a Danny Dyer documentary on Pinter (not quite the cheap thrill you’d expect, as Dyer worked with the playwright and knew him well); Ian Rankin on Muriel Spark and Michael Morpurgo on the Chatterley affair. There will be live performances, too, including a live stream of ENO’s “drive-in” production of La bohème. There is also a new late-night discussion show hosted by Tim Marlow (Sky Arts Late) that Edgar-Jones says was inspired by After Dark, the Channel 4 Nineties show that was loved and loathed in equal measure.

“Navel gazing is definitely a danger,” he admits, “which is why we need people on the show who are going to point out where arts people have got it wrong. It shouldn’t just be for the liberal elite.”

Though Edgar-Jones wants to open up his channel to a wider audience socially (at the moment he says the average viewer is his age – 54, compared with BBC Four’s which is 62), he is not in pursuit of youth. He says: “We are always looking to broaden our subject matter, but we would be mistaken if we set out to chase a particular demographic. As an arts channel, we don’t think in those terms. I tell you, if we did a yoof magazine show, we would be laughed out of the industry.”

Of course, a certain broadcaster is known to be youth-obsessed, and Edgar-Jones has a very close connection there with daughter Daisy. The actress is currently living with him (“eating him out of house and home”) and I wonder if he has given her any industry advice.

“No, she has an agent to do all that. I haven’t said anything,” he says.

Or a future role on Sky Arts? He laughs. “I think she would probably refuse. She has bigger fish to fry.”

Sky Arts launches on Freeview on Thursday September 17