Tuesday, April 27, 2004

BBC Young Genius of the Year?

He's like a Mini-Mee of John Ogdon: a plump 11-year-old Essex boy with a brace on his teeth. 'Benjamin, what did you enjoy most about it?' a bemused Stephanie Hughes asks him. 'Um, being in front of an audience and playing to them, 'cos that's what I like doing,' comes the answer, half smiled, half mumbled. Just before this exchange, little Benjamin has been out on the platform, playing the piano with a maturity of expression and beautiful roundness of tone that any 30-year-old pro would be proud of.

Yes, it's the BBC Young Musician of the Year again and this is exactly what it's for: discovering talents like that of Benjamin Grosvenor, who's clearly destined for great things. Of course he's only 11 and has a long way to grow, but most of us know a genius when we hear one.

But there's controversy going on too, and it's not about Benjamin or even the competition itself, which is always controversial ("exploiting young people to make good telly"?). It's the way it's being shown. The final is on BBC2 on Sunday 2nd May, but the semi-finals this week are only on digital channel BBC4 and most of the population can't get BBC4. Marginalisastion of the arts, everyone shouts. (Apologies to my international readers: here in Little Britain we habitually fall between floorboards and then spend more time howling that it hurts than we do filling in the cracks.)

I don't want the arts marginalised any more than anyone else does, but I do have a problem with that viewpoint. First, the digital channels are brand new. The idea that moving the YMoY semis to a new channel means a downward shift in arts policy from the Beeb itself is a little shaky - presumably if they had had a digital channel to move this to 10 years ago, they would have done so. Secondly, the snail's pace at which the government wants to convert all TV to digital and switch off analogue (by 2010?) means that people haven't much incentive to spend £99 on a digital box. Yet when you think how much your average Brit usually spends on a night out in the pub binge-drinking, £99 doesn't sound so much. BBC4 is an arts channel. Those of us who pay our licence fee but loathe panel games have never had one of those before.

Of course a performance like Benjamin's should have been on terrestrial national TV. However, one doesn't generally expect to hear anything like this on YMoY. 'Historical' moments don't come often and while the other young pianists on the show were very talented, they didn't make me stop cooking dinner. Most years, that's how most of the players are. But when young Benjamin gets out there to do his concerto on Sunday, BBC2 will indeed be there. And with any luck by Monday morning he's going to be a household name.