From the fantastic Punk and The Pistols to a voyeuristic tour of Chelsea Hotel and unique insight into Nelson Mandela's time at Robben Island in Voices from the Island, Arena has been serving up ground-breaking documentaries for over 40 years. Like its contemporary, The South Bank Show, it aims to bring a diverse range of cultural explorations to its varying audiences.
The series was created in 1975 by then BBC Head of Music and Arts Humphrey Burton and launched on BBC2 to explore art, design, filmmaking and theatre in a magazine format. Then in 1977, under producer Leslie Megahey, Arena became less of a magazine and more a home for short, distinctive and stylish films about visual arts. It was divided into two programmes, Arena Theatre and Arena Art and Design. Two years later, under the editorship of Alan Yentob it relaunched as simply Arena once more and adopted a format of single subject essays. By the time Yentob left the show in 1985 Arena had garnered no less than six BAFTA nominations and three awards.
Looking at its subjects from alternate perspectives, Arena does not cater for the masses and will certainly not focus on celebrity in the way we have come to know it. The show does not shy away from popular culture but it certainly aims to get behind the tabloid images of its subjects. Take the wonderful essay on the tragic Amy Winehouse for instance. A beautiful insight to a young woman with an amazing talent and heart-breaking troubles. We see the real Amy and hear about her love of Gospel singing and her inspirations, not simply about the amount of times she had stumbled out of celeb haunts.
Having great footage of ‘greats’ that are no longer with us is a wonderful treasure.
Younger audiences would not know so much about the likes of Dennis Potter, Salvador Dali or Poly Styrene, if it were not for arts shows like Arena. You may not be into Heavy Metal, Crime Fiction or Scouse comedians but with thoughtful insight, you see the people, the creativity and the drive that makes people what they are, regardless as to whether it is your cup of tea or not.
Arena is serious, informative, educational and honest. It is also funny, quirky and upbeat, with unique takes on culture and fame. No Not This One lets us in to the not so happy times of Hollywood greats and their famous friends, with unique footage of rejection letters and knockbacks that show us just how hard it can be to make it big.
There are episodes that require concentration and others, such as the joyous Sonny Boy Williams episode, that you can just sit back and enjoy with a nice glass of wine on a Friday night.
For a programme that is old in many ways, it is so fresh in its approach to bringing us award winning TV that celebrates real culture. Alan Yentob and the Arena team won many well-deserved accolades for the boundaries they broke. On Yentob’s move to become Head of Music and Arts in 1985, Nigel Finch and Anthony Wall, directors with a reputation for producing radical films and documentaries, took over as joint editors of the series. They produced and directed notable Arena programmes such as My Way, an examination of the appeal of the song and building a format for poetic meditation of an unlikely subject and breaking down its various aspects.
Another notable Finch made documentary, Chelsea Hotel, profiled the famed New York Hotel and its legacy of famous gay guests, including Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Quentin Crisp and Andy Warhol. Wall profiled Luck and Flaw, John Peel and the BBC’s own Desert Island Discs. After Finch’s death in 1995, Wall stayed at the helm of the series through an uncertain future. A reshuffled at the BBC threatened to cancel the arts strand but Wall kept it alive outside the convention of popular and established channels and since 2003 it has been broadcast on BBC Four and BBC iPlayer.
With over 600 episodes since its humble beginnings audiences were excited when the BBC launched the website Arena Hotel which gives visitors the chance to re-watch classic documentaries. The 'Hotel' is just one way of highlighting shows from the archives through a “variety of experimental forms”. Be sure not to miss Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel, which is storytelling at its best regardless of your religious inclinations. With plenty more life left in its creative cauldron, this awarding show is sure to be a hit for years to come.
Arena is not afraid to take on heady subjects or to court controversy and it certainly doesn't aim to please, but simply tell it like it really is. And very welcome it is, too.
Published on June 20th, 2020. Written by Deborah Giannasi & Marc Saul for Television Heaven.