Can Susan Sontag elucidate the offside rule?

'Did you know,' my sister was asking, 'that BBC Four has Eddie Izzard in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Peter Brook's Hamlet?' What I didn't know was that my sister had a particular interest in Brook's visceral reworkings of Shakespeare. And what I was learning was that BBC Four's marketing was working: by bombarding Radio 4 listeners like my sister with ads, the BBC are hoping to make the sceptical reconsider their view of digital TV, which up to this point they have imagined is full of sport, porn and fifth-rate cooking shows. Even the Four bit of BBC Four will help tempt Radio Four listeners along. It's certainly more appealing than BBC Knowledge, which is what the channel used to be called - that's just a little too improving for anyone to buy into. The billboard and tube BBC Four ads are lovely, too: suddenly stations have been beautified by big black-and-white pictures of Philip Glass and Sam Taylor-Wood and Ian McEwan and - of course! - Susan Sontag looking moody and brainy in parks or windswept beaches. You've got to feel flattered if they are using Susan Sontag to sell you something. Even the one wrong note - Dennis Hopper - is forgivable because his California modernist house is such a beautiful - such a BBC Four? - presence in its own right. This Dennis Hopper, of course, is not really the man who appeared in such movies as Super Mario Bros or Space Truckers, but his alterego who frolicked with Warhol and was an early collector of Basquiat and is always used to spice up contemporary art documentaries. The cumulative effect of the BBC Four campaign is that feeling you get on a pleasantly drizzly day when you've just scored an original RD Laing paperback from a charity shop for 50p and for a brief but dizzying moment you are possessed by the notion that erudition beats looks and money hands down. All of which matters because in order to shut down the traditional TV signals and auction them off, the government desperately needs to sell digital to the 50% of the British population who have shown precious little interest in multichannel TV so far. The millions who not only think they have quite enough channels already, but haven't ever strayed across to Channel 5. The big hope is that some of them - the ones who if possible would prefer not to have a TV at all, the ones who claim they only watch Channel 4 News and Newsnight and good documentaries - will see those big black-and-whites of Glass and Sontag and soak in that seductive slogan ('Everyone needs a place to think') and think 'mmmm, that looks nourishing.'

I don't have BBC Four yet, but not because I'm too smart for digital. Hardly. I don't have it because the money-haemorrhaging cable company I subscribe to haven't wired my building up for digital, which means I have to make do with a weak analogue signal and very fuzzy MTV. Consequently, the only BBC Four programme I have seen is Britart, which is also running on BBC2. Which is OK, apart from the annoying animation they use every time the narration reaches a point where Charles Saatchi has bought something (often, then). A quick glance at the schedules, though, suggests that the channel at the moment is a lot less exciting than the ads. And despite my sister's enthusiasm, I'm not convinced this big BBC Four push will work. It's the Footballers' Wives debate, you see. A few weeks ago, BBC 2 ran a pretty good version of Crime And Punishment. It provoked all the right reactions: complaints about the violence (necessary as it might seem in a story that can't exist without a brutal double axe murder) and because it was shot using handheld cameras. When any fool knows, surely, that 19th century St Petersburg was fully equipped with dolly tracks and camera cranes. But talking to people and reading the papers, it seems that the overeducated were spurning Crime And Punishment. Because it clashed with Footballers' Wives. Why, they asked, watch something as tragically middlebrow as a Dostoyevsky adaptation when there were jacuzzis and champers and the partially clad former Hollyoaks stars and wildly unconvincing European accents on ITV? Here was murder and redemption and all the rest, but togged up for the era of Posh'n'Becks. Simply everyone was talking about it. And then a funny thing happened in the eternal waltz of British class/culture manoeuvring. ITV declined to order a second series of Footballers' Wives. Why? Because no one was watching. Or at least only the people who write columns and leader pieces for the broadsheets or the kind of people who look at you sneeringly when you say you've admit you were watching Crime And Punishment instead. People who share the delicious self-loathing indulged in by BBC overlord Gavyn Davies, warning off white bourgeois audiences. It turns out that Footballers' Wives wasn't a Great Pop Moment at all. Not the new Dynasty. Not so much an S Club 7 as a Girl Thing. The kind of programme that would have been better off on Channel 4. Am I surprised? Not really. After all, people with an non-theorised taste for trash always knew that there was nothing Footballers' Wives did that hadn't been done already on Sky One's Dream Team. As for me, I'm dreaming dreams of discussing notions of the artist's responsibilities to the truth with Taylor-Wood and Sontag (but not that overrated old rightwinger Hopper) in grainy Anton Corbijn b&w, if the whole crumbling digital TV industry doesn't go bust in the meantime.

© Mark Morris 2002