RCA opens its doors

The Royal College of Art is the latest institution to let the TV cameras in. The result is a great marketing tool for the college, says Lynda Relph-Knight.

If the Royal Opera House board had foreseen the repercussions of TV docusoap The House, would it have let the BBC in to film it? Who knows, but it was in full knowledge of the possible consequences that Royal College of Art rector Christopher Frayling opened the college doors to the camera crews for a similar exposé.

Frayling’s motives aren’t stated. But if public acclaim – and possible sponsorship – was his goal, he’ll probably get it. He wasn’t risking much censure by TV viewers for, unlike the ROH and Selfridges, the London department store which also went under the lens, the RCA isn’t a public institution with a mass audience that feels it has a right to have a say. Nor are we British sufficiently schooled in the processes of art and design to venture much opinion.

But the six-part series will come under close scrutiny by art and design fans, not least because of the traditional tension between the two camps. Frayling cuts to the quick in the first programme, The Chosen Few, saying that, despite its name, the RCA is “70 per cent design”. Changing perceptions of the college is his prime aim, he adds.

The artists get a look in, with a whole programme on painting. But with old boy David Hockney saying failing to get his diploma hasn’t hampered his career, the slant isn’t in that direction. Design is the thing.

Mind you, the definition of design is oddly lacking. Over the weeks, we see lots of product design, with controversial professor Ron Arad in action, architecture with superstar professor Nigel Coates, fashion and mass-production metalwork. But where is the graphics, or the work of students on Gillian Crampton Smith’s excellent computer-aided design course? Public perception will wrongly be of a college given to intellect and artefact, but not communication design.

We have to remember that BBC Bristol is the editor of the piece and any spin is of producer Jill Nicholls’ making. It’s interesting though that the camera should focus so regularly on newish RCA stars such as Arad and Coates, skirting over the shortcomings of Industrial Design Engineering, but missing out completely courses like graphics where top-level staffing was still an issue as the film went in the can.

The real star though is Frayling, already a regular on TV with his watchable series on history and popular culture and dominating the first show. “Never one to miss a marketing opportunity,” the commentator says of him, as we see him leaping in and out of taxis or meeting and greeting the great and the good to push the college’s case.

The Duke of Edinburgh, Chris Smith, Peter Mandelson – they’ve all been there. But the classic scene of the series is where Frayling leaves the home of RCA benefactor Helen Hamlyn, unable to contain his disbelief. “I’ve just got £1m for the college. It’s extraordinary isn’t it,” he tells the camera. Not quite the cool 007 of the movies he admires.

We see the college warts and all, with gritty issues such as funding, staffing and student penury. There’s no obvious party line, with students getting as good a showing as the staff. The verdict is that there aren’t that many warts to show, which will come as a relief to Frayling. The series is a great marketing tool, but it still makes fascinating viewing.

Royal College of Art starts on BBC2 with The Chosen Few at 9.30pm on 14 September

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