"The Lively Arts" didn't exactly come out of nowhere-it came out of Europe, mainly-but the series arrives with unexpected excellence tonight at 8 on channel 26. "Bernini," a handsome and fascinating 1973 BBC documentary about illustrious Italian sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, begins a procession of 38 foreign-produced arts programs.
Who should pop up as the writer and commentator for the hour but Robert Hughes, the art and architecture critic who would much later becomes, for one brief numbing moment, a cohost of ABC's magazine show "20/20," though bounced after the first telecast. Hughes looks like a pile of pudding on the screen, but his commentary on Bernini's life and works is luciditus maximus.
Here and there he strains for irreverence, lest things become too dry. Thus is St. Peter's Square, which Bernini whipped up on orders from Pope Alexander VII, referred to as a "religious Rose Bowl." But then he also calls it "the grandest outdoor ceremonial space in the world," a fact the camera obligingly verifies.
Naturally it is the pictorial rather than the vocal which makes this program. The BBC crews got special permission to film in the Vatican, and there are breathtaking shots of the Pole's route from Vatican Palace to the Piazza. Just as impressive, however, are closeups of the sensual grandeur of Bernini's early sculptures and the incredible textures he achieved with stone.
Executive producer Ruth Leon hopscotched the globe to clooect the "Lively Arts" programs, and future editions will deal with such figures as Tennessee Williams, Victor Vasarely (the Hungarian op-artist), Chicago-style blues and, next week, that incorrigible Peck's Bad Fogey, Henry Miller.
Of course it is criminal that there is no series of American-produced programs on arts subjects and personlities on public TV, but that is no reason to keep from acclaiming this grabbag of imports, a coproduction of Channel 26 and South Carolina ETV, an apparent godsend. In addition, Theodore Bikel does a brisk and pithy introduction as part of the U. S. "wrap-around" for the shows-for once neither preachy nor overproduced.
The time has come to stop congratulating ABC for its series of "After school Specials" and begin chastising the network for failing to expand on the program. This year there have been seven new shows and seven repeats; next year's schedule will be exactly the same. Although the spirit of the shows has been exported to an additional Saturday morning "Weekend Specials" nook, this seems token and minimal.
This season's last new program, "The Seven Wishes of A Rich Kid," airs today at 4:30 on Channel 7, and it's another sure winner for the series, though lighter in style and content than the best programs of the past. Aunt Thelma, a klutzy do-gooder who materializes on TV screens and grants wishes in batches by the seven, was introduced in the first weekend special, "The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody"; she returns now to grant the requests of a 7th grader so wealthy he can't think of anything he needs.
Though brightly written by Jeffrey Kindley and nimbly directed by the dependable Larry Elikann, the primary asset of this show is the casting-everybody is spendido, from John Denver look-alike Robbie Rist as the kid, to Christropher Hewett as the butlere Runcible (keeping alive a tradition begun in movies like "Top Hat" by the endearingly supercilious Eric Blore), to Rex Robbins as the boy's preoccupied father and even to, unmistakably recognizable, Joe Silver as the voice of the boy's lluggish abasset.
Yes, the dog talks-because the kid wastes his first wish on a whim. "There's something I've been meaning to tell you," the dog says. "I loathe Rassie Wassies," the meal Runcible pours out of a box. Most redoubtable of them all, though, is Butterfly McQueen, returning in the role of Aunt Thelma and still as bubbly and attemtion-grabbing as she was in "Gone With the Wind" 40 years ago.
The prosocial message this time is a slim and lame one-"You just have to be yourself." What, agaian? Meanwhile, it's time ABC started learning some lessons from these programs. Anything this highly praised, multiple awarded and well-watched (and by now, knowing ABC, undoubtedly profitable) deserves to be more generously financed so there are more new shows and fewer repeats each season.
ABC Inc. reported revenues of more than $1.7 billion for 1978. They can afford it.