As interest in the arts is increasing, if only to criticise, the cultural heritage of the North-East is to be featured in a national TV showcase.

Tim Marlow is the face of art on five. A "national art treasure" one commentator dubbed him. He certainly has an infectious enthusiasm for his subject as anyone on the GNER train heading for Newcastle the other evening would have heard as he described the beauty of Durham Cathedral to the blind Kurdish man sitting opposite him in the carriage.

He was travelling to the Baltic for the launch of the second phase of five's Fivearts cities initiative in Newcastle/Gateshead in which he'll play a key role.

Liverpool was the inaugural city for this partnership between five and Arts Council England in 2004. Now it's the turn of the North-East to feature in this national showcase aimed at showing off the country's cultural offerings while encouraging people to explore both the arts and their own creativity.

Marlow will present documentaries and programmes from the city and beyond. Five will screen a special feature on the premiere of the Hayward touring exhibition, British Art Show 6, at the Baltic in September. There are plans to go further afield with a profile of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. A film about Newcastle's architecture in the Pevsner's Cities series opens the season.

Marlow realised quite early on after the Liverpool scheme started that Fivearts cities was going to be both successful and important. Five's art is clearly in the right place, you might say. "I'm ging to dip my toe in the water. It's a bit of a clich but what I'm here to do is a journey of discovery. I'm not here to preach to the people of Newcastle and Gateshead," he explains.

He says that, ever since his days of doing Radio Four's Kaleidoscope, he's travelled the country and isn't just London based. He can even point to North-East family connections through a Geordie cousin and his mother's brother marrying a local girl. So the area's known to him.

Fivearts cities gives the region a national outlet to show off its artistic endeavours and comes at a time when interest in art is increasing, even if it only to criticise it. Marlow sees TV as following the agenda, not setting it, while admitting he doesn't know the reason for this surge of artistic interest. But he does have clear ideas of how TV should treat art.

"The essence of a good arts programme is that it's made by people who, deep down, believe that the subject they're covering is more important than the medium in which they are operating," he says.

"That's not to say TV isn't an art form or doesn't matter. It's just that I know what I'm explaining is more important than the programme I'm making. It's the kind of arrogance that some news programmes have."

The makers of the five art shows have resisted the temptation to overproduce the programmes by jazzing them up with things like fancy editing.

Marlow's happy to stand around in front of works of art just talking about them. He believes in more than two second snapshots of art, feeling that "TV is probably the natural medium for art". He came to the small screen through radio which, he thinks, often deals with the visual arts better than TV. He doesn't see radio as the poor relation and still does work for the BBC World Service.

"I knew I wanted to work in the arts. I did an MA and PhD, but didn't finish because I got sucked into the media," he says. "Ask me what I will be doing in five years' time and I don't know."

Five's Controller of Arts, Kim Peat, probably hopes that he'll still be fronting five programmes. She says that Fivearts cities is about finding people to share in the arts through other than the more conventional routes. Five is a good partner for Art Council England because "we don't carry the same baggage as BBC arts programmes," she adds.

"From five's point of view, it's got to where our arts programmes are established and shown in peaktime. It seemed a natural progression to have a proper programme of events and education workshops outside London.

"Viewers watched the Liverpool programmes and we're seeing the end result of the workshops, educational and outreach work we've done. I'm looking forward to the same happening in Newcastle/Gateshead.

"If you put on a programme about a certain exhibition or event, it will drive people to go to see it and, hopefully, that will spark an interest in the arts."

As in Liverpool, it's hoped to involve the WEA (Workers' Educational Association) over the coming year. "You build a framework of activities spinning off from programmes and events, although not all of them have to be tied in with them," she says.

"You create something which has a lasting legacy. We want more than to go in, spend a year in the city and disappear for good.

"It's our aim to create something that has lasting impact - and that's certainly what's happened in Liverpool."

Although she won't give precise figures on how much Fivearts cities is spending in Newcastle/Gateshead, she does say it runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

As far as Andrew Dixon, Executive Director of Arts Council England, North East, is concerned, the scheme couldn't have come at a more opportune moment as the region experiences a cultural renaissance. "This allows us to present that nationally through the media, but also quite importantly allows us to have a debate about what's happening and get people's views on the art and architecture," he says.

"Suddenly, the region has been culturally playing on an international stage, so to have something like five come in and take a look at what's happening is a fantastic profile for the North-East.

"One of the main reasons we're involved is audience development, to get people to experience different things."

* Pevsner's Cities: Newcastle With Gavin Stamp is on five on Tuesday at 7.15pm.

Published: 12/03/2005