Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Adam Nicholson and Sheila Hancock: the best and the worst of programmes

John Hurt is currently supplying the voice-over for the brilliant BBC series Human Planet – the script he’s been given isn’t the best in the world, but it doesn’t detract from the fascinating scenes of how humans live with nature around the globe – and he delivers it like a true professional, with no hint of “Look at me, I’m a luvvy!” emoting.

I turned on BBC One to watch Sheila Hancock Brushes Up: The Art of Watercolours on Sunday night slightly worried: that this actress - whose charms have always eluded me would spoil a potentially fascinating subject: spoil it she did.

Why would the BBC spend a small fortune to allow an ageing left-wing thespian to potter around the world examining a topic about which – it soon became evident – she had nothing particularly interesting to say?Wouldn’t a knowledgeable art historian have been a better bet? But this was BBC One, so I’m guessing her celebrity status was the reason for choosing her. The programme summed up what’s wrong with getting ACTORS to front anything – they tend not to know very much, they deliver self-scripted lines extremely badly (like bad actors, in fact), they’ve usually cost a packet to hire, so the producer is scraed to leave them off-screen for too long, and, off-puttingly, they try to make us feel emotional about things – one presumes because that’s what their day job consists of.

The programme was beautifully shot, as you’d expect – no expense spared. Some of the paintings on display were superb. That’s where the praise ends.

First, there were the portentous, tendentious statements which must have had everyone shouting “Hang on!” at the screen every few minutes: watercolours were “the perfect medium for capturing the beauty of the world, as well as its dangers and tragedies” (unlike pencil-drawings, oil paintings or photographs?): “what I like most about water-colours is their ability to capture emotion” – huh?;  “there’s nothing wrong with doing things for love rather than money” – who but a raving idiot would think otherwise?; watercolours were “on the cutting edge, the photography of its day” – meaningless.

Then there were the clichés – “india,” we were informed, “was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire”. I mean, for God’s sake! Was she actually awake when she wrote that?

Then there were the pointless intrusions of her own life into the narrative – her father painted watercolours (bully for him!); on being shown an early work by Turner she exclaimed “Oh, that’s were I learned to swim!” Relevant how, exactly? 

She was rarely off the screen - did we really have to see her clambering into Francesco Da Mosto’s motor-boat and worrying whether he had a horn (as it were)? Or making such a deal out of how difficult it is to mount an elephant (as it were). Or gooing over poor wickle donkeys in the Alps? And why a painfully protracted sequence where she dissed some Indian sweets named after the watercolourist wife of a Victorian Governor-General (practcally shoving one down the gob of some poor child who’d been roped in for the sequence)?

And then the oodles and oodles of luvvy liberalism - the endless re-interpretation of past events through spectacles produced in modern-day Islington. Turner ““had all the cards stacked against him – far from being born with a silver spoon is mouth, Turner was a poverty-stricken Londoner… [he was] an outsider and a rebel and he didn’t give a damn about the snobbery towards watercolours.” Right on, Johnny! When Turner visited Venice, it was “full of starving Venetians”. When an art historian told her Turner dressed like a “Gentleman Painter” because it was “a passport to patronage” Sheila came over all self-righteous: “Well he didn’t need it – he has our respect now.” But you don’t, lady. Turner’s Venetian watercolours ”horrified the arts establishment… some even accused him of being insane, which must have been hard for someone whose mother died in bedlam” – oh, don’t be so wet, woman!

Queen Victoria was (sneering, ironic tone) “The Mother of Empire”. Victorian watercolourist Lady Charlotte Canning’s husband was “a notorious adulterer” who “immersed himself in work so he had no time for her”. (Honestly! Men!). “This was their luxurious residence outside Calcutta… (pause) but for Lady Charlotte it felt like a prison.” (My wife predicted the last phrase a split-second before Ms Hancock intoned it.) Many of Charlotte Canning’s countrymen dismissed the Indians as “heathen – but she enjoyed seeing the parts of the country which were devoid of any European influence” (Multicuralist! Tick!). Our Sheila ended the Canning section on a stone bench in front of  the Taj Mahal – deliberately echoing a photograph Lady Diana, another “wronged woman”, and told us that “its beauty must have made Lady Canning feel a little sad.” Oh God! She ended this section with “I think her paintings need to be more widely known.” Need? Why? (They really weren’t much good.)

Then onto Paul Nash, whom she acknowledged as “most brilliant painter of the English countryside” . But what she really wanted was to discuss Nash’s haunting First World War battlefield painting (photography was outlawed due to fears of espionage) and the artist’s anger at those who had caused such horrors – (The Establishment – boo! Men – hiss!).

Then onto a contemporary watercolourist - Doug Farthing, a soldier who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He showed her one of his paintings: “I feel the laughter and banter of these soldiers here”, he said. “Isn’t that funny,” Ms Hancock replied, adopting her “compassionate” voice, “I get a feeling of fear”.  Give it a rest, love!

We finished with another “caring” lefty outburst over shots of an auction of paintings: “Watercolours are so often the result of extreme pain and struggle, but in the modern age they’re worth serious money” (Market Economics – boo!). “But for me these pictures have a worth beyond any market price.” So, the market value of a painting isn’’t the only way of judging it’s worth? Gosh, I’d never thought of that! 

And finally, why oh why pronounce “Michaelangelo” and “Leonardo” with an Italian accent? Don’t we have established ways of saying their names in English?

Twenty-four hours later, the BBC redeemed itself with a superb documentary, When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible, presented by Adam Nicolson (currently available on iPlayer).  

This was a scholarly and illuminating delight from beginning to end. Nicolson knows the subject intimately, having written books on it. He isn’t an actor, so his delivery is devoid of self-consciousness. The experts he talked to were uniformly fascinating and genuinely brought the subject alive without a hint of that over-excited arm-waving which passes for academic enthusiasm these days. Textual comparisons with  earlier and later versions were rivetting (and infinitely depressing when it came to contemporary Management-speak horrors). The in situ description of the 1604 Hampton Court Conference involving King James and Puritan and Church of England representatives, where the suggestion for a new translation first arose, was quite brilliant: it was particularly refreshing fascinating to hear the gay, big-tongued monarch lauded as a clever, skilful political operator. And the accounts – based on the variety of sources – of how a committee came to produce this, the most magnificent and important book in the English language, were as absorbing as a thriller (firstly, the writers were learned men of the world, rather than Ivory Tower scholars, and, secondly, when deciding on the final version, they used what impression the words would make when spoken allowed as their guide.)

At the end of it all, I felt I’d learnt an enormous amount from a man who respects the past and doesn’t view it through the distorting lens of our tawdry modern sensibilities. Masterly.


  1. Maybe they should have asked Lorraine Pascale to do a programme about water-colours?
    Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 06:39 PM

  2. I'm opretty sure she'd have done a much better job! I forgot to mention that a friend at University bought me a beautiful book of Turner's Venetian watercolours for my 21st birthday -(we just happened to have met in St Mark's Square on holiday the previous summer and travelled to Florence together afterwards) - and it has always been a treasured possession. I just wish I hadn't heard Sheila Hancock tell me they're considered the greatest watercoloiurs ever produced - diminshed them somehow.
    Thursday, February 24, 2011 - 05:37 PM

  3. The current content of most British factual TV programming is lamentable - your Sheila Hancock example is spot on. Back in the 1960s/70s [yes, the old rose-tinted jobs are on and the selective memory is working over-time] you could tune in to "The Great War" [narrated by Michael Redgrave] or "The World at War" [narrated by Laurence Olivier] or "Face to Face" [the invisible John Freeman]. There was AJP Taylor or Brian Walden standing stock-still delivering lectures without visual aids or Jacob Bronowsky or Lord Clarke taking about their subjects with great authority. And quietly.

    But now it's all showbusiness and the presenters vampire the content. I think it started with that idiot Magnus Pyke and it has all gone from bad to worse. Seek out eccentricities and over-egg the pudding for maximum effect. So we got David Bellamy, Dan Cruikshank, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Davis Starky [who always sounds like he's straining on a stool]. The latest one is some young Scottish academic with very long hair talking complete nonsense who is the new darling of BBC factual programming. Ben Fogle [who the hell is this man]. And they are all travelling the world at great expense - in the case of the BBC, our expense.

    Getting back to Ms Hancock [like Yoko Ono, the ride on the husband's coat tails is for life apparantly] I once watched a documentary about an Indian railway journey with a drippy actor called Stephen Tompkinson who spent 50-minutes using two expressions - "triffic" and "wow". Very elucidating. Victoria Wood and Paul Merton in India were not a great improvement. Stephen Fry was dire in his American series [at least he broke his arm - never explained]. Davis Suchet and Rubber-Lips Portillo - more railway twaddle. The two Scots - Connelly and McGregor - on their eternal motorbike journeys. Oy Gevalt! A notice to the Acting Community -" We are not interested in your political views or your adoption activities or your opinions about subjects you know bugger all about! You are mummers! Stick with that"

    Apologies. I have been watching the oleaginous James Lipton interviewing actors on Sky Arts and Atlantic too much recently and I am having a bit of a turn.
    Thursday, February 24, 2011 - 09:03 PM

  4. TV Critic, as you're evidently a great fan of James Lipton, you may very well enjoy the following clip:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sX6X_PwSH-0&feature=related

    Lipton is in his eighties!!!

    Last night it was Gryff Rhys-Jones - who seems to have cornered the market in celebrity-led documentaries (not being able to get work as a comic, one presumes) - talking about primitive Australian art. I mean, there is no subject on earth I want to hear about less than this one, and no presenter I less want to hear talking about it (unless it's Stephen Tompkinson, Martin Clunes, Sheila Hancock, Victoria Woods or Stephen F*cking Fry). I mean, do these people just think up somewhere they'd quite like to visit and text a few TV execs until one of them's stupid enough to agree?
    Sunday, February 27, 2011 - 12:23 AM

  5. Thanks very much for James Lipton clip. Priceless. In his eighties? I believe it. He looks as if he should be sitting in a deck chair outside The Hotel des Bains waving at Tadzio with his make-up running. Another programme off the list. Probably just as well.
    Sunday, February 27, 2011 - 03:18 PM