Saturday, 22 March 2014

Thanks to the BBC, this is The Golden Age of Art History Programmes - and nobody seems to have noticed!

Maybe age is blunting my critical faculties, but I’m increasingly mystified that nobody is jumping up and down in praise of the number of rivetting, diverting, amusing, informative and visually stunning art history programmes the BBC has been regularly pumping out on BBC Two and BBC Four over the last few years. The reaction to this feast of cultural riches – the BBC doing exactly what it should be doing – has mainly been vaguely dismissive, hoity-toity reviews and regular cuts to BBC Four’s already minuscule budget. How very odd!

The first part of Dr James Fox’s new series, A Very British Renaissance, was shown on BBC Two last night. Its aim is to tell the story of how foreigners brought the Renaissance to England from the early 16th century onwards, and how British artists, poets, composers and architects grabbed the baton from the likes of Holbein and Pietro Torrigiano and developed extraordinarily impressive and original work in their various fields.

In the Telegraph this morning, Jake Wallis Simons twitted Dr. Fox for assuming cultural ignorance on the part of his audience – apparently we were all supposed to already know most of what he was telling us. Well, I, for one, learned a great deal. I'd never heard of Torrigiano. I’ve known Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poignant poem, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek” for decades, but I knew nothing about the man himself and his role in the development of English poetry before Dr. Fox told me. And when Fox was dealing with Thomas Tallis’s glorious “Spem in Alium” – whose history and significance I’m well aware of – he brought it alive by cleverly showing how the 40 voices join in as the piece goes along. (Dr. Fox's 2011 BBC4 three-parter, British Masters, was also superb.)

Earlier this year, I thoroughly enjoyed the second series of art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Gorgio Locatelli’s bromantic food-and-art tour of the less celebrated (at least, by television culture vultures) regions of Italy, in which Locatelli prepared local dishes and Graham-Dixon acted as tour-guide to the areas’ artistic delights. It was extremely watchable, and, again, I learned a huge amount. Vulgar? A bit. So what? (I also enjoyed Graham-Dixon’s recent Culture Show special on Viking Art – he doesn’t half get about, that lad: Airmiles Andy or what.)

The other TV art history highlight of 2014 so far was Waldemar Januszczak’s Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness, a three-part series on BBC4, in which the portly little Polish womble waddled splay-footedly around most of Europe in a follow-up to his splendid 2009 series, Baroque!, also on BBC4 (best channel in the history of the universe - God bless it!). I can imagine Januszczak’s somewhat populist, blokeish approach getting right up some viewer’s’ noses – but, for instance, his decision to discuss the paintings of Boucher while reclining bum-up on a chaise-longue in the same pose as the artist’s famous erotic portrait of Louise O’Murphy made me burst out laughing - there are many aspects of the Rococo that simply demand to be sniggered at.

While I’m on the subject, I’d also like to mention Alastair Sook, another art historian who understands television, whose 2011 series, Romancing the Stone: The Golden Ages of British Sculpture was one of the best programmes of its type I’ve ever seen. As for wider cultural history, Jonathan Meades is (as I wrote here) wonderfully entertaining in an unapologetically pseudish and unlevelling manner (his recent BBC4 series on Brutalism had me snarling at the screen in disagreement, but, as always, I enjoyed every minute).

Not all BBC culture coverage is of an equally high standard (almost anything fronted by Alan Yentob is patronisingly dire), just as not all of its art history is brilliant – but it is undoubtedly the genre in which the BBC justifies the licence fee by bringing Britain and Europe’s glorious cultural history alive for middle and upper-middlebrow viewers such as myself. When it comes to art history, as with nature programmes, no other broadcaster in the world – let alone Britain – is in the same league as my old employer. Because of its terror of appearing too educated or highbrow, the BBC doesn’t tend to shout about the sort of shamelessly upmarket programmes mentioned in this article – but it really should be swaggering about them.

And before you ask me why the average license-fee payer should be expected to subsidise programming designed to appeal to an educated elite, well, (a) my license-fee subsidises commercial rubbish like Eastenders and The Voice, which any competent broadcaster could churn out and (b) if the license fee were to be abolished, I’d happily pay £145.50 to subscribe to a selection of top-grade art history programmes, nature series, Radio 4 Extra, Top Gear and the occasional (very occasional) dramatic triumph such as Line of Duty. The rest, you can keep – please!


  1. I know all these fellas. I watch them on Youtube...especially on Friday afternoons in the office...where we, salesmen, are still expected to be even though NOBODY does a damn thing in Mississippi after dinner on Friday.

    I'd pay for the channel...or asked to have it added to our package. Beats the hell out of Ovation.

    1. Most of Britain shuts up shop after lunch on Friday. I used to think London was the exception, but the roads out of the city are invariably jammed from 2pm onwards. From my experience trying to track down information or interviewees as a news producer, the public sector shuts down some time before lunch.

      Anyway, you have excellent taste - but how do you track these programmes down? Do you search by subject? I'm prestty sure we don't get Ovation here, but I suspect the Sky Arts channel features some of its programmes - there are some decent arts shows on Sky, but they were either obviously made for another market, or they don't feel authored - more like cut-and-paste jobs. Still, I'd rather have them than not.

  2. Fox blew it for me when he started waffling about "race law" when referring to an apprentices' riot in the 1500s. The gimmicky presentation, the anachronistic and inappropriate choices of music (don't anyone dare suggest it was 'post modern irony'!) and the fact that he seemed never to have heard of either Spenser or Dowland, consigned his programme to one of of those 'I think I'll just turn the sound down and look at the pickhers' experiences.

    Sook's series on Egypt was, however, absolutely outstanding, I agree - so much so that I've kept it and intend to re-watch it sometime (rare in this household).

    On your wider point about art history and the BBC I have to agree. I was actually angry when I heard BBC 4 was up for the chop. I pre-progamme my HDR seven days ahead and a week later, I'd be surprised if three quarters of what I've recorded hasn't been on BBC 4.

    Mercifully it has been saved (for now).

    More of this, a little less political correctness, and I'd even start thinking about letting the buggers keep enough of the licence fee to keep BBC 4 running when the country comes to its senses and I'm appointed Lord Protector.

    1. as an art historian I have to agree that the BBC's product is outstanding. Touches of humour, occasional pomposity, moments of self-deprecation and towering heights of self-congratulation (Andrew Graham Dixon; but a wonderfully well-informed communicator) I cannot look at Janusczczkzkzcaa without seeing a London taxi driver - he even delivers to camera over his shoulder. 'I had that Titian in my cab last week, lovely bloke, great sense of composition, and brilliant with his use of burnt umber'.

    2. Picky, picky, picky, GCooper! Oddly, I'm less annoyed by gimmicks in arts programmes - which I care about - than I am about them in science programmes - which I couldn't care less about. I'm just pathetically grateful that they're there and that they're not being presented by celebrity wankers.

      If they'd kept BBC3 and axed BBC4 I wouldn't have been accountable for my actions. I think Tony Hall must have realised how that would have looked. As it is they've relentlessly cut its funding to such an extent I'm surprised by the general high quality of its remaining programmes (and unsuprised by how many repeats it's forced to run). It's the first channel I run through when programming Sky Planner, and it probably accounts for 40% of my recordings (if you leave out tennis and cricket). Funny to think that when it started out as BBC Knowledge it was probably the dullest TV channel in the history of the universe.

    3. Only problem, Riley, would be when your cabbie slid his window back and said, "Know what I'd do with that Tracy Emin bint, squire? Make her a Dame. She's brilliant, she is." The good thing about Waldemar (as it's easier to call him, I find, so I don't have to keep copying and pasting his unspellable name) is that the stuff he does for BBC4 doesn't allow him to introduce his more standard-issue liberal arts establishment opinions. As long as he doesn't get past 1960 or thereabouts, he's fine. Same with Graham-Dixon - same, I suspect, with most of them.

  3. We have Tracey Emin, CBE,RA, as Professor of Drawing at the Royal College of Art so a damehood can't be far awaya. And another YBA, Sarah Lucas is our rep at the Venice Biennale - her forte is the representation of human genitalia out of mundane articles such as mattresses and old tights - truly wonderful work which marks those clumsy daubs of Veronese, currently at the National Gallery, as mere juvenile piffle.

  4. "Waldemar Januszczak.....the physical charms of a North Korean despot and a command of French that compels him to pronounce Seurat as Sewer Rat. Eheu, eheu...".
    Brian Sewell. Outsider II.

  5. I'm really not sure that Sewell is in any position at all to complain about someone else's pronunciation!

    As for Emin, does she bring her own crayons, or are they provided?