It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the best documentaries have no onscreen presenter taking up valuable airtime; fortunately, a documentary about Melvyn Bragg needs no presenter because Bragg is the presenter of all things whenever he steps in front of a camera or behind a microphone. Melvyn Bragg: From Wigton to Westminster (BBC Two) was a tremendously enjoyable, sporadically moving, profile of the man who is perhaps the last example of what used to be called a cultural grandee; but it was depressing viewing for anyone who cares about arts programming.
Reading Clive James’s collected television criticism it seems outlandish to think that ITV once showed opera on Saturday nights – and fine, those times are past, but where is something like Monitor these days? BBC Four is hardly the home of the arts, it is certainly the home of fascinating scientific and historical documentaries, and on Friday nights it becomes the channel of music for a person-of-a-certain-age. Artsnight is a bust (Lynn Barber, when she hosts, can hardly keep a straight face most of the time, or perhaps she just needs a fag), it is a cavalcade of buffoonery, a burlesque of pretence, showcasing little of value and much to abhor – just like the emperor’s new clothes.
The South Bank Show, one of Bragg’s many contributions to cultural telly, and what he will probably be chiefly remembered for, limps on, neutered, on Sky Arts. Sky. Arts. A glance at the schedule gives us the following luminescence: Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Pulp, Natalie Wood, antiques, Andre Rieu, Louis Armstrong, Latitude festival, and Monty Pyton. So mainly antiques, then.
Perhaps this is an unfair summation: Imagine… has recently shown interviews with Toni Morrison, Frank Gehry and, sigh, Jeff Koons – all of which is to the good, even if you just want to sit and boo for an hour and fifteen minutes. Also, BBC Four did gift us the BBC Young Dancer award, which was, as they say, worth the license fee on its own. And of course, if I really want culture I can go to a gallery, play a record or open a book – but it’s hard to think that one’s team is losing. Indeed, one wonder’s what could be accomplished if just one less football pundit were dispatched to sit on a beach in Brazil for the summer.
However, for as long as we have Lord Bragg of Wigton, we will, I suspect, have In Our Time and if you are unfamiliar with that programme, I suggest you stop wasting time reading this and navigate to the Radio 4 website. They don’t currently have a random episode selector, but click and ye shall find.
Life in Sqaures (BBC Two) was a programme about a group, one might say a circle, of people who would’ve had little time for a grammar school boy from Cumbria. They scarcely had time for anyone who hadn’t belonged to Apostles at Cambridge. But then, DH Lawrence, he of mining stock, reviled the Bloomsberries in turn, so where does it all end? Where does it get us and, our chief concern, what was the point of this drama?
If the BBC thought they were being bold by dramatising a group of ‘free spirits’ they were wrong, what they have actually portrayed, accurately, is a group of over-educated fishwives. If it’s sex and betrayal you want with your intellect, why not make a programme about some really interesting people, such as Bernard Shaw or HG Wells?
There was a lot that was overwrought and on the nose about this affair: Vanessa and Virginia symbolically shedding their corsets at the beginning – dear, oh, dear; sub-Satie score plonking away in the background whenever a knee was brushed, a hand grazed. There were some reasonable performances – I didn’t recognise a soul – but the funny bits weren’t funny and the sexy bits weren’t sexy. Above all, we surely couldn’t be expected to believe that these were actual humans – they were more like a flip book of Max Beerbohm caricatures, by someone less talented.
Like Jonathan Meades on Ernest Hemingway and Francis Wheen on Evelyn Waugh, I look forward to a day when every last Bloomsberry has cleared off and left us alone. All three of us wait in vain.
Child Genius (Channel 4) – now there was a drama! These little bundles of youthful industry were nothing if not characters – action heroes, even: who can spell ‘antediluvian’? which of these identical shapes is different? where is the occipital bone? It could even match Life in Squares for lunacy: that is, in the parents. The sad, unfilled, dead-eyed parents. No matter how positive they are and no matter how eager the children are to learn, one cannot shake the sense that the real victory comes from being Parent of Child Genius.
Oh, and it’s in the skull, of course.