Really, it isn’t me who decides what TV programmes to review. It’s my wife. Like, the other night I’d started watching Ricky J. Dyer’s fascinating documentary I Love Being…HIV+ (BBC3, Monday) about pozzing up, the disgusting gay underworld perversion of deliberately getting yourself infected with the HIV virus by seeking unprotected sex with known carriers, and the wife came in and said, ‘Oh God! We’re not watching this, surely? Huh, this is just the sort of stuff you’d watch, because we know you’re gay really…’
So to shut her up I had to dig out some art programmes I’d ordered up instead. The first, The Private Life of an Easter Masterpiece (BBC2, Thursday), began with an assumption depressingly common these days in programmes with vaguely highbrow subjects viz — unless we bend over backwards to assert how terribly, terribly important this thing is, our viewers are going to turn over and watch SpongeBob SquarePants instead.
Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’, Sam West’s voiceover informed us (in tones no less solemnly portentous than the ones he has previously used to describe the annihilation of the 6th army at Stalingrad and the creation of the Nazi death camps), was to ‘revolutionise Western art’ and was very nearly as revered as Christ himself. ‘More than half a millennium after its creation,’ he added, ‘the shockwaves from the painting’s artistic explosion are still resonating as loud as bombs.’ Furthermore, another talking head popped up to inform us, ‘“The Last Supper” constitutes who we are.’ Indeed, it marked ‘the beginning of modern consciousness’.
At this point, unfortunately, we got so cross we switched the programme off. I mean, maybe Leonardo’s daub was considered quite the thing in its time, but it’s not much cop now, is it? The paint’s so faded that the only reason you know it’s a masterpiece is that art historians keep telling you it is. And you’d never want to visit it, what with all the time you’d have to waste queueing behind the pillocks who’d read about its mystical significance in the Da Vinci Code. So I suppose the programme has done me quite a favour. I know now that Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ is not one of those things I need worry about not having seen before I die.
Anyway, as the American academic Joseph Leo Koerner told us on the much more interesting Northern Renaissance (BBC4, Thursday), the Italian Renaissance was all a big con. The reason we think it’s so great is that most of the great art historians of the time were Italian, and therefore biased. But the real Renaissance, he argued, happened much earlier, in northern Europe, and was kicked off by Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece (1436).
Before Van Eyck, painting was considered a bit of a second-rater’s profession. What the courts of late mediaeval Europe were far more interested in were fussy objets d’art, made of jewels and precious metals or elaborate tapestries. Once Van Eyck had shown them what marvellous varieties of texture could be achieved in oil paint, however, all this changed. For the next 600 years, painting would be considered the most important of the visual arts.
The star of Don’t Mess With Miss Beckles (BBC2, Tuesday) is a feisty black woman who specialises in getting underachieving kids, especially ones from ethnic minorities, to pull their fingers out. I admire her principles and her style, but as with Supernanny (only slightly less interesting because the kids are older and therefore sulky and introverted rather than comically evil) the formula soon gets quite wearing: Miss Beckles dispenses sound advice on discipline and hard work; children seem to get the message; Miss Beckles makes a sneaky spot check to discover, surprise, surprise, that they’ve fallen back into their old ways; child pulls finger out; gawd bless Miss Beckles.
There was a scene at the beginning where Miss Beckles got the children to make a collage representing all their aspirations and they duly made ones involving state-of-the-art mobile phones, luxury yachts and the like. But had any of the children made the connection that none of these things can be achieved without hard work? Of course they hadn’t. At which point I was working my way up into a foaming frenzy about what good-for-nothing hubcap thieves the younger generation are, when it suddenly occurred to me that this is still just how I think at the age of 40.
By the way, I’ve worked out what makes the time one spends watching The Apprentice seem not as huge a waste of life as it actually is. It’s those fancy aerial shots and the gorgeous score. ‘God they’re horrible, annoying people, I hate them all, I don’t want any of them to win, and it’s all rigged anyway and the right person never gets sacked,’ you’ll be going, when suddenly there’ll be a cutaway to shimmering architecture and scudding clouds, accompanied by lambent, ethereally beautiful background music, and your brain gets tricked into going ‘Mmm. Arthouse! Not TV reality show dross. Quality!’