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Out of sight

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

There are some things television can do which no other medium can manage. Take one of those little-noticed programmes, Hidden Paintings on BBC4. It’s presented by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, the chap with the King Charles spaniel hair, who used to do Changing Rooms, in which people found parts of their house redecorated while they were away, causing them to fly into a rage.

The theme is fine works of art which for various reasons aren’t on public view. This week LLB considered David Inshaw, still with us, whose two best-known paintings are both hidden. One, ‘Our Days Were a Joy’, shows an enigmatic young woman in a graveyard. The technique is a beguiling cross between pointillism and photography. It is owned by Bristol Art Gallery, but it doesn’t have space, so it’s in the cellars. The better-known picture is ‘The Badminton Game’, which John Major displayed at No. 10. But Tony Blair didn’t care for it, and it’s now in a vault at Tate Britain. Inshaw himself seemed resigned; LLB hinted at what may be true: the art establishment hates works that are generally agreeable to the public, unless they were painted centuries ago. Like babies denied mashed bananas, we are to be moved on to broccoli and liver, whether we like it or not.

It turned out that Inshaw had been double dating the two young women playing badminton, which brought a pleasingly louche tone: private lives of the painters perhaps. Anyhow, the story was fascinating and infuriating, and could not have been told except on television.

Nor could the tale of the spinosaurus, probably the biggest land animal that ever shook the earth, 95 million years ago. It was the star of Planet Dinosaur (BBC1), which comes 12 years after Walking With Dinosaurs and so has even more astounding graphics. The result offers on screen convincingly frightful creatures which petrify but cannot harm us, like Jeremy Clarkson. The effect is slightly muted; at times we might have been gazing at a Ladybird book designed by a misanthrope who loves to terrify children.

And you may remember Anne Elk in Monty Python who had a new theory about the brontosaurus: ‘My new theory is that the brontosaurus was very thin at one end, much thicker in the middle, and thin again at the far end.’ That was the general pattern for most dinosaurs and it meant, the experts seem to assume, that they walked with a precarious gait, if only to keep themselves upright, rather like David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. So, baring a headful of appalling teeth, they minced towards their victims. Many of the dinosaurs they fought were almost as large as spinosaurus itself — who was 56 feet long — and one needed to eat some 130 pounds of meat per day, more than most Texans.

If the monsters themselves were very slightly comical, the landscape they trod was awesome and awful: scrub-infested deserts, lakes full of gigantic crocodiles, vast, dank forests. You could hardly go for a country walk in that era; had a passing carcharodontosaurus spotted you, you’d be the merest amuse-bouche. Beneath the stunning CGI graphics was a harsh reminder that the era the earth has welcomed Homo sapiens has been extremely brief, and could end almost any time.

Actually, the terrain in Afghanistan looks as if dinosaurs would feel right at home there. It was the backdrop to The Bomb Squad (BBC1, Tuesday), one of the most affecting documentaries I have ever watched. I doubt if anything could make you feel more pride in and sympathy for our troops there, so it was astonishing that the clods in the MoD ever approved the project.  It was the details that impressed: the bomb disposal men painstakingly searching in the sand with grubby fingers. The exquisite care with which they cut the wires between bomb and pressure plate. The grudging respect for their unseen enemies, the bomb-makers.

This first of two episodes ended with one young soldier becoming a triple amputee. We saw him using his remaining hand to play dominoes with his daughter, while he reflected that he’d actually been lucky, because he was still alive. But there were tinier dramas too: the bliss when the ingredients for cheese and pickle sandwiches arrived at the base, the wife’s sad impatience with a letter from her lumpishly jocular husband — ‘You’re probably out with your new boyfriend spending all my money.’

In the end her husband, Adam, a hero in the real sense, not just a successful footballer, decided to bond again with his family, whom he took on a camping tour of the Scottish Highlands. Same blasted landscapes, same heavy backpacks, same mistrustful locals — only the cold and the absence of bombs to make him feel he was on holiday.

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