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August 08 2013

August 08 2012

TV review: A History of Art in Three Colours

Not sure about white being the darkest colour, but I loved James Fox's stories of Winckelmann and Whistler

You know you're getting old when art historians start looking young. Thank God James Fox actually is. For all his accomplishments and authority, he's only 30 (another sign that you're getting old is when 60-year-olds appear youthful).

A History of Art in Three Colours (BBC4) finishes with white. I am innately suspicious of attempts by art history programmes to find a tickling theme. I feel like I'm being sucked into the meeting at which it was decided that telling a story in any sensible way – chronologically, for instance, or by movement, or by broad historical context, or by technique – was way too obvious. Wouldn't it be more interesting to find four painters who all slept with the same person, or nine sculptors who were all missing a thumb? Then before you know it, the presenter is dressing up as a hooker or strapping down his own thumb to show you how hard it is to handle stone with only four fingers, and it's demonstrative and patronising, a little bit like watching Nina and the Neurons on CBeebies, which is at least intended for the under-fives.

But there is another way to do things, it turns out, whether with the collusion of the producers or by slipping it under the wire, I know not. Fox principally uses the colour to tell some stories that interest him. Pretty well everything interests him, and pretty well everything he says is interesting.

He makes a decent stab, at the very start, to thread his tales together, so that they coagulate into a solid notion: that white "might just be the darkest colour of them all," that it has been used over centuries to "control and conquer". But I wasn't buying it. Sure, sometimes it's dark; sometimes it isn't. There was no need to overplay this hand, but anyway, that is a minor complaint.

We start at the Elgin marbles, whose story is told with admirable pace and drama: "In 1938, the director of the British Museum was on his evening rounds. Everything seemed to be in order, but a disturbing incident had been taking place right beneath his feet." I'm afraid I cannot tell you whether the suspense came from artful pausing, or just a nice, posh, HG Wells, Radio 4, understatedly-serious, we-are-now-at-war-with-Germany accent. I simply surrendered to its message: something really exciting is just about to happen!

In fact, the disturbing incident was quite subtle. People were cleaning – for which read ruining – the marbles, having become obsessed with the idea that white was their perfect colour. (In fact, the marbles started off painted many colours.) The idea, if you are prepared to trace it back 221 years, commenced with the birth of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, son of a humble something or other who – being gay and favouring tight leather trousers – naturally yearned for the big city, where he saw a room full of sculptures, "of all shapes and sizes," Fox says, as the camera zooms in on a moustache. "There was plenty to feast his eyes on. Buttocks aplenty, ripped, muscular torsos and even the odd genital. They were the most wonderful objects Winckelmann had ever seen," Fox tells us.

Thus, the world's first Hellenist was made, and he was the one who wanted everything white. I guess the needling pop-psychological subtext – that Winckelmann elided the colour of the marbles with the colour of purity in a bid to ratify his sexual awakening – that bit you can take or leave. The trajectory itself is fascinating, however: how one version of beauty can come to dominate a huge swathe of culture, for centuries, by the sheer force of one man's will.

Fox goes on to do a great job on Whistler, who uses white to "mock Victorian taste" by the subtle measure of painting a series of women in white. The scandal and bafflement were the talk of the town. Why was this one standing on a bear? Is she married? Why does she look so unhappy? (I can't believe this would have raised too many questions). Whistler underlined this by wearing white trousers around town. If only they'd had blogs in those days, someone could have done lookatmyfuckingwhitetrousers and divided them into sailor, mental health nurse and Whistlerite (that will only make sense if you look at this website, but you won't regret it.

It was interesting, memorable, thought-provoking and lingering.


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Curiosity rover: why does sci-fi always look more marvellous than reality? | Jonathan Jones

These ordinary looking views of Mars sent by Nasa's rover are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary

The landscape of Mars glows in a dust-rich sunset. The sky is yellow. The rocks are red. It is a place of – literally – unearthly beauty. But have we already ruined it? In the week that Nasa landed its latest robot explorer Curiosity on the surface of Mars, this picture reveals the wreckage of earlier landers cluttering up the Martian desert, reducing its pristine strangeness to a dumping ground of human space dreams. How typical of the earthlings to make a wasteland of Mars.

No, wait, I misread the caption. This is not a picture taken by Curiosity in its first week on Mars. It is a digitally created image by artist Kelly Richardson. It imagines what Mars might look like in 200 years if we keep sending probes there. It is, in other words, science fiction.

Why does science fiction always look more marvellous than the real landscapes of alien worlds? The pictures that have so far come from Curiosity are nothing like as grabbing as this fantastic image. The first photograph it sent showed a skewed vista of dust and heat with just the misty outline of a horizon. Nasa had to patch it into previous images of the planet to make sense of it. It's all very well scientists saying these first pictures from Curiosity are the most beautiful things they have ever seen – the red planet is far more spectacular in art and other fantastic images.

Richardson is in a very long line of artists who have pictured Mars. Long, long ago, Mars was a god. Botticelli's painting Venus and Mars depicts the god of war lulled to sleep and invokes the magical influence of his planet.

This might seem like ancient baloney but it is no more far fetched than the Mars of sci-fi. A lurid painting of Martians disporting themselves under the planet's glorious sky in a landscape of pyramids, towers and blue canals epitomises the image of Mars that was dreamed up in 20th science fiction before Viking, the first unmanned Nasa lander, started to reveal Martian realities in 1976. Mars was for a long time the favourite planet for imagined alien life. It seemed utterly alien and the "canals" visible on its surface from Earth were held to be the work of some grand civilisation. Even today, science fiction images of Mars outdo mere reality. A 2008 Doctor Who special pictured Mars as the home of a base where the first human explorers are attacked by watery beings from below. A base – there's always a base. Bases are so much more glamorous than unmanned computerised buggies with cameras on front.

Enough. The scientists are right of course. The comparative dullness of Curiosity's first pictures from Mars is the point (and their vagueness will be forgotten when it starts sending back high-definition images). These ordinary looking views of Mars are beautiful and moving precisely because they are so ordinary.

The ordinariness of Mars is its magic. It looks like a red desert on Earth because it is the mirror of Earth – as are all planets everywhere. Everything in the universe is made of the same elements, according to the same physical laws. The discovery that nothing in space is truly "alien" and every object out there (or rather out here – we're just another thing in space) started when Galileo aimed his telescope at the moon. From one point of view the history of astronomy and space exploration is the story of how the universe became banal. But this banality is more glorious than any imaginary spectacle of an alien world where little green men drive motorboats up and down their glittering canals.


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August 07 2012

Robert Hughes: the great art critic of our time

Rude, hilarious, eloquent, but never petty ... the Australian writer, who has died aged 74, made criticism look like literature

Robert Hughes, who has died aged 74, was simply the greatest art critic of our time and it will be a long while before we see his like again. He made criticism look like literature. He also made it look morally worthwhile. He lent a nobility to what can often seem a petty way to spend your life. Hughes could be savage, but he was never petty. There was purpose to his lightning bolts of condemnation.

That larger sense of purpose can best be seen in his two classic books on art, The Shock of the New and Nothing If Not Critical. The first is the book of his great BBC television series about the story of modern art. For Hughes, it is a tragic story. He believed he lived after the end of the great creative age of modernism. I remember, watching the television series as a teenager, how excitingly he described the Paris in the 1900s, when motor cars and the Eiffel Tower were young and Picasso was painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. But Hughes would not tolerate any glib pretensions that art in 1980 (when The Shock of the New aired) lived up to that original starburst of modern energy. For him, Andy Warhol was an emotionally thin artist bleached by celebrity, and Joseph Beuys ... Well, he didn't have much time for Beuys.

It was as if the BBC had commissioned the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift to make a documentary about modern life.

Hughes makes his anger with the depths that art has sunk to even clearer in the essays gathered in Nothing If Not Critical. For the best part of his career as a critic, he lived in New York. It was the decline he perceived there, from Robert Rauschenberg to Robert Mapplethorpe, that so disgusted him with the fall of modern art. This was a political and ethical judgment, as well as artistic. Art had become the plaything of the market, he believed. It was getting too expensive as it turned into the sport of 1980s investors. Artists like Jeff Koons and – he later added – Damien Hirst were barely real artists at all, but grotesque market manipulators.

If he was right, God help us all, for the conquest of art by money and the proliferation of celebrity artists that he condemned continues to multiply. The art world of today might be mistaken for an apocalyptic vision dredged from his darkest satirical imaginings.

The joy of reading Hughes is infectious and often hilarious. His sheer rudeness can be liberating. His piece on the death of the graffiti painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is brutally titled "Requiem for a Featherweight". Other essays in Nothing Is Not Critical call a named art dealer a "sleazeball" and take on the artist Julian Schnabel in a rhetorical standoff involving bullwhips, motorbikes, and, of course, Hughes's utterly damming judgment of Schnabel's work.

Hughes would doubtless see it as one more instance of the art world's absurdity that, while Schnabel was fawned on by curators when the fiery critic was mocking his vacuity, nowadays art fashion sees Schnabel as a silly old expressionist dauber. Schnabel has, however, built a second career in films.

In his final book Rome, this critic whose prose is so majestic and rolling writes about some of his literary heroes. They include the ancient Roman poets Virgil and Juvenal. These Latin authors were the models for the so-called "Augustan" writers of 18th-century Britain in whose style Hughes himself wrote. His power of scorn consciously evokes such works as Swift's Modest Proposal – he even once penned a poem about the art world modelled on Alexander Pope's Dunciad. How many writers of the late 20th century compare with Pope and Swift? Even if you do not agree with a word Hughes wrote or said, the eloquence of his voice makes him a modern classic. At his best, he was a finer writer and sharper polemicist than his friend Christopher Hitchens, a mightier wordsmith than most of today's leading novelists.

Hughes believed in modern art, whose story he told more eloquently than anyone else ever has. He was not some stick-in-the-mud. But he compared art in the 1900s with the art of today and observed that even our best do not deserve comparison with the pioneers of modernism. This is a truth that is hard to refute. The words of Robert Hughes have cost me a lot of sleep.


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July 29 2012

Ten things I miss about the 20th century | Ian Martin

Smoke everywhere, lovely great lumps of concrete and chirpy bus conductors – just some of the things I liked about the good old days

1. Vocalised cheerfulness I'm not saying people were happier in the 20th century; they weren't. There was a lot to contend with: war, TB, no bass end on record players etc. But there was more public cheerfulness. People would sing out loud just walking down the street. Try doing that now and see if passersby make eye contact. Remember bus conductors? Chirpiness was a required skill then for a Routemaster crew. Passengers were often treated to a "soundclash" – the conductor perhaps whistling the latest Tommy Steele, the driver loudly crooning something upbeat by Edmundo Ros. It was a bit like nowadays when you get teenagers at different ends of the bus playing syncopated misogyny on their phones, only happy instead of angry.

2. Coal Yeah, I know it killed half of us, but I miss the smell of coal smoke. It used to be everywhere, belching out of trains and chimneys, atomised, inhaled. Most people were addicted to cigarettes too. Everyone died smokey bacon flavour. Buildings were agreeably shrouded in grime. Fog was thick, like a sodium-yellow blanket. Of course we older people are kicking ourselves that we didn't put some soot away for the future. Now it goes for up to £3,000 a scuttleful and is keenly sought after by billionaires, who dress up like the cast of Mad Men and snort it through 10 bob notes. Sooty the hand puppet, he was from a more innocent age too.

3. Proper weather The climate's been broken for years (see "Coal" above, soz) but it can't be fixed because NOBODY DOES REPAIRS ANY MORE.

4. Having a pint with a racist Maybe it's the invisibility of old people, but I rarely "fall into conversation" with morons in the pub these days. It's what happened in the golden age before we had mobiles to check. There'd be a neutral remark about the weather and before you knew it some sullen clump of sideboards and tash opposite would be blaming "them" for his early black-and-white version of Broken Britain. Then you'd have an argument while you drank your pints and it seemed quite important to engage and challenge. Today, if anyone says anything racist the protocol is to smile, pretend to go to the toilet, tweet "Oh my God, there's a totally racist dude in this pub", then covertly film them and hope they say something YouTubeable.

5. Women's liberation So much clearer then: men are shit, we've ruined everything, stand aside, woman's right to choose, equal pay, non-patriarchal parenting, loose clothes. Now feminism's tribalised it's much more confusing. Julie Bindel's lesbo resistance or Caitlin Moran's cock-based irony? Both, obviously. But I miss the days of free thinking and reparations, when New Men did all the cooking and were more than happy to be sexual playthings, although to be honest my mind's wandering a bit now.

6. The majesty of concrete Lovely, egalitarian, optimistic great lumps of concrete, eg the Hayward Gallery, were going up on the South Bank at about the time the Kinks released Waterloo Sunset. We were in paradise.

7. Haughty television Never mind Starkey, Schama and all the other clever dicks with their blousons and gesticulating on battlements and meticulous reconstructed scenes because apparently we can't be trusted to use our own bloody imaginations any more. Before colour telly, AJP Taylor could talk into a camera for an hour armed only with an immaculate brain, a glass of water and 10 Woodbine.

8. Working-class MPs We used to have loads of them. Working miners became union reps, discovered a natural gift for turning rage into oratory and were duly elected as parliamentary tribunes for working people. Dennis Skinner's still there like a pissed uncle at a funeral, but who remembers Coventry's Dave Nellist? When he was an MP in the 80s he insisted on taking only the average wage of skilled workers in his constituency. The rest he gave back to Labour, who in return expelled him for being too militant and then waited gormlesssly for Neil "The Welsh Mussolini" Kinnock to become prime minister. Today our House of Commons is just the Members' Pavilion at Lord's without the hats.

9. Counter culture These days it's all "meta" or "pop-up" and I'm not entirely sure what they are. Oppositional thinking's too sophisticated now. It was all much simpler when culture had three gears only and a puncture repair kit in the saddlebag. Ah, Spam sandwiches, orange squash, purple hearts … sorry, mind's gone again.

10. Non-monetised public space The internet saw the last century out and this one in. Early on there was great excitement about "virtual reality" yet who could have foreseen REALITY TURNING INTO THE INTERNET? A journey through London in 2012 is like navigating your way from one JavaScript nightmare to another in the days before ad blockers. Every available square inch of public space, every cubic foot of public air now has to be jizzed over by flickering ads and corporate branding. And looming above it all the grotesque Shard, our capital's latest and most disgusting lump of privatised skyline. Capitalism giving us a scaly, taloned middle finger. What next – sponsored clouds? Toll pavements? Paywalled churches? Sure, it sounds ridiculous but you mark my words, soon they'll be charging us to get into St Paul's Cathedral. Oh.

Charlie Brooker is away.


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July 27 2012

Seven days on stage: Will Olympic tourists sprint over to the West End?

As the curtain rises on the Olympics, London's Theatreland is on tenterhooks about ticket sales, while a new musical prepares to take wing at Beijing's Bird's Nest Olympic stadium

Late sprint?

With the Olympics getting into full swing this weekend, London's West End – and its theatres in particular – are on tenterhooks, waiting to discover whether any of the incoming tourists will make the trip across the capital to see a show. Earlier in the year, Andrew Lloyd Webber warned that the summer would be a "bloodbath" for Theatreland, with theatres left empty and ticket sales through the floor. While that doesn't seem likely to happen – according to a report we on the Stage have produced this week – there's still a big question mark over whether the influx of overseas visitors will make up for a "noticeable" dip in advanced sales.

Birdsong in Beijing

In Beijing – the last Olympic host city – an example emerged this week of the potential benefits that the Games can bring to the performing arts. China's National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest Olympic venue, is to host its first ever stage musical. Fascination, as it's called, will open this September and will run for three years, playing to a potential capacity of 10,000 people per show.

Less than super

You could be forgiven for not having noticed, but Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest TV talent show – Superstar – drew to a close this week. The final of the ITV show – held slightly strangely on Wednesday night – played to 3.3 million viewers, less than half the number that similar BBC contests have attracted. As well as not proving a massive hit with viewers, the show has also sparked a few strong opinions within the industry, with Gavin and Stacey star Joanna Page describing the contest as "insulting".

Tattoo close to the bone

Controversy in Germany, meanwhile, where the Bayreuth festival opened this week, but with one notable absentee. Yevgeny Nikitin, the bass-baritone who had been due to sing the title role in a new production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, dropped out of the event after a row centring on a Nazi tattoo emblazoned on his chest. It proved a particularly sensitive subject given the festival's (and Wagner's) historic links to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Stirling work

In Northern Ireland, the new Belfast Lyric Theatre is celebrating its nomination for the prestigious Stirling prize for architecture. The venue is up against – among others – the London Olympic Stadium for the prize, which will be announced in October. Encouragingly, William Hill has the Lyric at 4 to 1 to win, compared to 5 to 1 for the Olympic stadium.

Warehouse to courthouse

London's Donmar Warehouse theatre finds itself facing a lawsuit from David Birrell, an actor who was blinded in one of his eyes after a prop gun misfired during a show. The accident happened during the 2010 production of The Passion. He is seeking £250,000 in damages.

And finally ...

Ghost the musical, which had already announced its closure in the West End this October, will now also bid farewell to Broadway. The show will shutter in New York in August, after a run of 136 performances. Still, it's not quite the end of the road: a Dutch version opens in August, while there are also plans for a US tour and other international versions.

Follow Friday – my theatrical Twitter tips

@lyricbelfast – the official Twitter feed for Northern Ireland's only full-time producing theatre, the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Some interesting extra content – pics, videos and the like – available via Twitter, plus the obligatory endless retweets of people saying nice things about the theatre.

@thebenforster – Ben Forster is the winner of ITV's search for a Jesus to appear in Andrew Lloyd Webber's revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. Lots of thanking of his supporters going on at the moment, but it will be interesting to see if he gives an insight into rehearsals for the arena tour.

@jopage – Joanna Page, best known for her role in Gavin and Stacey, but also an established stage actress. Not a huge fan of TV talent shows, it seems, but, judging from her Twitter feed, does seem to like dogs a lot.

Alistair Smith is deputy editor of The Stage. You can follow me @smithalistair


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July 22 2012

Angharad Rees obituary

Actor best known for her role as Demelza in the 1970s hit BBC TV drama Poldark

The actor Angharad Rees, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 63, soared to fame in Poldark (1975-77), the BBC's dramatisation of Winston Graham's novels set in 18th-century Cornwall. Rees played the fiery servant Demelza, whose beautiful smile, wide-open eyes, flowing red locks and headstrong nature won over the brooding hero.

Robin Ellis starred as Ross Poldark, the British army officer returning home from the American war of independence to find his father dead, the family estate run down and their tin mines about to be sold. He seeks to reignite the flames with his fiancee, the aristocratic Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), but discovers she is set to marry his cousin. Poldark finds a soulmate in the miner's daughter Demelza after stopping a stallholder at Redruth fair from thrashing her for stealing. He offers her a job as his kitchen maid, and later marries her.

The costume drama, which ran for two series and attracted up to 15 million viewers in Britain and many more around the world, was particularly popular with women, who swooned over Ellis and admired the feistiness of Rees's character. The wild Cornish locations were also impressive at a time when the majority of costume dramas were almost entirely studio-bound.

Rees was born in London, the daughter of a distinguished Welsh psychiatrist, Linford Rees, and his wife, Catherine. When Angharad was a baby, her parents moved the family back to their homeland, to live in Cardiff.

In the mid-1960s she gained experience as an assistant stage manager and actor at the West Cliff theatre, in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. She made her screen debut in 1968, as the parlourmaid in a BBC television adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, and had one-off parts in TV dramas and comedies including The Avengers (1968) and Doctor in the House (1969).

Rees played Jack the Ripper's murderous daughter in the Hammer horror film Hands of the Ripper (1971) and appeared as Gossamer Beynon, alongside Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole, in Under Milk Wood (1972). Although she had few further film parts, Rees seemed ever-present on television throughout the 1970s. Some of her best roles included Sarah Churchill, the daughter of the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill (played by Burton) in The Gathering Storm (1974), and Celia in a 1978 production of As You Like It, opposite Helen Mirren. She also guest-starred in The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (1977), an accolade in itself.

As Lady Evelyn Herbert, she teamed up with Ellis again in the television film The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (1980). Later, she starred as the remarried former wife of Paul Nicholas's vet in the sitcom Close to Home (1989-90) and joined the second series of Trainer (1992) as Caroline Farrell, coping with her drinking and gambling husband Freddie (Jeremy Sinden).

She appeared in the West End in It's a Two Feet Six Inches Above the Ground World (Wyndham's theatre, 1970) and The Millionairess (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 1978-79). In 1973, she married the actor Christopher Cazenove, with whom she had two sons. The couple divorced in 1994. Their eldest child, Linford, died in a car accident in 1999.

Rees subsequently gave up acting in order to concentrate on developing her own jewellery design business, including a shop in Knightsbridge. She described this new career as therapeutic, and some of her creations were featured in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).

Rees had a relationship with the actor Alan Bates, who had suffered the loss of his own son years earlier. However, she turned down his proposals of marriage and the couple eventually parted in 2002. "We were very close, but it was difficult because I had not yet given way to my grief over the loss of my son," she said in an interview in 2007.

Continuing to support the arts, Rees was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and was appointed CBE in 2004. The following year, she married David McAlpine. He survives her along with her younger son, Rhys.

• Angharad Mary Rees, actor and jewellery designer, born 16 July 1949; died 21 July 2012


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June 22 2012

The Week In TV: True Love, Punk Britannia and All in the Best Possible Taste - video

Andrew Collins falls for Margate in BBC1's True Love, revels in anti-establishment BBC4 series Punk Britannia, and returns for the final episode of Grayson Perry's Channel 4 documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste



June 21 2012

Grayson Perry signs exclusive two-year Channel 4 deal

Artist continues partnership with broadcaster and independent producer of recent hit series All in the Best Possible Taste

Channel 4 has signed the Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry in a two-year exclusive deal following the success of his recent series.

The first programme in the deal will see the broadcaster working with the artist on a new series made by independent producer Seneca for next year. Seneca made All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, which finished this week.

Details of the new commission are still to be thrashed out but a Channel 4 source said it was likely to "follow themes from Hogarth's interest in modern moral subjects and look at modern manners and aesthetic values. We are extremely excited but discussions are still at an early stage," the source added.

In his recent three-part series Perry explored modern British tastes, ranging across the working classes of Sunderland, the middle classes of Tunbridge Wells and the upper classes of the Cotswolds.

As part of the project, Perry created six tapestries called The Vanity of Small Differences, which were his take on the tastes of 21st century Britain. The tapestries are currently on display at the Victoria Miro gallery in London until August.

Channel 4's commissioning editor for arts, Tabitha Jackson said: "I'm delighted that Grayson has agreed to continue the creative partnership which produced the taste series.

"His skill not just as an artist, but as an artist-anthropologist somewhere between William Hogarth and Bruce Parry, gives us a unique opportunity to really explore the texture of contemporary life and to understand it in a different way."

Perry, who is known for his work with ceramics, was awarded the Turner prize in 2003. He is also a cross-dresser and images of his alter ego, Claire, often appear in his work.

As well as ceramics, Perry has also worked in printmaking, drawing, embroidery and other textile work, film and performance.


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June 19 2012

TV review: All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry; Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women

Grayson Perry is a true wizard – he takes the musings of the upper classes and transmutes them into art

Grayson Perry concluded his glorious, inspired and incisive investigation into modern British taste and concomitant neat gutting and filleting of that slippery fish, the class system, with a visit to its upper reaches in the final part of his series All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4).

The Countess of Bathurst dressed him for drinks at Berkley castle. Did he look the part, Perry asked the guests. "You look very smart," they all told him, which is gentry-speak for "No, dear boy, not in the least." You might be able to crack the dress code in time, but the euphemisms would take several lifetimes to master.

Perry took in the shabby beauty of Elizabethan manors and Georgian mansions handed down through the increasingly impoverished generations and the modern gloss put on family seats sold to the new, celebrity aristocracy; and he grilled all their current owners about all he had seen. It was only as you watched him firing off questions – always pertinent, always perceptive, always aimed at cutting through the flummery and getting to the meat of the thing – that you realised what poor stuff the average presenter is made of. Rigorous, intelligent and intuitive, Perry never opened his mouth without either providing fresh insight himself or extracting it from his subject.

"I'm interested," he said at one point, "in how much people buy into the myth of where their place is in society." His gaze swept over the latest display of ancestral portraits and stags' heads within a gently crumbling pile and he gave one of his great dirty chuckles. "Is there a point when they actually start camping it up?" I invite you to contemplate the difference between this and anything ever uttered by Cherry Healey until your ears start to bleed. It won't take long. Watching Perry at work, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz going from a world of black and white to glorious Technicolor. I never knew it could be like this.

This true wizard then distilled all he had learned and deduced from his various hosts about what marked them out from the middle and working classes – the prizing of old above new, the love of historical associations rather than brand names, the importance of understatement and the dread of overstatement, a custodial attitude towards, rather than proud ownership of, their homes ("The house is here," said Janey Clifford. "All we do is patch it up, really"), a desire to maintain the status quo and not indulge in self-expression – and transformed it into art. Six tapestries – two for each stratum of society – summed us all up in Perry's modern rendering of Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. For the first time ever, I became determined to visit a work of art. The man is clearly, in every way, a genius.

And while we're being cultured, let us turn to Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women (BBC4), part of the Shakespeare Uncovered season. It didn't actually start talking about the play's female characters until halfway through. The first 30 minutes took us through Shakespeare's own history (born – Stratford; married – Anne "not The Devil Wears Prada one" Hathaway; issue – twins! Twins like what will be in loads of his forthcoming plays!; buggered off – 1582-95, we know not where; turns up in London as actor/playwright; does pretty well before death in 1616 and brilliantly thereafter) without adding any more, I suspect, to the knowledge of anyone with even the briefest acquaintance with the man and certainly not to anyone who had watched any of the season's previous programmes.

After that, it was long on archive footage (including Vanessa Redgrave in her breakthrough screen role as an impossibly beautiful and mesmerising Rosalind in the RSC's televised As You Like It of 1961), assertions of the complexity of certain heroines (mainly Viola and Rosalind, with no mention of trickier propositions like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew) and of the surpassing brilliance and precocity of their creator's talent, but a little short on evidence. Richardson interviewed only her mother Vanessa and, briefly, actors in rehearsal for Twelfth Night and left the experts to talk to camera.

You longed for Grayson Perry to pop by for 10 minutes and unpack all the scholarship with which they clearly brimmed, with a few well-chosen questions. I suspect I shall be longing for that quite a lot from now on.


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June 12 2012

TV review: All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry is not here to sneer at the middle class – he's here to understand them

I have a tagine. You know, one of those brown dishes from Morocco with a volcano-shaped lid. I sometimes think about trying to cook something in it, but then I think again. I worry it would crack if it went on the gas. In the oven? Hmm, its volcano is so high I'd have to take all the shelves out and there'd still be no room for anything else. I'm sure they're brilliant over a stove in the souk in Casafriggingblanca or wherever, but they're useless in the modern kitchen. It doesn't even fit in any of the cupboards so it has to go on top of them, where it gathers dust, pointlessly. Why do I have it?

Having seen the second part of All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4), the Turner prize-winning artist's lovely examination of class and taste, I now know. It's because I'm middle class. And a certain kind of middle class – because while things are still relatively clear when it comes to nobs and plebs, the middle classes are a swirly sprawl that now engulfs two thirds of the population.

With my tagine's pleasing conical form I'm showing that I have an eye for the aesthetic. The brown colour hints at the earth, perhaps a connection to the soil and concern for the planet. It's almost certainly a Fair Trade tagine. And its Moroccanness shows that I'm broad-minded, cosmopolitan, adventurous. I embrace different races and cultures.

The fact that it's utterly useless is neither here nor there. In fact, its absurd height is a bonus. It means it can't go in a cupboard even if I wanted it to. It has to be displayed, and that's fine because that's what I really want, to show people which tribe I belong to. It's not a cooking vessel, it's a social identifier. And if I did actually want to cook lamb with bloody almonds and pomegranates or whatever, I've got a Le Creuset in the cupboard. No really, I have. I might as well just tattoo the C-word across my forehead, in a fit of middle-class angst. Except we don't do that, we do little tattoos, on our ankles ….

Grayson Perry seems more comfortable – both with himself (and herself when she chooses) and among the people (s)he meets. He was last week, among working-class people in Sunderland. Engaging, interested, never patronising. But still funny, and fun. And he is here, among what he calls the new upwardly mobile middle class in a new development called Kings Hill in Kent.

It would be so easy to be sneery; about Kate's pink champagne and cupcakes (cupcakes that aren't really meant to be eaten but simply to signal in-control, on-trend middle-class domesticity); about Jane who bought the Kings Hill showhome along with all its contents; about the Jamie At Home cookware events (sort of Tupperware parties for 21st-century Britain, looked over from above by Jamie Oliver himself, the god of class mobility). It would be easy to laugh too about the more established middle classes in Tunbridge Wells, striving for individuality and trying so hard not to be seen to be trying too hard.

Although Perry is perhaps a bit freer than he was last week, less careful not to offend (and so more fun), he still neither laughs nor sneers. That's not why he's here – he's here to observe, to find out, to understand. And then to capture, in his tapestries.

He's great at it too. He has the inquisitiveness and questioning skills of a journalist, the original thought and ideas of a brainiac, the imagination of an artist. But he also has the ability to get on with and talk to normal people that few journalists, brainiacs or artists have. The tapestry reveal at the end, when his subjects come to a London gallery to see what he's done, is a nice touch, adds the gentlest hint of reality TV to proceedings. And it's about class and taste, possibly the two most interesting subjects there are.

All of which adds up to a fabulous work of television. The only thing I'd maybe lose is the voiceover, by Stephen Mangan. Not needed.

What about the art though? Yeah fabulous ... he says, nervously, looking around, reading to see what other people have said, before deciding that liking it fits with who I am, and who I want to be. Love – and totally picked up on – the whole Hogarth thing, obviously. Where's the tagine though? Never mind, he's got my Le Creuset in there. Exactly the same, blue and oval. Nice.

Read a review of the final episode of Mad Men


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June 11 2012

TV highlights 12/06/2012

Silk | Great Ormond Street | Mad Men | All In The Best Possible Taste With Grayson Perry | Hit & Miss | Cardinal Burns

Silk
9pm, BBC1

The increasingly glammed-up Martha gets the gig of her career this week, representing a Jamaican prisoner on death row at the Supreme Court. Billy's worried she won't be able to take the pressure. Has he not seen how hard-as-nails she is in that courtroom? Speaking of which, corrupt pest Micky Joy is still after revenge for the Jody Farr case. Over in smouldering posho corner, Clive has a feeling he may not be the right man to defend Fatima Ali at her trial. Can he persuade Martha to step in and expose the truth? Hannah Verdier

Great Ormond Street
9pm, BBC2

Set your heartstrings to jerk: tonight's episode sees newborn babies at the country's biggest children's hospital undergo complex heart surgery – with no guarantee of success. Like One Born Every Minute, and 24 Hours In A&E, the makers of Great Ormond Street are focusing pretty heavily on making viewers cry. Put emotional manipulation to one side, however, and this is a great celebration of everything the NHS does best. Cameron and cronies take note. Nosheen Iqbal

Mad Men
9pm, Sky Atlantic

A more subdued affair than the previous two shock-stuffed episodes, but no less compelling as a result, tonight's Mad Men closes out a particularly strong season for the show. Lane's spectre still hangs heavily over SCDP, while Don – who has encountered his fair share of spirits in the past – is visited by the ghost of his dead brother. Elsewhere, Pete rekindles his tryst with troubled neighbour Beth, though not in the manner he might have hoped. Typically, the whole thing is rounded off with an elegantly shot montage, and an ambiguous closing shot that will have fans debating right up until next season. Gwilym Mumford

All In The Best Possible Taste With Grayson Perry
10pm, Channel 4

This week, artist Perry is subjecting the middle class to his scrutiny. Considering himself middle class, – he lives in Islington and is part of the "chattering class" – he sets off to Kings Hill in Kent, a development of executive homes where the right brands are important but everyone seems keen not to be flashy. Then he's off to Tunbridge Wells, where cultural capital – William Morris wallpaper and retro furniture – is all-important. Perry makes a good social anthropologist, paring not just class differences but the distinctions within the classes themselves. Martin Skegg

Hit & Miss
10pm, Sky Atlantic

Mia's increasing responsibility for her family – and, arguably, her reliance on them as much as their reliance on her – is beginning to cause conflict in her other role as a hit man. (Of course, if it didn't, this wouldn't be a six-part series.) When she takes the kids out on a job she places them in danger, and Eddie's scrutiny further complicates the situation. Meanwhile, Riley confesses that she's pregnant, though the identity of the father means it is unlikely to be a smooth ride. And the identity of the sinister man watching the farm is finally revealed. Rebecca Nicholson

Cardinal Burns
10.30pm, E4

Last in the series for this frequently brilliant sketch show. Tonight, street poet Switch laments his friends all going to university, the Young Dreams girls are going to celebrate their friendship at Honky Tonks nightclub and new guy flirts his way out of the office for the last time. Plus, in the sketch of the series, two cafe managers take a job interview roleplay too far. There's no question their clever brains should get a second series. And on Channel 4 this time. Julia Raeside


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Coronation Street fails to win listed status

English Heritage says redbrick terrace of long-running TV soap fails to meet historic and architectural criteria

The most famous street in the north of England has failed to win listed status as an historic building because of its constant reinvention to suit the changing demands of TV drama.

The redbrick terrace of Coronation Street, which is threatened by redevelopment as the city's media move from central Manchester to Salford Quays, lost out after a detailed analysis by English Heritage.

For all its lore and grip on the national imagination – "Corrie" is comfortably the world's longest-running, and typically the UK's most-watched TV soap – the actual bricks and mortar are comparative newcomers. Although increasingly "real", with the fibreglass chimneys being replaced by brick to meet the demands of high-definition TV, they only date back to 1982 and have had many additions since.

English Heritage said it failed the listing system's "extremely strict" criteria on age, albeit only by months, but other problems with supposed historic and architectural value were rife.

The ruling says: "Most of the houses do not have interiors and therefore exist as facades, and most of those have been altered. The set as it stands today is an active reminder of the long-running television programme, rather than a survival of an earlier era of television productions."

The full-size street was opened by the Queen, an indication of the show's status rather than the quality of the set. Its two predecessors were built smaller than life-size to fit into Granada TV's production space, obliging actors to walk more slowly than normal. The first set was indoors; the second outside and unpopular with staff because it was built at an angle which caught the wind.

The set has attracted some support from conservationists and Mancunian loyalists who believe the fictional city of Weatherfield, first introduced to viewers in 1960, is Manchester and not its neighbour and rival, Salford, the home of Media City where ITV Granada is building a new set. A number of housing and tourism groups are thought to have approached the company, which is expected to move out next year.

ITV Granada said in a statement: "We continue to consider the future of the Coronation Street set ahead of our planned move to Media City".

Nick Bridgland, of English Heritage, said: "There is no question that Coronation Street is a television institution and holds a huge place in many people's hearts. While listing is not appropriate for the set, a better solution could be for a local group or organisation with an interest to care for it and allow fans from all over the world to visit and enjoy it."


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April 11 2012

Eyewitness: Rotherhithe, London

Photographs from the Guardian Eyewitness series



March 29 2012

Mighty real: Gillian Wearing's favourite documentaries

From 7 Up to TOWIE, Andy Warhol to the Maysles brothers, I am influenced by films that highlight human reality and interaction

When people consider the art of the moving image, documentary is most often seen as the poor cousin of the feature film. But the inception of film started with the documentary, whether it was a horse galloping or a train coming through a tunnel.

Documentaries have influenced how actors can perform more naturally, or film-makers create mises-en-scène convincingly. But more than anything, they have changed us all, allowed us to understand others we have never met or will never have the chance to meet. They have changed our social ways as we pick up on how other people live and, in some cases, adopt manners and behaviours. My work has been influenced by documentaries, particularly those from the 1970s, where new ideas were being explored in programmes like The Family and 7 Up. In no particular order, here are my favourites.

The Family/The American family

I watched Paul Watson's The Family as a young girl. There was nothing like it on TV at the time – life spilling out in what seemed real time (at that point it did anyway), in all its complicated, messy or funny ways. The Wilkins family were an ordinary working-class family and were like people I knew, in fact my best friend at school resembled youngest daughter Heather. This was not the stereotypical family portrayed in programmes like Coronation Street; this family seemed more complex and dealt with ups and downs in their own unique way.

It got a lot of criticism at the time, in much the same way that Big Brother did when it first aired. The problem for critics and some viewers was that the family revealed their personal problems and argued among themselves – there was a lot of judgment about the way they lived their lives. I was oblivious to most of these criticisms as I was young and accepted what I saw, and in fact what I saw felt like real life.

What was also unique about it was that it was still being filmed while it was being shown on TV, so in some of the last episodes the family are reading about themselves in the papers and are able to answer back to their critics. I think this led in part to the audience changing their minds about them. In the final episode, one of the eldest daughters gets married. A huge crowd of people turn up out of curiosity, awe and because the family have now become famous in the UK. One bystander admits she didn't think much of them at first, but then she realised that all families have problems and she had begun to like them because of their honesty.

This is why reality TV is so successful after the initial brouhaha, shock and criticism. The good programmes keep their audience because we learn from seeing how other people deal with issues in their lives, both good and bad, or in Big Brother's case how people interact in a situation that could resemble an office or other social gathering. I have added The American Family under the same heading, because this was the very first of this genre of programmes filmed two years before the UK version and aired a year later after 12 months of editing.

The Up series – Granada TV

This was the documentary everyone talked about at school. A simple idea, to record children from the age of seven onwards, every seven years. To see how each child fares as they become adults and if their initial hopes and dreams turn out they way they wanted. It was the main influence behind my film 10-16 (1997), where I had actors lip-synch to children's voices between the ages of 10 and 16, to capture the way children's thoughts and concerns change as they move towards adulthood. The documentaries showed that every child has dreams – some fulfilled, others not. One young man says he expected to become rich and famous but instead was helping his mother who had depression. Another spoke of how his "heart was on the left and purse was on the right" as he was becoming financially successful. This was just an extraordinary experiment that made you really think about your own life and how you reflect back.

Warhol Screen tests/Empire

Andy Warhol is the most experimental of all documentary makers; his playfulness and disrespect for convention led to the creation of seminal film-making. Just sitting people down in front of a film camera without any instruction led to the screen tests. The more we look, the more we pay attention to every detail. He does exactly the same with Empire, although nothing changes but the light.

The imagery in these films is as iconic as his soup cans. The more we watch, the more we think about it, and the more we think about it, the more important it becomes. Warhol exhausted the lengths to which long takes could be extended. For all his commercial success as an artist, his films are entrenched in the avant garde, though as influence goes his ideas have seeped into so many aspects of the mainstream – from feature films to documentaries and reality TV.

Titicut Follies – Frederick Wiseman

There is a scene in a Béla Tarr's film Werckmeister Harmonies where a camera pans into a room and we see a naked man bereft of any dignity shivering in a shower room. It is a shock to the system and it brings you to your senses. I have always wondered if Tarr had taken this scene's inspiration from Frederick Wiseman's documentary Titicut Follies. It is a shocking and grim look behind the scenes of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, an institute for those labelled criminally insane. The men spend a great deal of time naked in their cells or being shaved, force fed or showered by the guards. The film reads like a human-zoo horror story, but its power comes through its filming and editing, which rhythmically give you a sense of the chaos and cruelty of this world.

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y – Johan Grimonprez

Spliced together from news and found footage, this film is a montage of events including terrorist attacks, hijacks and plane crashes. With voiceover and music from the time the events happened, it has a little bit of the BBC's Rock 'n' Roll Years feel, where the seduction of the music contradicts the horror of the images. This film was made in 1997, four years before 9/11, for the art exhibition Documenta in Kassel. It draws on our fascination with disasters as well as our empathy for those caught up in the drama.

Grey Gardens – the Maysles brothers

A mother and daughter, "little Edie" and "big Edie" Beale, live together in a ramshackle house in the Hamptons, New York, where they seem to have retreated from the outside world. Respectively first cousin and aunt to Jackie Kennedy, the Beales dropped out of the aristocratic circle they once inhabited, where little Edie could have married Paul Getty, something her mother doesn't want her to forget. There is wit, pathos and co-dependency in this unique relationship recorded by the Maysles brothers and now a cult film.

Reality TV

And finally, a word about reality TV. Reality programmes haven't been an influence on me – I had been making my work for 10 years before the launch of Big Brother in 2000. But I relate in part to its creation of situations that seek new ways of seeing how participants interact with each other. I too have tried to create unique structures in order to see the world anew. My recent viewing has included The Only Way is Essex, which is part reality, part fiction, where the fictional improvisation bring out true feelings that become a new reality for the participants. We are all actors, improvising each time we talk to someone, and I think this programme distinctly illuminates that analogy.


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March 27 2012

The real Mad Men: ads from the heyday of Madison Avenue

To mark the fifth series of the adland drama, we look back at leading campaigns of the 50s and 60s, for clients including VW



March 26 2012

Robert Fuest obituary

Director who blended sophistication and sickness in the horror film The Abominable Dr Phibes

With its mix of pop art, sophisticated humour, pulp science fiction and English eccentricity, the television series The Avengers was among the most influential and significant products of "swinging London" in the 1960s. Robert Fuest, who has died aged 84, cut his teeth on the series under the aegis of the writer-producer Brian Clemens, initially as a production designer when the show was produced "as live" in the studio in black and white and co-starred Honor Blackman with Patrick MacNee, then as director when the series had moved on to colour, film and Linda Thorson.

As designer and director, Fuest learned how to achieve style on a budget – making a great deal of the show's famously minimalist aesthetic – and he carried this over into his best-known works as a film director, the two Dr Phibes horror movies of the early 1970s, starring Vincent Price, and the Michael Moorcock adaptation The Final Programme (1973). In 1970, he made a commercially successful literary adaptation of Wuthering Heights, with Timothy Dalton as a pin-up Heathcliff, and the highly regarded, recently remade suspense picture And Soon the Darkness.

Fuest was born in Croydon, south London. He graduated from Wimbledon School of Art with a national diploma in design, then went on to Hornsey College of Art to study for his art teacher diploma. He did his national service in the RAF and was involved, in a tiny way, in the Berlin airlift of 1948.

After a decade teaching illustration and lithography at Southampton School of Art, he entered the TV industry as a production designer in 1961, first working at Thames Television on The Avengers. He worked for ITV and the BBC throughout the 1960s, mostly as an art director/production designer on prestige shows including Out of This World, Armchair Theatre and the BBC Sunday Night Play. He also contributed material to the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore sketch show Not Only … But Also, as a comedy writer, and seemed drawn towards the pop art/satire world epitomised in the British cinema by the films of Richard Lester.

In 1967, Fuest wrote, directed and provided songs for his first feature, the marriage-in-crisis comedy Just Like a Woman, starring Wendy Craig and Francis Matthews. The film ventures into freewheeling, surreal territory thanks to a Peter Sellers-esque performance from Clive Dunn as a modern architect who creates a stylish but hideous new home for the heroine. Seldom revived yet fresh and memorable, Just Like a Woman might well have been Fuest's most personal film, though his subsequent work found him gravitating towards mainstream success and a lasting cult reputation.

Fuest then directed eight episodes of The Avengers and continued his collaboration with Clemens on And Soon the Darkness, a sunstruck thriller about two girls (Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice) stalked by a murderer while on a cycling holiday in France. Wuthering Heights, one of several literary classics reimagined as 1960s-style youth romances in the wake of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, and John Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd – was made for American International Pictures, which was at that time best known for beach-party musicals and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Price.

Wuthering Heights was AIP's biggest success to that date – rather to the surprise of studio chief Samuel Z Arkoff, who tried in vain to persuade Fuest to deliver a sequel – and Fuest was then teamed with Price, who had at that time grown weary of his horror stardom and become prickly to work with. Rewriting without credit a simple parade-of-deaths film initially called The Curse of Dr Pibe, Fuest delivered The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), in which a disfigured vaudeville organist-theologist kills off, in gruesome manners derived from the Plagues of Egypt ("Aaargh, locusts!"), the doctors who failed to save his wife's life.

Aside from the relentless black humour of the premise, Fuest and Price worked hard on an unusual blend of sophistication and sickness, playing up the art deco sets and befuddled succession of mostly doomed British character actors. The film was a big enough hit to re-enthuse Price and AIP and led to an even more stylish and acid-dipped follow-up, Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), which did well, but not well enough to ensure further instalments.

The Final Programme, with Jon Finch as Moorcock's futuristic dandy Jerry Cornelius and an absurdist take on the end of the world, is a remarkable achievement, though the author did not care for it and audiences did not initially take to its odd qualities. After directing an entertaining American horror movie, The Devil's Rain (1975) – with Ernest Borgnine and William Shatner – Fuest mostly worked in television in the US and UK, inevitably directing episodes of The New Avengers but also odd projects such as Revenge of the Stepford Wives; an hour-long version of Poe's The Gold-Bug; and children's programs in the US and the UK.

From the mid-80s, he returned to teaching, as senior professor at the London International Film School, and then became a full-time painter, specialising in seascapes and maritime subjects. He was also a well-liked guest at film festivals and cult movie events.

He is survived by his wife, Jane, and their daughter Rebecca, and his former wife, Gillian, and their sons Adam, Ben and Aaron.

Robert Fuest, director, production designer and artist, born 30 September 1927; died 21 March 2012


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February 16 2012

What Clarkson can learn from Picasso

The Top Gear presenter's recent mockery of people with facial disfigurements contrasts sharply with Picasso, who painted the human face in all its beautiful, distorted glory

I am not a regular viewer of Top Gear. So someone had to alert me to a recent segment in which presenter Jeremy Clarkson started going for people who look different. He compared a new car with a person suffering from a facial tumour: "You know sometimes you meet someone and they have got a growth on their face and it is bigger than their face … one of those really ugly things..." The, er, joke was extended and repeated in the programme.

Did he really need to be that specific in singling out a group of people for mockery?

It is easy to see why the charity Changing Faces, which campaigns for more inclusive attitudes to disfigurement, is seriously upset. It is the precision of Clarkson's remarks – he referred to a real illness, that real people are experiencing every day – that makes them cruel.

But I don't want to waste too many words on this ugly television performance. What I want to do is contrast Clarkson's attitude to the human face with the view taken by Picasso.

There is a powerful painting in the Picasso exhibition currently at Tate Britain of the mother of the artist's lover. Picasso's 1939 work, Portrait of Emilie Marguerite Walter (Meme), shows a woman who appears to have a nose on the side of her face, a sideways bulge from one of her cheeks, and eyes at different heights behind her thick round spectacles. I would love to hear Jeremy Clarkson describe her (no I wouldn't).

Instead, let's consider what David Hockney had to say. Picasso's painting of Emilie Marguerite Walter is shown with works by Hockney in the Tate Britain show, because the Yorkshire Picasso fan has commented on, and done his own versions of, this particular work. Hockney pointed out that Picasso is actually showing what anyone's face can look like closeup – and he is surely right. When we speak to one another, when we kiss, when we touch one another's faces we encounter mysterious, changing landscapes, not the simple icons that adverts promote.

Hockney's observation or something like it applies, I think, to all of Picasso's paintings. Picasso is the artist Changing Faces should endorse, for he changed how we can see all faces. There is no such thing as fixed beauty or ugliness through Picasso's eyes. People are endless vistas of wonder, and when he paints a mistress, he distorts and reinvents just as gleefully as he does in any other picture. What he is painting is the truth of life's boundless surprise.

Picasso is the antithesis of Clarkson when it comes to ways of seeing the human face. Our society would be kinder and better if we learned to look through his eyes.


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February 13 2012

Apple's iTV and the implications of what Steve said

If I accept conventional wisdom, Apple is getting into the TV-making business because:

  1. The living room is the last consumer segment that Apple has yet to completely remake in its image.
  2. Apple creates new markets where none exist, and it isn't satisfied with merely improving upon existing ones.
  3. Steve Jobs allegedly said that he'd cracked the code for creating an integrated TV set.
  4. If the iPad is really "just" a big iPod Touch, and has already sold 55 million units, then a TV that is "just" a big iPad could do gonzo business.
  5. The business of making TVs is broken, and Apple has to fix it.
  6. Cable and satellite providers are evil, and Apple has to liberate consumers.
  7. Tim Cook "needs" a hit.

As I stated in my last post following Apple's gaudy earnings numbers, I don't accept conventional wisdom because conventional wisdom is dead! Apple killed it.

Most fundamentally, all assumptions about Apple seem to stem from a misunderstanding of how differently Apple thinks and operates from everyone else.

For starters, Apple doesn't chase markets just because they're there. Nor do they get sucked into market share battles just so they can say they sold the most units (see: iOS vs. Android).

Further, neither the aggrandizement of the CEO's ego nor the altruistic care-taking of the consumer drive Apple's product strategy.

Rather, Apple pursues markets purely and vigorously based upon a simple logic. Do they believe that their integrated hardware + software + service approach can be applied in a leveraged fashion to create a differentiated offering that delights consumers, appeals to the masses, and can be sold at high margins at a predictable run rate?

If the answer is "yes," then game on. If the answer is "no," then leave it as a hobby (such as the current Apple TV), or avoid the market altogether.

This is the backdrop for understanding the rumors about Apple building a new-fangled television set. Rumors and whispers notwithstanding, in the words of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the obvious question is:

"Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?"

Apple TV matrix
Top layer = iOS devices; Middle layer = Core device functions; Bottom layer = Noteworthy hardware subsystems.

In the case of a serious living room play, if you check out the above graphic, what stands out most about the Apple TV in its current incarnation is its lack of apps, web, and communications support. These elements are the three biggest game changers that propelled the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad beyond the impressive media foundation that marked the pre-iOS iPod.

What is also lacking is the mainstream television programming (HBO, ESPN, ABC) that the typical consumer demands. A 'purdy' new TV doesn't remedy that problem, now does it?

But, remember, Apple is long removed from their anti-establishment days, whereby for the company to succeed the incumbent had to fail. Hence, the rebirth of the Mac was predicated on getting into bed with Microsoft; the rise of the iPod was predicated on getting into bed with the music industry; and the rise of the iPhone was predicated on getting into bed with mobile carriers.

When framed that way, who hasn't Apple gotten into bed with yet that they need to get in bed with to succeed in a mainstream way?

You guessed it; the cable and satellite providers. Why? Because as noted venture capitalist Bill Gurley sagely pointed out, "When it Comes to Television Content, Affiliate Fees Make the World Go 'Round."

In other words, for an Apple TV to be free-flowing with first-tier TV content in the same way that an iPod flows with first-tier music, Apple will need DIRECTV and/or Comcast to bless it.

ESPN, after all, earns $4.69 per subscriber household in affiliate fees on each and every cable subscriber. Apple's good friend, Disney, owns ESPN, ABC, Disney Channel and a slew of other channels. Disney simply isn't going to throw billions of dollars away in affiliate fees just so they can help Apple. All of the major TV content players view the world similarly.

So where does that get you when you connect the dots? I'll tell you where it doesn't get you ... to a television-like device that:

  1. Is priced 2-4X the cost of an iPad.
  2. Has sales cycles of one device every 5-10 years.
  3. Has bad margins.
  4. Has a serviceable form factor that for many people is good enough. (Apple challenges industries where the baseline experience is terrible. Television hardware wouldn't seem to qualify.)

Conversely, what if you could buy a set-top box that plugged into your modern, big-screen TV, and:

  1. It just worked.
  2. Had every channel you currently get on cable.
  3. You could run those same channels as apps on your other iOS devices.
  4. Your TV could be controlled by any of those same iOS devices.
  5. You could upgrade to the newest version of the set-top box every 2-3 years (on a carrier-subsidized basis).
    1. Who wouldn't buy this device? And why wouldn't the cable and satellite providers be all over this? After all, does anyone seriously like their set-top box?

      As a sanity check, a carrier subsidy on a sub-$500 device is meaningful, whereas a carrier subsidy on a $1,500+ device like a TV set is nothing.

      Wait! But, didn't Steve Jobs say that he'd like to make an integrated TV set?

      Even if he did say that, do you really think that in his final official act as Apple spokesman, Jobs would telegraph to the world his company's grand intentions in the living room?

      Related:

January 23 2012

Have our cultural tastes gone conservative?

Does the popularity of traditional landscape paintings at the Royal Academy and a posh country-house TV series mean Britons are rejecting the progressive for the conservative?

When is culture conservative? This is an urgent question, since in many peoples' eyes Britain is slipping into a regressive mood in the arts and entertainment that – according to your point of view – is either to be loathed or welcomed as a symptom of deep societal change.

The conservative political commentator Peter Oborne welcomes it. In a provocative and trenchant article in the Daily Telegraph, he recently hailed the popularity of David Hockney's exhibition at the Royal Academy as a sign that Britons are rejecting progressive pretensions for conservative honesty, preferring the handmade to the conceptual, the rooted to the cosmopolitan – whatever Hockney's politics may be, suggests Oborne, his landscape paintings are "conservative".

Meanwhile, from the opposite point of view, Simon Schama wrote an equally trenchant and powerful attack on the country-house television series Downton Abbey, pouring eloquent scorn on its nostalgia for a world where people knew their bloody place.

I have never seen Downton Abbey. Being a progressive liberal, I watch Danish cop shows instead. But I can't help remembering the 1980s. When I was a teenager, some of us in north Wales were obsessed with two things: Joy Division, and Brideshead Revisited. Now, from the point of view of the kinds of cultural analyses that divide everything into "conservative" or "progressive", these are polar opposites. A group from the northwest, played on Peel, conjuring images of darkness and despair, profoundly urban and industrial, versus a television dramatisation, as celebrated in its day as Downton Abbey, of an openly rightwing novel by Evelyn Waugh that celebrated country houses and the upper class.

But it all made sense. Brideshead could not have gone further in its glorification of the posh – yet at the time, it was exceptional for mainstream British television in its portrayal of a gay relationship. Waugh's snobbery was scarcely the stuff of Margaret Thatcher's government, either. Thatcherism rejected the traditional aristocratic tone of the Conservative Party and looked back to the self-made ethos of the Victorian bourgeoisie – "Victorian values" – rather than landed estates and their age-old corruptions. So the singular vision of Waugh seemed strangely subversive. It was the TV expression not of conservatism, but of new romanticism.

When radicals in the early Soviet Union wanted to get rid of the ruins of ruling class culture that were preserved in tsarist palaces and museums, Lenin dismissed the idea, believing great art to be the heritage of the proletariat. And if you want to revel in the "conservative" pleasures of a palatial art museum stuffed with old masters, the best place on Earth to do so may well be the Hermitage in St Petersburg – a sanctum of high art preserved by the Soviet era.

I wrestle with this every day. There is, in Britain, a knee-jerk assumption that "conceptual" art is inherently radical and paintings are inherently "conservative". Actually I don't wrestle with it at all, because to me the idea that say, a painting by Gainsborough is either irrelevant, or inherently reactionary, is just ludicrous.

For that reason I don't think a shift in Britain from newish to oldish cultural attitudes means much, politically. It may be like comfort food, a response to tough times. Or it may be that a full experience of culture and imagination embraces new and old, experimental and orderly, and that all worthwhile art contains both conservative and radical possibilities.


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