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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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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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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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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



December 14 2011

Readers' cultural review of 2011: What, no Katy B?

Last week our critics picked their highlights of 2011. Did they get it right? Readers respond with their own highs (and lows)

MattB75

One Man, Two Guvnors was the most fun I've had in a theatre for years – easily the best play of 2011, and James Corden best performer. The National theatre largely misfired for me: A Woman Killed with Kindness, Cherry Orchard, 13, The Kitchen, Frankenstein and Greenland were all largely disappointing.

The RSC's Homecoming was the best revival. Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice was great fun, even if the inconsistency in Portia's characterisation (from ditzy blond Glee fan to brilliant prosecutor, hm) took the edge off it.

Tom Brooke was my favourite actor of the year – in The Kitchen, and I Am the Wind.

oogin

Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are still two of my least-admired starchitects. However, credit where it's due. I had the pleasure of wandering Toronto's AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), redesigned by Gehry [a few years ago], and apart from his usual frivolous facade, the interior had been quite brilliantly done. So restrained and sophisticated: words I never never thought I'd use for the old showboater.

daveportivo

Katy B owned pop in 2011, or temporarily leased the lower sections of the charts from Adele at least. Seven singles off one album and a successful B-side, bridging the gap between cool, intriguing dance and charming, relatable 2000s-style British pop-star writing. Loved it.

Kleistphile

The programme of the year has been Mark Cousins' superb history of the cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, on More4. Incredibly wide-ranging, informative and inspiring, with extremely intelligent analysis of how film developed and how the great directors innovated.

drdownunder

Artist Christian Marclay's awesome 24-hour film-montage The Clock, shown as part of the British Art Show in Plymouth. Mesmeric, fascinating, witty editing and marvellous film-buffery content.

SlimJim888

The Inbetweeners Movie. The snobs may scoff but this film says more about Britain and its youth than 20 Ken Loach films ever could.

OldFriar

Two of the greatest musical evenings were the appearances of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer in Mahler's First symphony, and the zany late-night Prom with audience requests including Bartók, Kodály and Stravinsky. A month before that, the magic combination of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO in Richard Strauss and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.

At the Royal Opera, the three most memorable performances were Madama Butterfly with Kristine Opolais in the title role and her husband Andris Nelsons in the pit; Werther with Sophie Koch and Rolando Villazón doing his best (still short of what Jonas Kaufmann can do); and the recent revival of Faust, with Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

digit

The release by the BFI on DVD and Blu-Ray of Barney Platts-Mills's 1971 film Private Road, starring Bruce Robinson (who later wrote Withnail and I). I first saw this in about 1987 on TV and I've been wanting to see it again ever since. Even better than I thought.

Mark42

Gruff Rhys's Hotel Shampoo was my favourite album of the year; Cashier No 9 was not given the recognition it deserved. Enjoyed Kate Bush, Tinie Tempah, Noel Gallagher and Will Young's offerings, but very disappointed with Coldplay. Adele: lovely voice but too many songs sound the same on her album.

Still, it wasn't all bad: the end of Westlife and hopefully the beginning of the end for X Factor.

dbeecee

Right Here Right Now; Format international photography festival in Derby. Thousands of photographers took part from all over the world, including Joel Meyerowitz and Bruce Gilden. An exciting and eclectic mix showing the best in street photography.

davidabsalom

Best resurrection: Rab C Nesbitt. Comedy of the year for me. Now that the Tories are back in, he seems to have found his mojo again.

zibibbo

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery. I think the major problem with this absurdly hyped show is that, apart from the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks and the unfinished St Jerome, the other six "Leonardo" paintings on display are either too unattractively gauche, stiff and mannered to be considered good or significant. Or they're too implausibly naturalistic to be an autograph work (La Belle Ferronière is too lifelike to be by Leonardo). Or just too plain weird and damaged to take seriously (step forward, the newly discovered Salvator Mundi).

Thank you, Adrian Searle, for having the integrity to give your honest opinion about this insanely promoted but hugely disappointing show.

andglove

The High Country, an album by Portland band Richmond Fontaine, demands your attention from first song to last. It's one of the only albums that will give you the same sense of satisfaction that finishing a novel does.

LDTBFJ

Bridesmaids was a great and genuinely funny film. Comedies (and female comedians) are too frequently dismissed, especially by the Oscars board.

Snarlygog

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet in Plymouth. It was good to see [Christian Marclay's] The Clock and Sarah Lucas's work up close and personal. At least there is an emphasis on craft skills in video art: good focus, framing and timing are back in fashion.

alphabetbands

Nicola Roberts, the good one from Girls Aloud. In her album Cinderella's Eyes she lays out her inner demons and anguish on a platter of sumptuous dance pop hooks and beats. The album is so simple that my two-year-old can sing along, and layered enough that we slightly elder statesmen can appreciate it as well.

juliendonkeyboy

In no particular order: Sufjan Stevens live at Southbank: ambitious, experimental, joyous, exciting, sad. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle: the sixth episode, Democracy, was quite simply awesome. Senna is my film pick: made in 2010, but didn't get released on these shores until 2011. Wonderfully moving.

habsfan0303

Propeller's Comedy of Errors was riotous. I mean, how often does a naked grown man run past you with a sparkler wedged into his buttocks?

glynluke

Archipelago is the worst film I have ever seen in 50-odd years of cinema-going. How Peter Bradshaw and Philip French can find a single redeeming quality in this dreadful two-hour river of bathetic, emotionless, drama-free drivel baffles me.

Shatillion

I loved Attack the Block. I got mugged the week before it was released and actually found watching it quite cathartic. I was rooting for the little shits by the end. That's good screenwriting.

JimTheFish

A really disappointing year for British TV, which has been on a downward slide. Doctor Who was probably still the best thing domestically. The Crimson Petal and the White and The Hour were underwhelming misfires; The Shadow Line was about the only really promising new kid on the block.

The basic problem is that there's just not enough TV drama being produced. We need more one-offs, more Plays for Today to allow TV to find new voices and take more chances. Everything seems to be market-researched and focus-grouped into mediocrity.

LocalBird

We went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park this summer and were blown away by the incredible Jaume Plensa exhibition; the alabaster heads took my breath away. Beautiful, mesmerising and enchanting.

Carefree

Memorable plays: Flare Path, Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature was brilliant), and Much Ado at the Globe (Eve Best and Charles Edwards were good enough to almost match my memories of Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance as Beatrice and Benedick).

Damper squibs were Chicken Soup with Barley (far too long). Conor Macpherson's The Veil at the National started brilliantly but didn't deliver the beautiful, haunting, elegiac power of The Weir – a great shame.

Alarming

There were aspects of Grayson Perry's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman that drove me round the bend. But he wrote well about his theme and chose some absolutely lovely objects from the British Museum's collection.

uptomost

85A collective from Glasgow's brilliant mechanical opera Idimov and the Dancing Girl at the Secret Garden Party. Spooky, funny, ingenious.

AdminGuru

The Tree of Life: a vast expansive film with multiple interpretations, and little in the way of film convention for the casual viewer to latch on to. Viewers fall into two camps I think: those who want simply to be entertained and led, and those who want to explore and participate. Tree of Life is about participation.

Wrighthanes

I just couldn't get The Tree of Life. I tried. I wanted to like it. Admittedly I was on a Singapore Airlines flight, which is not the ideal way to appreciate its cinematic beauty.

DeunanKnute

The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most overrated movie of all time. The sheer brilliance of every single actor isn't in dispute, nor is the superb cinematography. The movie itself is the problem, because it's a real clunker. It's also one of the few films I've seen at the cinema where people were either (vociferously) walking out in disgust or staying behind just to boo.

GorillaPie

The [designs for the] new US Embassy in London. I realise these buildings have to be more fortresses than offices, but really. I'm disappointed that such an important new commission isn't going to be more iconic. Especially since I live opposite the site.

Gundmundsdottir

Possibly the biggest disappointment was the final track on Bon Iver's second album: it never fails to surprise me with just how cheesy and plain bad it is.

CurlyScot

Some of my favourite moments have been in otherwise unremarkable shows. I was slowly won over by Susan Hiller at Tate Modern, and Nancy Spero's works Azur and Hours of the Night II [at the Serpentine] were so incredible I forgot all the meh stuff that surrounded them. The only exhibition I have been unreservedly knocked over by was Mike Nelson's Coral Reef at Tate Britain – an old piece so I'm not sure it counts. Not a superlative year; let's hope 2012 is better and isn't overwhelmed by a spurious Cultural Olympiad.


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November 07 2011

TV highlights 08/11/2011: Leonardo Live | Sorority Girls | The Office: An American Workplace | My Transsexual Summer | Imagine: Simon & Garfunkel – The Harmony Game | True Blood

Leonardo Live | Sorority Girls | The Office: An American Workplace | My Transsexual Summer | Imagine: Simon & Garfunkel – The Harmony Game | True Blood

Leonardo Live
7pm, Sky Arts 1

On the eve of one of the biggest-ever exhibitions of his work at the National Gallery, Tim Marlow and Mariella Frostrup offer a guide to the Da Vinci works on display. Although he's as much renowned for his speculative science nowadays, this exhibition will focus on his paintings and drawings, and his drive to convey some notion of perfection in human form. A good way to catch the show, especially as the real thing will probably feel like shuffling through a train station at rush hour. David Stubbs

Sorority Girls
9pm, E4

Somewhere between Tool Academy, Geordie Finishing School For Girls, Ladette To Lady and Gossip Girl sits this new reality show, in which Leeds University students have to prove their feminine charms in order to join a squeaky clean, American-style sorority. There are plenty of amusing clash-of-cultures observations, as the US sisters look on in horror at the pierced and pissed UK girls. But the competition element is brutal, and there's one glaring question left unanswered: why on earth do they want to be part of such a dry, conservative institution in the first place? Rebecca Nicholson

The Office: An American Workplace
10pm, Comedy Central

Dunder-Mifflin is now a subsidiary of Sabre Corp. The Scranton office is being kept running as it is, bafflingly, the most profitable. Greeting them into the new order, Sabre send down a hilariously vague Christian Slater-hosted corporate video and an even more hard-to-fathom executive, Gabe (Zach Woods, playing more or less his character Chad from In The Loop). All this is too hard for Michael to process so he travels to the home of his recently deposed boss, David Wallace, hoping his old nemesis can help. For viewers though, all this change is invigorating. Phelim O'Neill

My Transsexual Summer
10pm, Channel 4

Much like Seven Dwarves, this documentary has been sold on the "shock" element of its subject matter, when in fact it's sensitive and funny rather than exploitative. Seven transgender people, at various stages of their transitions, meet at weekends at a "retreat" house to hang out, support each other and talk about things they've never really been able to share before. What they get from the experience is quite incredible, though be warned, this doesn't shy away from explicit surgery. RN

Imagine: Simon & Garfunkel – The Harmony Game
10.35pm, BBC1

The title here is at least partly ironic: in 1969, as they worked on Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were about to end their creative partnership. You'd struggle to learn exactly why from Jennifer Lebeau's documentary, though, perhaps because of the duo's close involvement in the film. Frustrating, but what you do get is a look at how they crafted their final studio album. Confirmation, if needed, that it's fiendishly complicated to make simple pop music that endures. Jonathan Wright

True Blood
11.10pm, Channel 4

After finding the mushy remains of his lover on the living room floor, King Russell of Mississippi is on the warpath. Eric, responsible for said mushy remains, has fled back to the comparatively sedate Bon Temps, but it isn't long before the shadowy forces of The Ministry come a-knockin. Bill and Sookie's relationship woes seem comparatively dull, despite a risque shower scene. Business really picks up in the episode's denouement, where Edgington gives a terrifying demonstration of his powers. Gwilym Mumford


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October 15 2011

Abi Morgan: 'I don't look back. I am totally now'

Thanks to The Hour, playwright Abi Morgan has enjoyed an incredibly prolific year. Next up, a Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep, a Steve McQueen film about sex and a play about God

Abi Morgan shows up late, full of apologies, to a cafe on the corner of Exmouth Market in London's Clerkenwell. I tell her it would have been understandable if she had failed to turn up at all. For she is Mrs British Screenwriter and it is daunting even to try and imagine her workload. This has been, as she says, an "extraordinary" year in which "it is all happening at once".

She has a hasty look as she bustles in, wrapped in a black shawl – part Mediterranean peasant, part human dynamo. The minute she sits down, we both start talking at once, as you do with people who, for some reason you cannot as yet explain, you instantly like. Right away, we are analysing her Diet Coke habit and she is promising, unconvincingly, that the one she is ordering will be her last and I can see that, at this rate, we are going to blow right off course.

So: quantity. Could we concentrate on this first? Does she even know how many scripts – for film and television and stage – she has written? After some genuine attempts at counting, she has to admit she doesn't. All right then: there is The Hour, the 1950s newsroom BBC drama watched by 2.1 million viewers (she is now working on a second series); Shame, a film directed by Steve McQueen, to be released in January; and, in the same month, the eagerly awaited biopic The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. And then there is her adaptation of Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, at last going ahead. And that is not to ignore her new play, 27, about to open at the Royal Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh. And we can't even begin to mention the scripts that never made it – some her personal favourites.

If I am not sure where to start, how must Abi feel? How does she keep so many plays in the air? As she talks, her flesh-coloured Perspex ring (from Next, she says) catches the light as she pummels, boxes and burrows with expressive hands. She has big, brown, intelligent eyes, which she likes to roll (often self-mockingly). And sometimes she watches me warily – she is not about to be tricked into blowing her own trumpet. She insists she is governed by "escape". If you have enough scripts on the go, there is always one to disappear into: "I am always running away from something." But she writes fast and adds – understatement of the year – "I don't have writer's block as such." She will do "eight or nine drafts" per script.

If I could spy on her at home, what would I see? She describes her north London house, currently a "building site", and her study in the middle of it. She has always had the ability to work in a hubbub. For her first 10 years as a writer, she had other jobs as telemarketer, researcher, caretaker, when she covertly scribbled. Now, her days are a combination of "frenzied work" and "procrastination". She starts at nine, finishes at seven. But this isn't solid working? "In that time, I am doing a hell of a lot of internet shopping, navel-gazing, picking away at my partner, sharing several cups of tea with whoever turns up…"

But the day has to be more organised than it once was – children make one "conservative" and she and her partner, Jacob Krichefski, an actor, have two (Jesse, aged nine, and seven-year-old Mabel). She writes in chaos: a nest of papers, bits of chocolate, her daughter's hair slides, a huge whiteboard "besieged by my kids" and with nothing sensible on it. The promise to tidy her study is broken every day. And she never makes lists. David Hare – she quotes him brightly – apparently once declared: "If you can't remember it, it wasn't important enough." I protest at this. And her face clouds over, too, as she confesses she spends her whole time forgetting things.

I am a huge fan of The Hour and before we move on need to be reassured that Dominic West, who plays Hector, the news presenter, has survived into the second series (if only because it looked, at the end of the first, as if he might vanish into the beautiful, boring arms of his posh wife and forfeit his life in current affairs for ever). She delights me by saying: "Everyone in the cast is coming back" and: "I am really excited about where I can take Hector… I think there is a darker place for him to go but that is all I am saying because… [she pauses as if recognising the absurdity] I haven't written it yet and [a different, more thoughtful pause] we start shooting in two months." We talk about the brilliant casting of The Hour – with Ben Whishaw as Freddie (she identifies with Freddie because he is "on a rollercoaster waiting to hit a wall") and Romola Garai as Bel. And she tells me that Jill Trevellick, who cast Downton Abbey, was responsible.

Anyone who has seen the trailer for The Iron Lady will agree that casting does not come more classy than Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, looking killingly plausible in her turquoise twinset. She is being told, by image advisers, to sacrifice the hat and pearls. But, deliciously, she pronounces the pearls "non-negotiable". The only thing wrong with Streep's performance is that, when she smiles, she is a smidgen too pretty. Nothing she can do about that, but she has worked on everything else. Abi says it was "an exceptional privilege" to watch her in the early stages: "The extraordinary thing is how quickly that voice was there."

This is no reflex rave. Abi knows about acting. Her father, Gareth Morgan, was a director; her mother, Pat England, is an actress. When reading English and drama at Exeter, she wondered about an acting career herself ("like someone whose dad is an electrician, having a go at changing plugs"). But after a university performance, she asked: "Mum, what do you think?" The reply was: "No, darling." Wasn't that hurtful? "Not at all. I felt incredibly relieved – I thought it was quite funny."

Her tutor's verdict was discouraging too. He said she was "'too short'. 'But what about Judi Dench?' 'Ah, but she has that voice.'" And what Streep has, we agree on, is "exceptional intuition". She "observes and listens and finds the character through the work". And what about Thatcher – did Abi meet her? She hesitates – sworn to silence at this stage. My guess, for what it is worth, is that she did.

Shame could hardly be less like The Iron Lady. I am amazed by a preview I see after meeting Abi. It is a stunning film. Michael Fassbender stars as a sex addict whose sober demeanour is completely at odds with his chaotic sex life. In no way is it about the joy of sex; it is about nightmarish compulsion, a New York underworld. Yet the two years Abi spent working with Steve McQueen were "joyous". McQueen is "brilliant… one of my favourite people".

Sex addiction is barely recognised in the UK, one reason why the film was shot in New York (this sort of territory is not new for Abi – 2004's Sex Traffic, about prostitution, won a Bafta for best drama serial). But what she and McQueen were interested in was how the "currency of romance" has been devalued by the internet, where "sex has become a phenomenal industry". They met sex addicts and the professionals working with them. It made her conscious of a peculiarly 21st-century agony in which "the quest for love and sexual intimacy swims against the tide of a therapised world that deconstructs love and a cynical internet world that commodifies sex".

Phew – and we haven't even got to the play that is our ostensible reason for meeting. This isn't fair, because 27 sounds extraordinary too. It is set in a convent in the west of Scotland and is an exploration of faith versus science. "I used to believe in God as a child. God, for me, was linked with hope." The inspiration was Abi's meeting with "two elderly nuns on a train to Edinburgh, returning to their convent". She realised they were a "dying breed – there were only five of them left". She thought their dedication "amazing" and wondered how they felt "about their own belief system with no one following after them".

She was also inspired by a "wonderful" book: David Snowdon's Aging with Grace about the effects of ageing on the brain in relation to Alzheimer's, based on a "study in midwest America of several hundred nuns who donated their brains after death".

After this, we talk a bit about age (Abi is 43 although her "inner age" is fixed in her late 20s) and about families – her childhood and her parents' divorce (she talks about the "bravery" it takes for people to admit their marriage is over). We also talk about belonging. She feels she grew up with no fixed abode, had a theatrical, peripatetic childhood. "The thing I love about London is that it is filled with migrants, including myself." And we bond over our mutual love, as children, for a Marine Ices kiosk that sold wonderful Italian ice cream on the edge of Hampstead Heath. We talk coconut versus pistachio. We talk children and technology. She exclaims that for her kids "the page is interesting but antiquated". She describes herself as a "technophobe married to a technowhizz".

We talk about husbands. And she tells me how "fantastic" hers is. He keeps the family going. "The answer to 'I don't know how she does it'," she says, "is usually 'someone else does it'" (and that someone might be a husband). She hopes she doesn't sound smug. She notes that this division of labour (the woman as main breadwinner) is becoming more common. By the way, did I know women's salaries are starting to overtake men's? It could be a "new world order". She wonders if there might be a play in it. I start to egg her on – you can see how things begin with Abi: a new play round every corner.

By the way, she hastens to add, she is around for her children at weekends, breakfast and bedtime. And she is glad her children can see she has a "huge passion" for work. Yet she struggles to see herself as a success. She is somewhere between modest and incredulous. "I am a short, tenacious woman running around trying to fit in a haircut. I don't look back. I don't look forward. I am totally now. I think: God, is someone going to pay me this week? That is totally amazing."


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Rewind TV: Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair; Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey; Who Do You Think You Are: Tracey Emin – review

The Comic Strip's handsomely made political satire had mischief at its heart, while Joanna Lumley proved that a little charm goes a long way during her adventures in Athens

Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair (C4) | 4oD

Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey (ITV1) | STV Player

Who Do You Think You Are: Tracey Emin (BBC1) | iPlayer

We see so little of the Comic Strip ensemble these days that it's easy to forget how long they've been in the trenches of British spoof, tossing out a grenade every now and then, as if cursed to spend the rest of their days striving to match the perfection of their hilarious first episode, Five Go Mad in Dorset, which introduced high jinks to Channel 4's inaugural broadcast in 1982 and the term "lashings of ginger beer" to the cultural memory.

The Hunt for Tony Blair – a parodic splicing of noughties politics and 1950s British film noir (though what Herman's Hermits were doing on the soundtrack I don't know) – wasn't uproariously funny but it was handsomely made, with melodramatic shadows and enough money for fog, flat-footed policemen and steam trains. The plot, such as it was – a madcap chase across country, with the PM on the run for murder – threw up knockabout humour and vignettes from Blair's WMD fiasco, featuring a cast of the usual suspects: a languid Nigel Planer as Mandelson; Harry Enfield in East End shout mode as "Alastair"; the excellent Jennifer Saunders as Thatcher in her dotage (and full Barbara Cartland drag), watching footage of her Falklands triumphs from a chaise longue.

Director Peter Richardson, whose comic talents aren't seen enough on screen, played George Bush as a rasping B-movie Italian mobster ("I'm gonna get straight to the crotch of the matter here"). With the exception of impressionist Ronni Ancona (whose 10 seconds as Barbara Windsor seemed puzzlingly extraneous), no one went for a direct impersonation. Stephen Mangan didn't make a bad Blair, though he could have worked on the grin, and he couldn't quite make his mind up between feckless and reckless as he capered from one mishap to the next leaving a trail of bodies. Did Blair's moral insouciance ("Yet another unavoidable death, but, hey, shit happens") call for a look of idiocy or slipperiness?

The comedy had mischief at its heart in mooting that Blair had bumped off his predecessor, John Smith, and accidentally pushed Robin Cook off a Scottish mountain, while Robbie Coltrane's Inspector Hutton (aha!) tacitly invoked the spectre of Dr David Kelly (we never found out who Blair was charged with murdering). But it was hard to squeeze fresh satire from the overfamiliar stodge of the politics ("Tell Gordon to run the country and trust the bankers"). Mangan was at his funniest hiding among sheep in the back of a truck or kicking Ross Noble (playing an old socialist) off a speeding train, though there was amusement elsewhere. I had to laugh at variety theatre act Professor Predictor, shoehorned into the story to enable Rik Mayall in a bald wig and boffin glasses to answer questions from the audience. Would the Beatles still be at No 1 in 50 years' time?

"No. The Beatles will no longer exist. But Paul McCartney will marry a woman with one leg."

How the audience roared. "Pull the other one," someone shouted. Arf, arf.

My heart sank a little when Joanna Lumley started her Greek Odyssey with the words: "I'm in Athens, the capital of Greece." Well, OK, I suppose she could have meant the one in Ohio. But it wasn't long before she won me over, not least by climbing what looked like a homemade ladder to the top of the Acropolis to watch restorers scraping away, using toothbrushes and dentists' drills. You wouldn't have got me up there. "Don't look down," said her interpreter. Joanna, bless her, tried to take her mind off her vertigo by telling us about the traumatic day she got stuck on a ladder as a girl and had to be rescued. She was only up here now, she said, out of duty to the viewers. "Because I love you," she said, shooting a toothy smile at the camera.

After a day at the ruins she was ready for a night on the town and was soon heading for a club where it was tradition for the customers to pay 60 euros for a plate of flowers to throw at a singer on stage. Apparently, a wild evening here could cost five grand. Economic crisis? Pah!

"We live only for this day," reasoned one reveller. "Tomorrow, maybe everything boom!" Maybe? Still, it was good to see philosophy alive and kicking in the home of Aristotle and Plato.

There were gods to be worshipped, in particular 1960s bespectacled diva Nana Mouskouri, whom Joanna met at the remains of a huge amphitheatre. She was taken aback when Joanna asked her to sing, but she didn't need asking twice. The tourists were stilled as Nana trilled, as if required to observe a minute's silence. Joanna does make friends easily. She wooed the odd women of Evia who communicated by whistling at each other. They could speak, too, but if you wanted to banter with a goat on a roof – as one did – only whistling would do. Admittedly, the goats could only say "meh" but frankly it's eerie to see one converse in any tongue. Whistling was a dying language, though, with most of the children in the tiny community of 40 unwilling to learn it, perhaps seeing English or Chinese as a more attractive option in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Then on a remote peninsula, Joanna stumbled upon an old woman living in a deserted hill village. Everyone had left, she said, when they built a road in the 70s. What on earth did she live on? For her answer she took Joanna out to forage for wild asparagus, which she cooked with oil and salt, and lemons as "sweet as oranges". Tucking in, Joanna asked if she didn't get lonely out here in this ghost town in the middle of nowhere. "I'm not afraid of anything," she said. Homer would have put her on the itinerary.

Art's tough girl Tracey Emin has spent her career answering the question Who Do You Think You Are?, or at least creating an effigy of who she wants us to think she is. As a medium of revelation itself, WDYTYA? admits no such cunning. After all, you can't choose your own family. Tracey was a nervous wreck. Would she get the ancestors she deserved – gritty swashbucklers, salts of the earth, creative mavericks – or would they turn out to be loss adjusters from the home counties?

It didn't start well, with maternal great-grandfather Henry having been a product of reform school. Tracey's inventive mind fizzed with wishful thinking. Perhaps young Henry had been plucked out of poverty and earmarked for an education by a rich patron, impressed by his native gifts and promise? In fact, he had stolen two brass taps. But, hang on, he had a spotless record during his years there and acquired skills with saw and lathe that would stand him in good stead if he now emigrated to Canada, which was all the rage with former inmates. Tracey's eyes lit up, but no – he burgled a house instead and stole some cocoa, £8 and a violin. Tracey was sad for poor Henry (whose mother had died) but not without hope: "Maybe he wanted the violin to play," she suggested, adding that there had been guitar players in the family.

Perhaps, said the researcher gently. Tracey blamed the father, but then it transpired that he'd done a year's hard labour for thieving in the 1880s, when hard labour meant walking the treadwheel six hours a day – and that was the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis twice, said the narrator, who throughout this fascinating programme talked us through pictures of grimy urchins, old lags and scenes of corrective punishment.

But just as Tracey was losing heart, the next archive provided thrilling evidence of a "besom-maker" in the family and then, blimey, a line of tent-dwellers, pedlars, tinkers and Gypsies as long as your arm – kindred free spirits to the blood and bone! Tracey's face said it all. You couldn't make it up and yet it looked as if someone just had.


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October 11 2011

TV highlights 12/10/2011

All Roads Lead Home | Who Do You Think You Are? | The Fades | Mount Pleasant | Valentine Warner Eats The 1960s | Fresh Meat

All Roads Lead Home
8pm, BBC2

Another outing with Sue Perkins, Stephen Mangan and Alison Steadman attempting to find their way back to their various ancestral seats using only twigs and sheep dung. This week, Stephen drags them to his parents' home in Ireland; as usual, "natural navigation" expert Tristan Gooley is on hand to help. Much more useful would be a five-minute show that explained where one could find cheap last-minute rail fares. Ali Catterall

Who Do You Think You Are?
9pm, BBC1

Now that Tracey Emin has progressed from being the somewhat tedious enfant terrible of Brit Art to being a national treasure (albeit one who still swears on TV), it's probably fitting that she's taken up the bourgeois pursuit of tracing her family tree. She's all sweet naivety, a little fearful of what she might find and worried that she'll uncover a can of worms. She starts off close to home, tracking down relations who lived a mile from her own East End address, but soon she's in Suffolk, looking at prison records and discovering Gypsy ancestors. Martin Skegg

The Fades
9pm, BBC3

After an unfortunate tête-à-tête with an articulated lorry, Paul lies comatose in a hospital bed. While his family come to terms with his condition, the threat of corporeal fades – vengeful sprits in human form, for those who haven't been paying attention – is growing. Neil is busy searching for a weapon that could prove effective against the coming hordes of the not-quite-dead, while the mysterious character who emerged fully-formed from a cocooned state in last week's episode is now a very real threat. Gwilym Mumford

Mount Pleasant
9pm, Sky1

2011 may be regarded as the year in which "dramedy" bottomed out, with some truly risible attempts at marrying kitchen-sink melodrama and edgy humour. Mount Pleasant is probably a touch better than the BBC's lamentable Sugartown – surely this year's worst new show – but that hardly stands as a recommendation. This final episode revolves around Barry and Sue's 40th anniversary celebration. Lisa and Dan, not wanting to ruin the big day, are forced to keep up the pretence of being a couple. Essentially it's Crossroads, but with haphazard eruptions of bad language. GM

Valentine Warner Eats The 1960s
9pm, Yesterday

After the rationing of the immediate postwar years, the 1960s – with its supermarkets, fitted kitchens, labour saving devices and new ingredients – represented an exciting renaissance for British food. Valentine Warner is just the kind of TV chef to road-test its recipes to see if they've stood the test of time, or if they're better filed alongside fondue in the archive of irretrievably kitsch things we don't eat any more. All of this is a bit academic, however, until he can figure out how to get his food processor (the once-ubiquitous Kenwood Chef) to work. John Robinson

Fresh Meat
10pm, C4

The house is awash with hormones tonight as Oregon continues her mucky liaison with Shales and another couple discuss doing the hokey-cokey in a totally no-strings deal. Meanwhile, Kingsley begins to unexpectedly reap the benefits of swapping courses to drama and Vod has an epiphany with one of her English set texts. It's the halfway mark of series one (a second series seems a no-brainer) and anxiety is already mounting about what they'll do after series three. If Howard doesn't sign up for an MA in something, he'll have to leave and that will never do. Julia Raeside


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October 07 2011

TV highlights 07/10/2011

The Culture Show | Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello | Autumnwatch 2011 | Criminal Minds | A League Of Their Own | Chris Addison: My Funniest Year

The Culture Show
7pm, BBC2

Another week, another eclectic collection of reports from the arts show, which this week visits Glasgow. Top of the bill is host Andrew Graham-Dixon interviewing Grayson Perry, who's lately curated an installation of new works mixed up with objects drawn from the British Museum collection. Mark Kermode discusses We Need To Talk About Kevin with its director Lynne Ramsay, Simon Armitage celebrates National Poetry Day, and critic Michael Collins considers representations of working-class characters in the theatre. Plus, choreographer Akram Khan and the work of artist Gerhard Richter. Jonathan Wright

Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello
7.30pm, BBC4

The cello is the closest orchestral instrument to the human voice in its range of expression. It has achieved a pre-eminence in the classical repertoire, growing throughout the 20th century. Much of this is to do with the tireless brilliance of the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This profile, rich with footage, depicts a man whose energy and lust for life, as well its joys and sadnesses, informed his playing, and whose excessiveness broke the banks of mere virtuosity. David Stubbs

Autumnwatch 2011
8.30pm, BBC2

Once a week for eight weeks, Autumnwatch will be hoping something happens. Presenters Chris Packham, Martin Hughes-Games and Michaela Strachan will be travelling the country to try to catch wildlife in action. The live locations include the wetlands at Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire, where kingfishers, otters and 35,000 wildfowl are all potential stars, and the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, which will probably be worth a visit for the stunning seasonal colours alone. Martin Skegg

Chris Addison: My Funniest Year
11.10pm, Channel 4

Addison takes to the stage of the Hackney Empire to deliver a live clip show based around his favourite year. His comedy odyssey takes us back to 2001, when Bush Jr came to power and ITV's Popstars gave us Hear'Say. News footage shows the year to be not that funny at all, with the twin towers falling and mass culling of foot and mouth-infected livestock, but this just gives Addison a chance to deploy the stockpile of gags he's had a decade to gather. Phelim O'Neill

Criminal Minds
9pm, Sky Living

A show based around the FBI's behavioural analysis unit, which psychologically profiles killers. For this seventh season, Criminal Minds departs forensic reality for a slightly far-fetched fantasy. Last series, it seemed that team member Emily Prentiss was a goner – stabbed in the abdomen by her arms-dealer former lover. How straightforward that would have been. In fact, Prentiss is alive, and hiding out in Paris until she finds an opportune moment to rejoin the unit. Fun stuff – and look out for Mad Men's Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) guest-starring as a member of a senate committee. John Robinson

A League Of Their Own
10pm, Sky1

While its antecedent, They Think It's All Over, managed to show the surprisingly sharp side of sporting figures such as David Gower and Steve Davis, A League Of Their Own merely plays down to expectations. Team captains Andrew Flintoff and Jamie Redknapp, though likable enough, aren't terribly interesting, leaving the burden of entertainment on James Corden and his interchangeable support staff of panel-show comics, which, for this fourth series, includes Jack Whitehall, Jason Manford and Lee Mack. Gwilym Mumford


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September 03 2011

Banksy's 'war of the walls'

Artist complains of inaccuracies in programme about his feud with the underground graffiti hero King Robbo

Graffiti artist Banksy is demanding an investigation into a television documentary about a "battle of spray cans" between him and underground graffiti hero King Robbo. Banksy says it implies that he was responsible for putting his rival in a coma.

The film focused on the extreme rivalry between Banksy, known for his stencil-based images, and the London-based Robbo, famed for his old-school style. Banksy is outraged by what he calls inaccuracies and distortions in "a wilful and malicious attempt by the film-makers to damage [his] credibility and reputation". The artist is so disturbed by his portrayal in Channel 4's Graffiti Wars, shown last month, that he has resorted to more conventional protests – a formal letter of complaint to the broadcaster.

In the programme, Robbo claimed to have slapped Banksy at their first meeting for treating him like "a nobody". Later Banksy painted over the "retired" Robbo's last surviving graffiti along the Regent's canal in London dating from his 1985 heyday. "What started off as tit-for-tat one-upmanship … degenerated into a wider battle of vitriol," the narrator told viewers, as footage showing the defacing of each other's work was screened.

Just after Robbo was shown setting out into the night to target another Banksy work, the film ended, reporting: "Robbo would never get his chance to retaliate against Banksy. Just days after this filming took place, he was found unconscious in the street with life-threatening head injuries and he's been in a coma ever since."

In a statement Banksy said : "Graffiti Wars contained some inaccuracies that I've asked to be investigated and some facts that need to be corrected. They alleged I painted over a piece by Robbo and led viewers to believe I had something to do with him being in a coma. I wish Robbo a full and speedy recovery."

Some claim Robbo was injured in an accident. A source close to Banksy said: "He fell down stairs and hit his head, which was nothing to do with Banksy. There was no police case."

Banksy admits painting over Robbo's Regent's Canal graffiti by stencilling a painter-decorator wallpapering over it, but he is angered by the programme's allegation it was "an act deemed so hostile it shocked the graffiti world".

Banksy argues that Robbo's 25-year-old canal graffiti was in such a poor state his signature was not even legible, and says the programme makers were "biased" in using a photograph of Robbo's work in its pristine state immediately before showing Banksy's defacement of it, only later showing the deteriorated Robbo original. He also criticises the programme's filming of a reception for Robbo's first gallery exhibition, focusing on a couple who refused to be interviewed, wrongly identifying them as "two members of Team Banksy … a business associate and Banksy's PR agent", implying they were scouting the opposition. Banksy's official PR agent, Jo Brooks, said she had no idea who the couple were and denied that they were associated with Banksy.

Channel 4 has edited the couple from its website version and denies the other allegations: "Graffiti Wars in no way suggests that Banksy was responsible for the injuries sustained by King Robbo … The documentary clearly states that Banksy did not realise he was painting over Robbo's work and includes a picture of the deteriorated work."


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August 16 2011

TV highlights 17/08/2011

Village SOS | Natural World: Heligan – Secrets Of The Lost Garden | Who Do You Think You Are? | Frank Lloyd Wright | Timothy Spall: Back At Sea | Pendle Witch Child

Village SOS
8pm, BBC1

What could be better than taking ownership of your village pub and trying to make it the hub of the community that so many rural villages now lack? Such is the situation in Honeystreet, Wiltshire, as residents start running ailing hostelry The Barge Inn, hoping to relaunch it with a music festival. This second episode of the Sarah Beeny-fronted Village SOS, in which struggling communities attempt to regenerate with the help of the functionally entitled Big Lottery Fund, sees rows and tears before last orders. Ben Arnold

Natural World: Heligan – Secrets Of The Lost Garden
8pm, BBC2

The historically restored gardens of Heligan in Cornwall are home to myriad animal wildlife. Cameraman Charlie Hamilton James has been taking a look at what goes on behind the scenes throughout the year, revealing a family of badgers that tour the grounds foraging for food; barn owls that are kept busy feeding their chicks; a somewhat lost green heron (it should be in America) and a newborn fox cub exploring its habitat for the first time. There's also a look at the insects attracted by the plants, including bumblebees and a red admiral feeding on flowers. Martin Skegg

Who Do You Think You Are?
9pm, BBC1

Jo Rowling never got to tell her late mother about Harry Potter. Now the author goes in search of her French ancestors on her mother's side. And so begins her fascination with her great-grandfather Louis. He came to England from France at the start of the 20th century to work in the hotel trade and was soon supporting an English wife and child. She gets to see incredible documents, and on one branch of the family tree hangs the possibility of heritage from another country altogether. Julia Raeside

Frank Lloyd Wright
8pm, Sky Arts 1

As part of the Sky Arts architecture season, this two-part documentary delves into the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright who, by his own reckoning, was the greatest architect ever. Wright was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, loosening up the designs of homes and buildings with his "organic" architecture, which culminated in the magnificence of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But his life story is fascinating, if troubled: he scandalised society by running away with his mistress, who, upon their return, was butchered at Wright's self-designed home by an employee. MS

Timothy Spall: Back At Sea
8.30pm, BBC4

Second instalment of Timothy Spall's barge-borne circumnavigation of Britain. Tonight, Spall and his wife, Shane, leave Wales to creep along the coast of England's north-west. The footage shot at sea is quite engaging, as Spall struggles grumpily with the boat, the sea and the bureaucracy of ports. Unfortunately, a lot of the episode is based on land, where the narrative drifts into the cut-and-pasted potted histories of the locations that disfigure many travel programmes. Andrew Mueller

Pendle Witch Child
9pm, BBC4

The 1612 trial of Alizon Device in Lancashire is considered one of the most controversial in British legal history. Device was accused of being a witch, and was ultimately damned by the testimony of her nine-year-old sister, Jennet. Forensically analysing the socio-political context of the trial, poet and playwright Simon Armitage presents a portrait of a pre-modern Britain struggling to balance reason and superstition. Armitage's skilful reading of events makes this another welcome addition to an excellent summer season of documentaries from BBC4. Gwilym Mumford


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July 11 2011

TV review: Strictly Kosher; British Masters

There's no such thing as an identikit Jewish lifestyle, as this affectionate portrait showed

We often tend to lump everyone from the same ethnic background into the same box and call them a community. But as Strictly Kosher (ITV1), Chris Malone's affectionate portrait of Jews living in Manchester, made clear, there's no such thing as an identikit Jew and, beyond a shared cultural allegiance, there are actually several different Jewish communities living near-parallel lives that only occasionally appear to intersect.

There's Joel, the non-Kosher, non-religious owner of a women's clothes shop, for whom being Jewish is mainly about family and having a good time. His daughter's Bollywood batmizvah was a multicultural extravaganza. There's the observant Bernette, for whom the Sabbath is a day of absolute rest – the food has to be pre-cooked and the toilet paper has to be pre-torn. I'd have liked to have heard more from her as it wasn't entirely clear how she differentiated between those rituals worth observing and those not. She laughed at the idea of having sex through a hole in the sheet, yet found it utterly normal to be asked to go to a bath house before having sex – presumably the men are naturally clean – and saw nothing odd in arranged marriages. And then there are the ultra-orthodox Jews, of whom we saw very little. Presumably they did not want to be filmed.

As an English-Scottish-German-Australian-Jewish cross-breed, I was most attracted to Joel's non-dogmatic approach simply because he came across as the most open and tolerant, though it was not hard to also warm to concentration camp survivor Jack Aizenberg, who regarded his grandson's barmitzvah as not so much a cultural rite of passage as a V-sign to the Nazis. Bernette's husband accepted that many Jewish communities are, by nature, insular but argued that "the outside world has not been very kind to us." Curiously, now that the outside world is being a lot kinder to Jews, the fastest-growing community in Manchester is the ultra-orthodox. There are comparatively few documentaries you wish had been twice as long; this was one of them.

However inward-looking some Jewish communities may be, they don't come close to the BBC. I had wanted to review Rageh Omaar's The Life of Muhammad (BBC2) as it promised to be the first film to examine the life of the prophet. The film's producer had also wanted me to review it. The BBC said there had been one private screening last Tuesday and that I had missed it. The Guardian explained that I had not received an invitation; the BBC replied it would be unfair for them to arrange another for me. The gospel preached by the BBC is one of tough love. I realise that any film about Muhammad is potentially sensitive but, given that Omaar's intention was to demystify Islam, making it unavailable for review seems oddly counter-productive.

On a night of otherwise delicate and non-judgmental documentaries –  I can't be sure, but I'd put money on Omaar's not being a hatchet job – the iconoclasm all came from British Masters (BBC4). In the opening episode of his three-part series, art historian James Fox stirred things up by declaring that Picasso, Dali, Miró, Jackson Pollock et al were basically a bit rubbish and if you wanted to find the true Michelangelos of the 20th century then you need look no further than British artists Sickert, Wyndham Lewis, Nash and Spencer. It's not a view I've ever heard anyone put forward before and, while I'm still open to persuasion, I wasn't at all sure Fox had made his ca se by the end of the first episode.

He had been entertaining enough on  the individual painters and I had learned a great deal about their art – not difficult, as I knew next to nothing before – but I was none the wiser as to why so many of these painters appeared to have been overlooked outside Britain as good, but not great, artists so quickly. If these works are the timeless masterpieces that Fox claimed, surely someone, somewhere else in the world might have noticed? Still, I guess you have to expect a little hype in the art market. Or maybe, as some of the Manchester Jews would say, tradition is all just a matter of faith.


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June 19 2011

The time of my life

From an illicit Pixies gig to a Mesopotamian ziggurat, Guardian critics recall their biggest moment of inspiration in their respective fields

How to enter this year's competition

Pop: Alexis Petridis

Can any gig you see as a critic ever match the ones you saw as a teenager? Bizarrely, going to a gig when I was 17 was harder work than writing reviews has ever been. It involved not merely getting to London, but lying to my parents about where I was going, lying to my friend's parents about where my parents thought I was going, bunking off school, and then convincing somebody who looked 18 to go to the bar on my behalf.

But none of that mattered the night I saw the Pixies supported by My Bloody Valentine, in September 1988. It's not every night you see arguably the two most important guitar bands of the era on the same stage at the peak of their powers: the Pixies had just released their incredible second album, Surfer Rosa, while My Bloody Valentine had released the astonishing single You Made Me Realise.

It says something about the pre-internet age that, before they walked on, I had no idea what the Pixies looked like. I didn't expect the guy who sang all those dark songs about sex and violence to be chubby and balding. This was nothing compared to the shock of their sound: a ceaseless roar, with the next song starting as the last chord of the previous one was still dying away.

I remember that gig in snapshots. Two roadies having to hold on to My Bloody Valentine's drumkit as Colm O'Cíosóig hit it with such ferocity that it started moving across the stage. The Pixies performing Hey, a song so self-evidently filthy it seemed to have been beamed in from another world. But most of all, I remember feeling more excited than I'd ever been in my life. You could argue that my career has involved chasing that feeling ever since.

Visual art: Adrian Searle

The first serious art exhibition I ever saw was on a school trip to Goya and His Times at London's Royal Academy in 1963. I have seen many Goya shows since and think I know his art well, but he always surprises me, even when I look at paintings I have known for most of my life. How time flies.

I can't say this was the best show, or even the best Goya show, I have ever seen. I was, after all, only 10. But I remember being struck by Goya's weirdness: the distorted faces of the Spanish royal family, the isolated, looming figure of the Duchess of Alba (Goya's lover), the strange skies. Decades later, I saw that the clouds over Madrid often look like old, torn tapestries.

I must have about 20 books about Goya now, including the tiny paperback I bought at the time. It's a useless book – pictures too small, colours all wrong – but I kept it. Another book is Goya's Last Portrait, a play by the critic John Berger. A few years ago, Berger and I had a long talk about that dog Goya painted, the one that could be drowning in quicksand or might just be sticking his nose up over a hill to sniff the sky.

I remember wondering why Goya's paintings meant so much to me when I knew nothing about art and had never been anywhere, least of all to Madrid. Maybe that show only became important later, because of things that happened in my life. Many roads lead back to a kid looking at Goya and understanding nothing.

Classical music: Erica Jeal

It was 10 years ago, but I remember it better than things I heard last week. The Alban Berg Quartet and the cellist Heinrich Schiff were playing Schubert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: the String Quintet in C, the one with two cellos and the glorious first-movement melody that begins again and again, as if the composer couldn't bear to let it go.

A few minutes in, I knew this performance was different from any I'd heard before. Then I realised why. It was all coloured by death, every note. Something in the Alban Berg's playing made it obvious: Schubert, at 31, knew he was dying, and had composed a love letter to the world that was as sweet as it was sincere, full of anguish, acceptance, anger and serenity. I wondered if I was just a bit strung out: perhaps I was the only one experiencing it this way. But at the end, the usually reserved QEH audience was on its feet.

There are few things more depressing than a performance of a work you love that leaves you cold. But there is nothing more exciting than hearing a musician, or an orchestra, take something you thought you knew, and make you realise there is still more to fall in love with. I felt that way hearing Iván Fischer conduct the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony in January this year. I felt that way in 2003, when I heard veteran tenor Peter Schreier sing a searing Die Schöne Müllerin, somehow bringing an old man's wisdom to a young man's tale.

That was Schubert again. I'm starting to suspect that Schubert understood everything there was to know about the world, and that the answers to all life's big questions might be found in his music. I haven't uncovered them yet, but I'm still listening.

Architecture: Jonathan Glancey

For as long as I can remember, right back to when I was a teenager trying to piece together the story of architecture, the ziggurat at Eridu had been a presence in my life. I was haunted by the thought that somewhere in deepest Mesopotamia, today's southern Iraq, there lay, in ruins and largely hidden under sand, what might be the world's first monumental building: the mother of all architecture in the world's first metropolis.

I finally got to Eridu just months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Somehow I had persuaded the right people to let me go, and a platoon of Saddam's soldiers now escorted me along routes flanked by unexploded munitions dating from the first Gulf war. The heat was intense: 50 degrees. On the way, we stopped to climb the ziggurat of Ur, walking the site's excavated streets in the zig-zagging shadow of the great pyramid.

When we reached Eridu, the young soldiers were as excited as I was. We almost fell on the sands. It was thrilling to palm them away and find the stepped form of its crumpled ziggurat, built and rebuilt over thousands of years. There was a lake here once, and marshes. Eridu, founded in 5,400BC, was a sacred place for millennia until finally being abandoned in the 7th century AD. In 1949, excavations were undertaken, but it became a no-go zone after the first Gulf war.

At the same time as those excavations were taking place, Le Corbusier was designing his astonishing Unité d'Habitation, a block of flats in Marseilles. Although ultra-modern, this building also managed to be as elemental in form and as ancient in spirit. Great architecture connects with the past and pushes into the future.

Film: Peter Bradshaw

In my time as a critic, there have been many films that have made me want to punch the air with joy (and a few that made me want to punch a brick wall). But the film that I come back to, over and over, is Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, a beautiful, sad, sexy, mysterious movie that came out in 2000, when I'd been in this job for less than a year.

The premise is simple enough. The scene is 1960s Hong Kong, and Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play neighbours who discover their spouses are having an affair. The realisation gives them a kind of intimacy: they have a tragic, erotic quasi-affair of their own. It is electrifying. Leung's desperate sadness is something he cannot admit to anyone, and the final sequence, in which he "confesses" it secretly to himself, is heartbreaking.

So many mainstream films have everything signposted and underlined, leaving no doubt as to what you are supposed to think and feel. In The Mood For Love demands you notice nuances and subtlety; you have to exert yourself to see, really see, what Wong is doing.

Theatre: Michael Billington

The toughest challenge for a theatre critic, and the greatest excitement, comes from responding to something new. How to describe, interpret and evaluate a play that expands the frontiers of drama? My mind goes back to a night in April 1975, when I reviewed the first performance of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land at the Old Vic.

I knew something about Pinter, having seen The Homecoming, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. But I'd never reviewed a Pinter premiere, and this one had the smell of a big occasion: a production starring Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud.

I know I got some things wrong. At one point, Hirst (Richardson) engages in a prolonged reminiscence with Spooner (Gielgud). I took that as genuine rather than a parodic fantasy. But I did intuit that the play was a reflection of Pinter's own fears: that Spooner, the shabby minor poet, was the man he might have been; and Hirst, the literary celebrity cut off from life, was the figure he was terrified of becoming.

What I remember above all is the crackling comic vitality and sombre poetry of Pinter's language. In the mouths of Richardson, who was all spring-heeled ebullience, and Gielgud, who looked like some seedy, downmarket WH Auden, Pinter's phrases bounced off the walls like a ball in a squash court. In the play's overpowering final moments, one had a sense of Hirst starting to crawl unburdened towards death. Or, at least, to what Pinter poignantly calls a no man's land "which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains for ever, icy and silent". That struck me as theatrical poetry at its best: distilled, precise, yet infinitely mysterious.

Trying to pin down a Pinter play at first sight was exhilarating, like stepping into a ring with a champion boxer: one ran the risk of being knocked out.

Dance: Judith Mackrell

It was a Royal Ballet matinee in April 2001, and the hairs on the back of my neck started prickling: I realised I was witnessing the start of one of the great careers. Alina Cojocaru was just 19 and performing her first Giselle, a role that challenges even the most experienced ballerinas. In act one, she has to play a naive peasant girl, her heart broken by the aristocratic love rat Albrecht; in act two, she is a ghost, her dancing as transparent as air. Cojocaru did more than dance both roles with mesmerising beauty: she made you believe she had performed Giselle in some other, previous life.

I have seen more technically brilliant performances (although in act two, Cojocaru's dancing was so eerily exquisite, her feet barely seemed to touch the floor), but I have never seen a dancer live the role with such intensity. In the mad scene that leads to Giselle's death, Cojocaru's body looked so broken with pain you weren't sure she was acting.

Other great productions I have seen would include Les Noces, created by Bronislava Nijinska back in 1923 with a visual, emotional and musical power that blows your head off; Mark Morris's fierce Dido and Aeneas, with himself as the lead; Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring, a dance to death on a stage covered with black earth; and Frederick Ashton's poetically exact Scènes de Ballet.

The best moments I have as a critic are when I forget I'm working, when nothing I know has prepared me for what I'm experiencing. As I wrote on that extraordinary day back in 2001: "You felt that flukey thrill of being in exactly the right place at the right time."

TV: Sam Wollaston

The best thing I've ever watched on TV? That's impossible. If you're including drama, news, sport, documentary, comedy, everything, how can you possibly say which is better: news coverage of the twin towers coming down (extraordinary but hardly "good") or series four of The Wire (extraordinary, but less important in terms of changing the world)? Then there's Mad Men, The West Wing, The Thick of It, Ali G, The Office. And Big Brother's first series, when Nasty Nick was kicked out, because it changed television for ever. No, I don't dare pick that – too scared of the flak.

I'm going for Seven Up on ITV. Or 49 Up, as the last instalment, in 2005, was called. Back in 1964, 12 seven-year-olds from a wide range of backgrounds told film-maker Michael Apted what they wanted and expected out of life. Every seven years, Apted has been back to check on them. We've seen them grow up, become adults, fall in love, start careers, get married, have children, succeed, fail, despair, get more posh, get less posh, become Australian, have grandchildren.

It's been an extraordinary journey, a social history of this country: we've seen how attitudes to class, work and family have changed, along with clothes and hairstyles. But it's also, more importantly, the story of 12 individuals. This is real reality TV, touching, sad and funny – and about as important as television gets.

• This article was amended on 20 June 2011. The original stated that 49 Up was in 1995


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June 08 2011

Radio review: Unbuilding Detroit

An engrossing story of how art is flourishing in the midst of urban desolation

Unbuilding Detroit (Radio 4) began with evocative descriptions of empty private and public spaces. "The whole back of the house has fallen off," we heard in one house. The roof had gone too ("top of the stairs, where we walk into the sky"). In a city where a third of land or buildings are vacant, depopulation was a recurrent theme: "Here's an abandoned church that the congregation just walked away from."

But the story, in this well-made feature, was what has flourished in such urban desolation. Artists have reclaimed forlorn buildings and no-go areas. Tyree Guyton spoke about working creatively in a tough area. "I decided to transform my neighbourhood into something whimsical," he said. He wasn't kidding: houses are adorned with polka dots, random numbers, stuffed animals. "It's about getting people to see beyond what they think they see," he added.

Other artists relish where nature takes back the built spaces, with trees growing in houses and weeds disguising pavements. "Because it's in a city, it seems uncanny," said one. Another project placed a graffiti mural in an alleyway associated with gang violence, vandalism and drugs. Six months later, miraculously, it's still there and untouched. This was an engrossing programme, told only in the words and sounds from Detroit's streets, about the unpredictable life cycles of even hard-pressed cities.


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May 03 2011

Sarah Beeny: which TV interiors are streets ahead?

Property guru Sarah Beeny surveys TV's most distinctive living rooms, and reveals what the decor says about the characters and what we can learn from their interior design choices



April 22 2011

Easter special: art's top five bunnies

From religious paintings to cartoons, rabbits have been portrayed as both enigmatic and aggressive. But which portrayal is your favourite?

Bunny rabbits have inspired some great art and, as Easter is upon us, here is an artistic survey of the season's creature: my top five rabbits in art.

The most beautiful rabbit in art is surely the white bunny in Titian's Madonna of the Rabbit in the Louvre. It is also one of the most touching in its association with childhood and pets – which is not to say it has no theological significance as a symbol of the mystery of the Incarnation. In Renaissance art the young Christ is seen with all kinds of animals, from birds to cats, but Titian's rabbit is somehow one of the funniest, most natural childhood scenes in a religious painting.

Albrecht Durer's 1502 portrait of a rabbit – or is it a hare? – is a very different work. Where Titian paints a white rabbit as part of a scene of childhood in the countryside, as a prop in an essentially human setup, Durer concentrates with rapt attention on the rabbit or hare as a thing in itself, without people or landscape. This is at once enigmatic and troubling: what is in its brain? What does it see? It is a very serious bunny.

It's almost a relief to go from Durer's alien beast to John Tenniel's Victorian illustration of the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Or is it? Tenniel's study of what a rabbit might look like in human clothes, standing upright and looking at a pocket watch, is so meticulous that it takes on a hallucinatory truth that has haunted the modern imagination along with the rest of his Alice illustrations. It seems that as soon as you move away from Titian's family picnic with an Easter bunny, the rabbit in art becomes uncanny. The mildness of this creature offers a blank slate on which artists have imagined strange personae and possibilities.

The blankest of all bunnies is Jeff Koons's Rabbit, cast from an inflatable toy, its silvery skin a perfect mirror. This is the most uncanny rabbit of all. It is a metaphor for art itself, which it suggests is reflective and ethereal. Not something to touch but something that vanishes, like a dream. A form, but also just light. Koons is a tricky genius and his Rabbit a slippy customer.

Koons's Rabbit is almost as slippy as my favourite artistic rabbit: Bugs Bunny. Created at the end of the 1930s by a team of artists who included Tex Avery, the carrot-chomping, wisecracking Bugs is one of the great popular artworks of the 20th century. His design, like a thin-limbed 15th-century statue, makes him always aggressive, pert, and restless. Rabbits reached their apotheosis with Bugs. If mice are cute and cats are cruel in cartoons, Bugs Bunny is a free spirit, the rabbit as hero. Happy Easter.


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