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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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July 22 2012

Angharad Rees obituary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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June 22 2012

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

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



June 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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November 19 2011

A grand design for British housing

The Channel 4 presenter turned enlightened property developer just wants to make people happy, he says

A former editor of mine was fond of saying, as he watched his eminent colleagues accept toxic invitations to advise on projects such as the Millennium Dome, that "journalists can't do things". We might spend our lives telling others how to save the euro, or select an England team, or design a skyscraper, but when it comes to organising people to achieve a shared aim, we tend to lack patience or the ability to work towards a deadline months rather than days away. Writers tend to be individualists, looking for new discoveries, not methodical team players.

The same could be true, with knobs on, for TV presenters. So it is striking that Kevin McCloud, presenter of Grand Designs, should now be trying his hand as an enlightened property developer. For years, he has cast his eye over the hopes, follies and struggles of people trying to build beautiful homes for themselves. Now he is daring to show how it should, or could, be done. "I would get on a train to go from one location to another," he says, "and pass another 5,000 houses in Ilfracombe or Norwich or Aberdeen and they would all look the same. I thought, 'Is this the best we can do?' "

Five years ago, he set up a company called Hab (Happiness Architecture Beauty) in order to "build houses that make people happy". The recession has slowed its progress, but its first creation, a 42-home development in Swindon called the Triangle, is now complete. Next month, Channel 4 is screening Kevin's Grand Design, a two-part documentary about the project, which was achieved in partnership with the housing association, GreenSquare Group. When it is suggested that the attention these programmes will attract will be a double-edged sword, he says: "It will be a one-edged sword with the blade laid across my throat."

He is addressing the great British housing problem. For decades, it has been plain that new houses are unimaginative, overpriced, undersized and resistant to the kind of technical improvement that is standard in industries such as car making. Changes in planning law, to improve design or make housing more accessible, are forever tried and forever failing. The rather daunting task he has set himself is to deflect the glacial flow of change, to make "a very significant difference from conventional development".

With his trademark energetic enthusiasm, he reels off technical details about attenuation tanks and swales. He wants to create a truly sustainable development. So the Triangle's open spaces are designed to soak up rainwater, so that the risk of flooding is lowered, the pressure on Swindon's drainage is reduced and the planting remains lush in hot weather. It has what Hab's design director, Isabel Allen, calls a "muddy, soggy landscape" which has the added benefit that it is fun for children to play in it.

The external walls of the houses are made out of hempcrete, a material that is not only highly insulating but, being made out of a plant – hemp – takes more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts in. The houses also have chimney-like objects on their roofs, which are actually ventilators, that help the houses to cool naturally.

"Anyone can build an eco-home," he says, "but it doesn't solve anything. There is nothing to stop them turning up the thermostat. What's more interesting is the way people live and behave." So the Triangle has allotments and polytunnels where people can grow their own food, and a car club and a scooter club that make their use of transport less wasteful. He sees such things as more important than the design features of individual houses.

Most of all, McCloud wants to create a community. The houses of the Triangle are arranged in traditional terraces, enclosing a kind of village green. Here, children can play on slopes and interestingly arranged logs and splash in water. Conventional swings and slides are avoided, however, on the grounds that these would mark the place as only for children and alienate the adults and teenagers who, it is hoped, will also enjoy the green.

Part of the point of the allotments and polytunnels is to bring people together and such things as barbecues and Halloween parties are encouraged. Irrigation is achieved with old-fashioned water pumps – more fun than standpipes – around which residents might gather. Each house is fitted with a "shimmy" – a touch-screen computer that McCloud calls a cross between "an iPad and a parish magazine". This enables residents to exchange information, help and advice and tells them about upcoming events.

Of the 42 homes, 21 are what is called "social rented", which is for people on the local authority's list of people in need of new homes. Eleven are "intermediate rented", which is at 80% of the market rent. Ten are "rent to buy", which means people rent them at below-market rates, with a view to saving for a deposit and ultimately buying their homes. There is therefore a mixture of people: teachers, retirees, single mothers formerly in council hostels, families who were in accommodation for the homeless.

The Triangle is so designed that no distinction is made between the house types. This, says McCloud, is "unlike schemes, including one that won the Stirling prize" – he means the Accordia development in Cambridge – "where the houses for sale are lovely and the social stuff is behind a wall".

It is striking, with all this ingenuity in the design, how very plain-looking the houses are. Any Grand Designs fan expecting another of the exotic creations featured in the programme will be disappointed. They are pitched-roofed, in straight rows, partly inspired by the railway workers' cottages that Brunel built in Swindon. Their elevations are in shades of cream and grey that echo the existing terraces and semi-detacheds of this part of town.

Glenn Howells, the architect of the Triangle, says that "the conversation we had was, 'Do we have the nerve to do something very, very normal?' With Kevin, everyone was expecting it to be more eye-catching, more televisual. People go there and say, 'Blimey, it looks normal.' That's the point." The idea of the terrace, he says, "started a long time ago and it will go on for another 500 or 600 years. It is such a good form". The only problem is that "there is a perception in the housing market that it won't sell, so developers have to make things convoluted, even though those to-die-for streets of Islington, where Boris Johnson lives, are all repetitive".

The aim, says Howells, is to "prove you can do excellent ordinary housing that sells and that people want to live in". It is about little things achieved within the standard budget for housing association developments – apart from a little additional support for some of the more adventurous environmental features. Bedroom doors are placed away from corners, so it is possible to place wardrobes behind them, and windows are larger than in most new housing. Ceilings are higher than standard on the ground floor (which means, to stay within budget, they are lower upstairs). The porches include space for bike racks, so that they don't have to be lugged through houses from the back garden, which makes it more likely they will be used.

On the outside, architectural expression is sought in such things as oversize rainwater pipes, which, together with change of hue from one house to the next, and vertically proportioned windows, help to define individual houses. In front of each house are gabion walls, gabion being the form of construction used in road embankments, where loose stones are placed in wire cages. Here, they screen parking spaces, so that cars do not dominate the appearance of the space.

McCloud says that "the design of spoons and the design of cities is one process" and it is the totality of the Triangle's inventions that matters. He is particularly keen on the importance of landscape design. Usually, says the Triangle's landscape architect, Luke Engleback, his role is to "decorate masterplans by others". Here, Engleback was involved from the outset in shaping the concept and form of the development.

McCloud keeps saying that "it's about the residents – it's their happiness that will determine the success of scheme". It will take years to find out if it really works but, meanwhile, I am introduced to 64-year-old Maggie Lowton, who was forced out of her home of 38 years by negative equity. "Since I started my affair with Kevin," she says, she has bought into his dream. "We love the house and feel privileged and proud. It's lighter, airier and easier to clean. It feels too nice and too new." The architectural aesthetics are of secondary importance. "People say, 'What are those stones for?'" she says of the gabions.

She says you can see a community forming, even if there are some points of friction – "you do hear snippets, like someone parking in someone else's space". As a Christian, she is wrestling with the problem of other people's faiths, including paganism. "Perhaps we can have a multi-faith Christmas tree," she says, "but I don't know how to do that… maybe we can have a pagan log." She wants "it to work for everyone. I want Kevin's dream to come true. What a waste if it didn't".

For McCloud, the dream seems to originate in a love of the organic. "I grew up in the countryside – Bedfordshire. I was interested in birds and bees and flowers and mushrooms." He says there is "a spiritual dimension" to living with nature that he wants to give to the residents of Hab's developments. The village where he lived was also the kind of place where "kids played in the street on their bikes, and if a car came round the corner, it had to slow down".

Realising this dream requires a great deal of technical grind, of dealing with planners, highways authorities, water suppliers. It requires responding patiently to officials such as the one who, Engleback says, objected to fruit trees on the grounds that "someone might slip on a berry". McCloud's celebrity means that "doors are opened a little more quickly", but also that "it is very important for local authorities not to be seen to be granting us the smallest favour. We can't cheat or push or cut corners".

The Triangle has required an exceptional amount of effort by Hab, GreenSquare, their architects, engineers and other consultants, all to achieve a simple array of row houses which – albeit without such high environmental performance – would once knocked have been knocked up almost without thinking by builders. Larger developments are now on the way in Oxford and Stroud, but McCloud is not expecting these to be much easier. The hope is that others will follow the example.

He acknowledges that the Triangle is not as advanced as some of the continental schemes in Tubingen, Stockholm and elsewhere which were his inspirations. They "emerged from a culture of planning and construction that is far more evolved, and far more sophisticated, than in Britain," he says. "But," he adds, "I feel we have hit on the grail. We have made a very significant difference from conventional development… we're 90% there, and to do it in Swindon in a difficult economic climate – I'm happy."

He thinks he is doing better than the Prince of Wales's Poundbury. "One positive thing about Poundbury was the way perceived ownership of the public realm meant the residents adopted it," he says. But "one of the failings is the way the external appearance is at the expense of internal architecture". In order to achieve the look of old cottages, "you get low ceilings and tiny windows".

The Triangle is in a tradition of model villages beloved of aristocrats, princes, of Brad Pitt in New Orleans and the Bordeaux sugar-cube manufacturer who commissioned workers' housing from Le Corbusier. Such places can be over-scripted, too much about fulfilling their makers' picture-book fantasies about contented communities. There is a whiff of this with Hab's gooey talk about "making people happy", although they are conscious of the need not to over-control. "If they decide they don't want to grow food and just want to park cars, we'd be a bit upset," says Isabel Allen, but in the end it will be up to the residents.

Maggie Lowton sounds a note of caution by citing other communities in Swindon that started well but went downhill. No amount of forethought and attention to detail can guarantee the success of the Triangle. But at the very least it is an imaginative and well-designed project, which achieves about as much as can be done with its budget. It focuses on what matters most and gives itself the best chance of success. Which is far more rare than it should be in British house building and a much better application of celebrity philanthropy than most.


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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

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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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 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



February 05 2011

Twelve hours mainlining culture with Kenneth Clark

The BBC is repeating its mammoth 1969 documentary series Civilisation. But will today's reality TV-addled audiences be up to the job of watching it? Our correspondent takes in the lot in one sitting

The BBC HD channel as we know it is largely a showcase for wildlife shows and Michael Portillo's face. Things will take a swing upmarket this week however thanks to its sparkling new hi-def conversion of Civilisation, Kenneth Clark's landmark 1969 arts history documentary series. But how well will Civilisation play to today's flabby generation of microscopic attention spans? According to my editor, the surest way to find out is to make me consume all 13 50-minute episodes in a single sitting and see if I die of boredom in the process. Let's start the clock …

00:05 Right from the outset it's clear that Civilisation isn't interested in easy answers. After an opening burst of terrifying church organ, Kenneth Clark strolls up to the camera and says, "What is civilisation? I don't know." This is going to be a long day.

00:20 It may have just started but Clark has already discussed the little pockets of humanity that held out following the decline of the Roman empire, preserving civilisation against the forces of barbarianism. Clark is a stylish chap, too. Always dressed sharply in a suit and tie, he comes off as a kind of dapper Lane Pryce figure. From this, I predict that he'll get off with a bunny girl during a future episode.

01:25 During the second episode, we've covered Christianity's 10th-century adoption of the crucifix as a logo – and the influence of the Crusades on western culture – and now we've arrived at the dawn of the gothic era. It's fascinating. I'm so engrossed by Clark's description of flying buttresses – a supporting architectural structure that allowed early cathedrals to become taller and more grandiose – that I almost forget to snigger at the word "buttress". Almost.

02:30 I'm already starting to falter. I completely tune out through an entire section on Giotto, the man described as the forefather of the Renaissance movement. The DVD notes suggest he was the first man who could draw people properly or something. But I guess now I'll never know.

03:10 Compared to modern documentaries, Civilisation is incredibly ponderous. Just now, Clark finished a section on the importance of Castiglione's The Book Of The Courtier – a 1528 guide to etiquette that was as popular as the Bible in its time – by simply letting the episode continue in silence for 25 seconds. Imagine if Fearne Cotton did that. No, really, imagine it. It'd be brilliant.

04:45 This was inevitable. I'm only up to episode five – The Hero As Artist – and I've already had an involuntary nap. If I were a bus driver, the result of this lapse in concentration would have been catastrophe and certain death. Instead I just miss a short description of Noah's representation in the Sistine Chapel.

05:50 After a short, sanity-prolonging break, it's time for Protest And Communication, the reformation episode. "On balance, I suppose that the printing press has done more good than harm," Clark says. Somewhere, his ghost is reading this article and frantically revising this opinion.

07:00 I've fallen asleep again. And this time I'm blaming Kenneth Clark. He won't shut up. He just won't shut up. He's been droning on for seven hours now. I'm starting to hate him. I'm starting to hate a man who's been dead for 28 years. I'm a monster.

07:15 On the plus side, I'm still learning. Without Civilisation, for example, I would have never known the kinetic wonder of Bernini's David. Another upside: if I had been forced to watch 12 hours of Justin Lee Collins, there's no question I would be in a coma by now.

07:45 Perhaps I've been too hard on Kenneth Clark. It doesn't matter that he won't stop talking. I've fallen madly in love with him. His suits. His posture. His barely concealed contempt for Marxism. If it wasn't for his teeth – which look like someone's filled his mouth with dinner plates and then let a hand grenade off – I'd want to crawl inside my television and tongue-kiss him. We're meant to be together. I see that now.

09:00 On the other hand, It's just occurred to me that Kenneth Clark is the only human being I've seen all day. Stockholm syndrome must be kicking in.

10:00 Now for the Romantic period – the age of Turner and Wordsworth, where men started believing in the divinity of nature and Jean-Jacques Rousseau was sufficiently moved to note "I feel therefore I am". Meanwhile I'm missing EastEnders, where Phil Mitchell is probably clouting some nonce over the head with a lead pipe.

10:45 Somehow, Civilisation has got me hooked. Over the last three hours, I've learned about the role of The Royal Society in shaping art, and the difference between baroque and rococo architecture – baroque drew upon elements of the Renaissance, while rococo is basically what Donald Trump's bathroom looks like. It's honestly brilliant television.

11:15 Actually, scrap that. I fell asleep again. This time I missed a bit about how good Rodin was at doing bums.

11:30 Luckily I'm awake for the final episode, which so far consists of Kenneth Clark sneering at New York from a boat, trying to hide his fear of the moon landing, and accurately predicting the entire plot of The Terminator. Amazing. I love you, Kenneth Clark.

12:30 It's over. The whole series polished off in a day. I'm certainly a better person for it: I know that modern romantic values are informed by a 1,000-year-old fetish with the Virgin Mary, that Michelangelo's David is quite a lot bigger than I thought, and that nobody knows why anybody likes opera. Most of all, though, I know that Kenneth Clark was much, much cooler than me. In fact, I'm pretty sure that, thanks to Civilisation, I know everything. EVERYTHING. Except anything that's happened since 1969. I'm not a machine.


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January 19 2011

Behind the Street: An exhibition of Coronation Street portraits

A new exhibition capturing the actors behind the Coronation Street characters opens in Manchester later this month. We take a look at some of the pictures …



November 02 2010

Grayson on his Bike – review

Radio 4

The last thing Grayson on his Bike (Radio 4) ought to have been was boring. Artist Grayson Perry took his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, to Germany. Dressed as a young girl ("puffy sleeves, big petticoats, white frilly socks"), Perry toured the country, contemplating his formative years. In those, Alan Measles was a key figure: "He was the benign dictator of my fantasy world, and in some ways, the carrier of my manhood." He fought off the Germans in many a battle, we heard.

When he spoke about the bear's significance, and the impact of a stepfather moving into his household ("he fitted the role of the Nazis in my sub-conscious quite well"), this was engrossing stuff. But the rest of it was either a puzzle – really, why the trip to Germany, and why the particular locations? – or indulgent silliness. The bear was annoyingly voiced ("as a young teddy, I was faced with a grave crisis in Grayson's life") and we also heard from Perry's wife, sounding nonplussed. "I can't take it particularly seriously," she said in a long-suffering voice.

It was all nicely produced, and probably seemed a great idea on paper. On radio, though, it grated, and was dull despite all the quirkiness. Worse still, the programme had that deadly feeling of being really quite smitten with itself.


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October 19 2010

Tonight's TV highlights: Hostage In The Jungle | Wonderland | Grand Designs | Young Voters' Question Time | Mad Men | The Office: An American Workplace

Hostage In The Jungle | Wonderland | Grand Designs | Young Voters' Question Time | Mad Men | The Office: An American Workplace

Hostage In The Jungle
7pm, BBC2

Terrific documentary recalling the bizarre tale of Ingrid Betancourt. In 2002, Betancourt was running for the presidency of Colombia when she was kidnapped by the narco militia that trades as FARC. She was eventually held for a little over six years before a dashing rescue by Colombian commandos in 2008. This film allows Betancourt to tell her story, which is variously buttressed and disputed by some of her fellow hostages, including her now estranged campaign manager Clara Rojas, who had a child with one of her captors. An astonishing study of extremity. AM

Wonderland
9pm, BBC2

Country Life magazine's "girls in pearls" are the focus of tonight's film. Five former high society brides, photographed for the posh tome at the time of their engagements, tell the stories of what happened afterwards. Arabella, Camilla and a Sackville-West sit in their capacious drawing rooms, talking of thwarted expectation and hellish upkeep on the family pile. But with the subtlety and skill you'd expect from Wonderland, this is more than just a flick through a dog-eared glossy rag. They always seem to find the interviewees you want to listen to.

JNR

Grand Designs
9pm, Channel 4

Never mind the downturn – Grand Designs is recession-proof, a property programme that's about more than the bottom line. This is a show that deals in passion and backstory as much as bricks and mortar and so far this season there have been some admirable, even some tearjerking moments – unfamiliar territory for Kevin McCloud and his permanently-raised eyebrow. Tonight's episode features Kathryn Tyler, who has plans for a Scandinavian-style eco house in Falmouth. JR

Young Voters' Question Time
8pm, BBC3

Richard Bacon hosts a live debate on the day that Chancellor George Osborne unveils the government's Spending Review. Voters under the age of 25 will have the opportunity to quiz a panel of politicians and "famous faces", and air their views on what they think of the £83 billion worth of cuts. Billed by the government as a financial necessity and by the Labour opposition as more dangerous than Margaret Thatcher's gutting of public services nearly 30 years ago, the young 'uns aren't going to be short of points to debate. MS

Mad Men
10pm, BBC4

Serial downloaders of Mad Men have been breathlessly banging on for weeks about how fantastic episode seven of this series is. The standards are obviously already sky high but this 45 minutes of TV is as good as anything you'll see this decade. Set against the backdrop of the Clay-Liston heavyweight rematch in May 1965, there's little here but Don and Peggy as they live out a dark night of the soul working on a Samsonite ad. Here Don is just about hanging on to himself as he avoids making a phonecall that he knows will break his heart. WD

The Office: An American Workplace
10pm, Comedy Central

What with 30 Rock, Community and the (not yet aired in the UK) Parks And Recreation, US channel NBC is on something of a comedy roll. The Office is something of a godfather to them all and still going strong, despite the announcement that star Steve Carell is to leave at the end of the seventh series currently airing in the US. The start of series five here begins with Michael Scott and the team taking part in a corporate weight-loss challenge aided by a pre-diet glutton fest including, mmm, a cheese fountain. Brilliant. WD


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June 12 2010

The Carabinieri Art Squad; Off the Page; The eSportsmen | Radio review

Radio 4 painted a dramatic picture of Italian detectives who specialise in catching art thieves

They say that if you dig a hole in the ground in Rome, you are almost certain to find a historical artefact of some kind. In The Carabinieri Art Squad (R4), Alex Butterworth accompanied detectives to a field outside Rome where a criminal gang had dug a 30ft hole in a field in the dead of night and looted the treasures from a vast Etruscan tomb.

The "tombaroli" (tomb raiders) are part of a larger organised crime network linked to drugs, arms and even human trafficking. They sell their stolen treasures to art dealers who, in turn, sell them to museums. "As they journey up the crime pyramid, they attain further layers of respectability," explained Butterworth, taking us into a fascinating world where detectives, through the painstaking nature of their work, have become art experts. Last year, there was a 75% fall in thefts of art treasures from galleries, churches and tombs. We heard the story of a Madonna and Child altarpiece recovered in three separate parts from three different private collections, and of the thief who stole a chalice from one church in order to donate it to another, insisting his name was carved on it. His priest turned him in to the police. Listening to some of the detectives of the art squad, you sensed that they, too, were following a calling that was almost religious.

If Butterworth's informed approach reminded you how consistently strong Radio 4's documentary strand is, this week's Off the Page, as if often the case with the channel's discussion-style programmes, made me want to run screaming from the room. Billed as a blend of "new writing and provocative debate", it featured novelist Stella Duffy, marriage counsellor Harry Benson and the ubiquitous Bidisha, writer, broadcaster and born disagree-er.

The subject was marriage and each guest had written a 400-word piece entitled "Shoulda Put a Ring on It". Benson put himself, and his rescued marriage, at the centre of a talk that was one-part therapy speak, one-part self-flagellating confessional. Duffy cleverly celebrated same-sex ceremonies while Bidisha, was – surprise, surprise – dead against it "because of patriarchy", though she did admit to blubbing along with everyone else when some friends, one of whom was "a real super, right-on feminist", took the vow. Suffice to say, the Beyoncé song of the same name contained more wit and social insight in a few short, sharp lines than their combined efforts.

In The eSportsmen (R4), Kate Russell gamely entered the all-male world of competitive computer gaming. What once was a bedroom hobby for computer geeks is fast becoming a lucrative sport in which teams compete against each other for increasingly large sums of money. Except computer gaming, as its name suggests, is a game, not a sport. A bit like darts.

Seven hours a day sitting in front of a computer screen does not, the programme concluded, make for a balanced lifestyle. Neither, though, does an intense youthful commitment to, say, tennis. The best quote came from one earnest young man who declared without irony: "I see gaming as an equal fighting field, but girls just don't seem interested." I wonder why.


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