Monday, 27 June 2011

Heard the one about the Painter and the Pistol?

Hidden Paintings of the West Midlands

Once upon a time we knew what to expect from the BBC. While  entertainment  naturally dominates  the schedule there's always been a place for programmes in which  someone who gives the impression they know what they're talking about leads the viewer on an educational journey. Sadly these programmes are becoming a rarity.

Not content with foisting the lazy opinions of comedian David Mitchell  on the nation on Thursday's Question Time the beeb, last night, gave us an arts programme fronted by another comedian Nick Hancock. Now Mr Hancock seems like a nice chap and we all know he's a passionate Stokie but do these qualities  make him the most suitable person to send in search of the Hidden Paintings of the West Midlands?

From the outset things didn't look good. 'This is a programme about art' our host began before reassuring the viewers - who he must've feared were already deserting in droves - that he's not Brian Sewell. No kidding. What next, Alan Carr on the saucy secrets of the San Marco frescos?  Harry Hill explaining the overlooked slapstick in the paintings of Caravaggio? It's a thought but  let's see where Nick Hancock begins his journey.

Surprise, surprise it's at the Britannia Stadium. Now this may be a Premier League arena with the loudest fans in the land  but, as far as I'm aware, it's never been associated with the arts. The excuse for this barely disguised love-in between Old Nick and Saint Peter, it transpired, was to take a look at what the Stoke City chairman described as a historical record of our industrial heritage. This turned out to be a fairly ordinary landscape and, unfortunately, it set the tone for what was to follow.

After a quick dash down the canal to Middleport it was off to the Black Country to examine some of the earliest images of the industrial workplace. These were dealt with in short shrift before two ex- steelworkers were given the opportunity to reminisce about the conditions they worked in. That they belonged to a completely different era to that being discussed didn't seem to matter and, anyway, steel was quickly dismissed in favour of the motor industry. Sadly Mr Hancock wasn't able to come up with many hidden paintings to illustrate his point (ie that cars were once manufactured in the Midlands) so it was back to the Potteries.

Here things began to get interesting - particularly for  viewers fond of those true crime programmes that occupy the schedules of certain TV networks - and, once again, why wasn't I surprised? The paintings Mr Hancock had come to discuss were by the Edwardian  artist John Curry who had a torrid affair with their subject, Dolly Henry, before shooting her dead and ending his own life in 1914.

Curry, we learn, worked for Minton before securing a place at the Royal College of Art leaving behind a wife in Newcastle-under-Lyme.  He was 'utterly enslaved' by Dolly, we're told, even declaring his love for her with his dying  breath. One suspects  this tragic tale of domestic violence, murder and suicide was always going to be central to the programme but it's a shame it rarely rose above the level of a bad joke the punchline of which was 'He should've stayed at Mintons.'

Not Included. Dudley. JMW Turner. 1832. Lever Gallery

The show closed with a man perched precariously atop a converted camper van painting the post-industrial landscape of the Black Country. Once again we were told it was a historical record - which is more than can be said for the programme itself. Where's Arthur Berry? I wondered. Where's Reginald Haggar? Where indeed is Turner's famous painting of Dudley Castle? OK it's not hidden and it isn't in the West Midlands but surely a painting of a town in the throes of industrial change, once described by  Ruskin as a 'clear expression of what England was to become,' deserved some kind of attention. Sadly not because Hancock, let's not forget, isn't Brian Sewell.

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