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Review: Ways of Seeing - John Berger on the Small Screen (BFI)


Ways of Seeing: John Berger on the Small Screen
BFI Southbank, London SE1
Television dates like nothing else, as I was reminded the other day when I watched a DVD of Catweazle, the 1970s children’s drama about an 11th-century wizard who time travels to 1969. Oh, man. Slow? It made your average three-toed sloth, hanging quietly from a tree in some South American jungle, look like Lewis Hamilton. And yet once, Catweazle, in which the telephone was known as “the telling bone” and electricity as “elec-trickery!”, was my idea of gripping good fun.
Of course, television also induces nostalgia like no other art form. People talk of a golden age, when TV was “serious”, and to back up this argument inevitably rally the usual suspects, one of which is John Berger’s 1972 series, Ways of Seeing. Well, engaged in furious debate, you would, wouldn’t you? No one is going to contradict you for the simple reason that no one can check. Because of copyright issues, the series – in which Berger, drawing on arguments first outlined in Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, urges us to reconsider our responses to Caravaggio, Goya and the rest – has rarely been seen since. 
Thanks to BFI Southbank, however, I’m now equipped to cosh this example, if not the argument itself. The BFI is midway through a John Berger season, one that has included a sell-out screening of all four episodes of Ways of Seeing, followed by a Q&A with its director, Michael Dibb. How does it stand up? Badly. Shockingly badly, I think. Elec-trickery was there none. The films pull off the rare feat of being both tediously high-brow (Berger’s over-enunciated monologues make them feel like lectures) and hilariously patronising (ideas are repeated in the simplest of terms, the better that the dumbos at home might “get it”).
There is light relief, but this comes not by way of Manet or Brueghel, but courtesy of the 1970s. It’s mildly startling, now, to see Berger nonchalantly smoking on screen and to hear – see episode two – a bunch of lefty women in broderie anglaise talking uninterrupted for the best part of 12 minutes about nudes and narcissism. Even when what these women say doesn’t make an ounce of sense – quite often, as it happens – Berger doesn’t interrupt. In the same situation Paxman would have shouted something rude about bikini lines. 
There are those who insist that 21st-century documentary makers such as Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares, The Century of the Self) owe it all to Berger. Fair enough. But then, someone had to be the first to put ideas on screen as opposed to mere facts. I use the word “mere” deliberately in this context, because while Berger’s theory about painting – that its powerful allure now has more to do with market value than anything else – holds true today, no one could argue that Ways of Seeing is informative in a more general sense. In passing, Berger refers to Caravaggio as “a homosexual”. Will he tell us more? No, he won’t dirty his hands with that kind of thing. Exasperating. I longed for Andrew Graham-Dixon to bound on and give us the juice. 
This isn’t to say that the Berger season is a waste of time. The older I get, the more I treasure the BFI, eccentric repository of the arcane and the forgotten, of all things dusty and flickering. For Berger’s most devoted groupies, seeing his television work will make not a jot of difference: their love will accommodate its hoary badness. But a few will rethink, realising that they have conflated Ways of Seeing, the documentary, with Berger’s book of the same name (a finer thing altogether). More crucially, it will remind any moaning minnies who always look to television’s past how lucky we are. 
In Ways of Seeing, Berger asks the audience to imagine its response to Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (which depicts Spanish resistance fighters before a Napoleonic firing squad) if they’d come on it having switched over from “one of the other two channels”. There then follows a flash of what they might have been watching on ITV: girls in matching tartan dancing in preposterous formation. Eew! Praise God, then, not only for BBC4 but for 
Simon Cowell, too.
The Berger season continues with a screening of “Another Way of Telling” on 11 April

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue