Robert Hughes dies, aged 74

Robert Hughes, the lauded art critic, writer and television documentary maker, has died.

Robert Hughes, the lauded art critic, writer and television documentary maker, died this Monday, aged 74, after a long battle with illness.

In 1980, the success of his BBC documentary, the Shock of the New, made Hughes’ bullish countenance a familiar sight in British living rooms. This was a visage of belligerence from a man unafraid to criticse what he believed to be the warts of the art world that stared at him from beneath the absence of the king’s clothes.

At times delightfully vitriolic, but always articulate and erudite, his polemics included assaults on everything from postmodernism to the increasing plutocracy of the art world. These rare qualities won him enemies, but also many admirers, the New Statesman amongst them. The pages in our archive hold many praising reviews and, on one occasion, Andrew Billen goes as far as to call him “the newspaper world’s greatest art critic.”

Australian by birth, and regarded by many of his natives as a National Treasure, he moved to Europe in 1964, writing in London for a time, before finally settling in New York. He worked for a host of newspapers and broadcasters, along the way collecting many awards for his documentaries, books and articles.

Yet his life was not without tragedy, his father died when he was only 12 and his son killed himself at the age of 34. In 1999 Hughes was involved in a near fatal car crash, from which he never fully recovered. In 2000 Christopher Spenser, producer of Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore (a documentary created in response to Hughes’ prize winning historical text, The Fatal Shore), wrote for the New Statesman about the evening of the accident, when he was waiting for Hughes to return from a fishing trip. With a shake of his head at the pettiness the drama surrounding the following court case, he praises ‘Bob’s’ bravery and “rich, original voice”.

Whether one holds Hughes' memory with love or hatred, it is with little controversy that it can be said that Monday saw the passing of the man who has been called “the world's most famous art critic.”

Robert Hughes was a fan of Lucian Freud (Image: Getty)

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at www.emmageen.com

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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