Amateur hour: Una Stubbs and a contestant.
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A brush with boredom: The Big Painting Challenge wants to do for easels what Bake Off did for whisks

Plus Suffragettes Forever! – a good series let down by its tone and speed.

The Big Painting Challenge
BBC1

Suffragettes Forever!
BBC2
 

In the 1970s and early 1980s, there wasn’t much by way of daytime televisual entertainment for a kid who was skiving school. Pipkins was a puppet show featuring a horrible Brummie pig. Pebble Mill at One was an amateurish magazine programme that always seemed to end with Marti Webb bawling out her latest “hit”. Sons and Daughters was an Australian soap with scripts that had clearly been written 20 minutes before the cast arrived on set. Then there was Paint Along With Nancy, in which an American “artist” called Nancy Kominsky aimed to demystify the world of oils and acrylics for her (possibly colour-blind) viewers. Nancy treated her canvases with such hilarious straightforwardness that she might as well have been applying haemorrhoid cream to a sore bottom.

When it comes to boring, semi-educational television, Paint Along With Nancy was my benchmark – until the other Sunday, when I suddenly found myself longing for her voluminous smocks, her car-crash still lifes and her encouraging descriptions of the human head (“just like an egg”). For even she was more entertaining than the BBC’s latest talent show, The Big Painting Challenge (Sundays, 6pm), which aims to do for easels what The Great British Bake Off did for whisks.

On screen, ten mostly middle-aged men and women were trying to capture the “essence” of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. For some, this consisted of reproducing it in miniature, brick by brick. Others homed in on a single image (one had a rampant lion straddling an unfeasibly large canon, which seemed inappropriate given that the show is co-presented by Una Stubbs, who is 77 and a former girlfriend of Cliff Richard to boot). A tiny minority had gone bonkers for colour. “Do you like David Hockney?” asked Richard Bacon, Stubbs’s colleague, approaching a canvas that was mostly yellow. When the amateur artist replied that she did, back he came, quick as a shot: “I can tell.” Eat your heart out, Kenneth Clark.

If The Big Painting Challenge is boring for the viewer, think how tedious it must be for Stubbs and Bacon. What, I wonder, do they get up to while the artists are busy with their palette knives? It’s pretty clear that neither spends the hours leafing through E H Gombrich. When Stubbs visited Constable’s Hay Wain at the National Gallery to “learn a little more” about landscape painting, her only comment was: “It’s a bit chocolate boxy.” Bacon has boasted to the Radio Times that he’s a keen collector of “aggressively” contemporary art – he’s got a Hirst, you know – but he seems chary of encouraging any of the contestants to stand aside and let an assistant do all the work. Meanwhile, the show’s charisma-free artist judges, Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd OBE, wander around making comments about perspective. Both look somewhat sheepish, as well they might. This isn’t going to look good down at the Royal Academy.

But let’s move on. If Stubbs is being paid the same as Bacon to front this tedium, she owes this good fortune to women who fought for such rights as equal pay to be enshrined in law. Amanda Vickery’s documentary series Suffragettes Forever! (Wed­nesdays, 8pm) tells the stories of these crusaders, although she doesn’t begin with Emily Davison and the Pankhursts – her account goes right back to the Levellers.

I have nothing against Vickery and I’d rather that her series existed than not. But the way in which she and her producer whip through the centuries so quickly has a woefully flattening effect, reducing Mary Wollstonecraft and several other heroines to a footnote. Worse, Vickery’s ceaselessly emphatic delivery allows for no light and shade. When everything is very important and highly significant, somehow nothing is. But perhaps this is just me. I must admit that my tolerance for documentaries that are presented rather than authored shrinks by the hour. With the honourable exception of Jonathan Meades, give me a behind-the-camera merchant (Vanessa Engle, Michael Cockerell, Adam Curtis) any day of the week. I’d rather be shown than told, especially in the matter of how I should feel. 

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 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times