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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage