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

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

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 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution