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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump