A rough search for forgiveness

Television - Andrew Billen on Brian Sewell's sexually charged series about God and art

On your behalf, for last week's issue, I watched Michael Wood search for Shakespeare on BBC2. It was epic television scholarship, the sort of thing, as they used to say of the monarchy, the BBC overdoes so well. But there is no reason art programmes have to be epics. A cat may look at a king and an Old Master may fit on a postcard. You don't have to be BBC2 to make art documentaries. It merely helps.

For a year or so now in the early evenings, Five has been cheekily showing cheap arts documentaries opposite the other channels' cheap soaps and make-over shows. It will send Tim Marlow into Tate Modern and, erm, that will be the programme. With The Naked Pilgrim: the road to Santiago (Tuesdays, 7.30pm), however, Five has come up with an epic-sounding idea. It has sent the venerable art critic Brian Sewell, famous for his denunciations of Britart, on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

This being Five, the camera-work reveals anything but an epic budget. Unlike Wood, who was shown in his prologue marching through four distinct seasons, Sewell explains how he couldn't afford to let his pilgrimage take up more than four weeks of last June. We see him board a cross-Channel ferry in a 20-year-old Mercedes - his "Rosinante" - and listen to him grumbling about the hotels he has been booked into. Yet, in its own way, Sewell's series is as rich as Wood's.

"I think the idea was to look at beautiful cathedrals, drink too much wine and say something insightful about belief and art," says Sewell. But he also wants to investigate the medieval mind, and the history lessons he delivers along the way are not negligible. Cathedrals, Sewell explains, needed customers as much as any other business. To attract visitors, you had to have a relic you could hype. If you didn't, you'd better hope that a miracle had happened close by. Failing that, you'd just have to promote the celebrities who had visited. Thus the poor cathedral at Orleans not only records that Louis XI and his queen passed through, but also preserved their heads for show in a crypt.

These insights are simple enough. Sewell, however, is not a simple man. His bizarre persona raises many more personal questions. Is that upper-class voice genuine or a put-on? His campness: is it arty or homosexual? Sewell obligingly teases us with references to his sex life. Pilgrimages are searches for forgiveness, he tells us twice. In his case, the sin that needs the most attention is lust. Driving to Paris, he reveals how he lost his virginity there at the age of 20 to a 60-year-old grandmother. (His pubic hair, he recalls, became caught in her butterfly-wing glasses.) "I thought when I grew older," he informs us, "that lust would disappear, that what went on between my loins would not worry me. Not true. You just go on. Every six seconds." He counted to six and reached the number sex. "An old man's life," he sighed.

For a programme about God and art, this is a remarkably sexually charged series. He complains that Sacre-Coeur in Paris does not contain the sacred heart of Jesus, nor even his "foreskin". Visiting a farm shop on his way south, he insists on seeing the goats' sleeping accommodation on the pretext that pilgrims in previous ages would have happily lodged there. "Sleep with a goat - just imagine that," he whimpers. Flirting with two female tourists, he praises one's blue eyes and writes off the other's as being, like his, "the colour of dark urine".

If still flirty and loin-tormented at 72, it quickly becomes apparent that Sewell's spirit is in an even more twitchy state. In the first programme, he admits that the cathedrals are making him "uncomfortable and troubled" and that he is in danger of becoming a "lapsed sceptic". The finale will surely have Brian on his knees begging for God's mercy while taking a cold shower. If it does, the series will have demonstrated that Catholic cathedrals can still work as gigantic, walk-in advertisements for belief.

But the London Evening Standard art critic's awe is never as interesting as his scorn. Spying the French shore, he declares French modern architecture the ugliest in civilised Europe. Sacre-Coeur is a "hideous, hideous, vile church": "I think they should knock it down. I think God should intervene." Even Notre-Dame, subjected to 19th-century restorations, is not ruined enough for his tastes. On the other hand, he likes unjustly neglected Orleans.

No doubt part of Five's hope was that Sewell's temper would let rip against inferior art. Given the amount of gush usually talked about our heritage on TV, this is not a necessarily ignoble wish. But more importantly, Sewell's independence of mind spurs him to ask fellow tourists what they really think about the buildings they are visiting. For all his snobbishness, Sewell believes that we each have the ability to criticise with perception, whether we see through eyes that are cobalt or the colour of pee. The rough democracy of a pilgrimage is a good metaphor for that, as, indeed, are Five's dilapidated production values.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

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