All work and no play

John Simm shines as Vincent Van Gogh in an otherwise dull dramatisation

<strong>The Yellow House</

Once upon a time, Channel 4 was a high-minded kind of station and it put out a lot of original drama. No longer. In March, it announced that it was to renege on its most recent promise to broadcast 12 original dramas a year; that figure is now to fall to just eight. Channel 4 blames the change of plans on falling advertising revenues. But drama is a tiny proportion of its output, which makes it all the more weird that it should choose to commission The Yellow House (22 March, 9pm), a film about the nine deranged weeks that Paul Gauguin spent together with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles in 1888.

I know that madness has perennial appeal for television people. And few men were more energetically despairing than poor old Vincent. But even so. Painting - like writing - is not, in itself, full of drama. It is lonely, painstaking and, above all, sedentary. Not for nothing do people describe truly boring activities as being like watching paint dry.

I can see how promising the idea must have seemed at the time: a script based on the critic Martin Gayford's book of the same name to give it authority; the alluring fact that, during the weeks they spent driving each other up the wall, the two men painted 40 acknowledged masterpieces (though they weren't at the time, of course; Van Gogh couldn't even give his work away); and the certainty of a suitably crazed denouement, because it was in the final days of his agonised tango with Gauguin that Van Gogh cut off his ear.

While giving recognition to the two men's productivity, this pitch glosses a more prosaic truth: in Arles, Gauguin and Van Gogh basically laboured like demons. The writer Simon Bent attempted to liven up their unremitting work ethic with lots of shouting. The result was a bit like watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, only starring two men rather than a married couple, with a bottle of absinthe rather than one too many martini cocktails.

John Simm looked uncannily like Van Gogh, but it did take me a while to get used to his teeth, which were black - the result, it seemed, of his being the Robbie Williams of the art world. "I love coffee," he told Gauguin. "Yesterday, I had 23 cups."

You would have needed a heart of stone not to warm to Van Gogh as he was portrayed here. "I have a tidy mind," he said, showing Gauguin a studio that looked like burglars had just left - and he wasn't being arch. Gauguin, on the other hand, was entirely maddening. I might as well be honest and admit that John Lynch, who played him, is one of my least favourite actors: those chocolate-button eyes, always rheumy with sentiment, turn me right off. But his character wasn't written sympathetically, either. This Gauguin was a patronising, womanising boor whose only saving grace was his ability with a few shallots and a good copper pan.

The Yellow House failed, in the main, because it was dull. Save for Vincent getting frisky with his razor blade, nothing happened. But there were other problems, too. The story was told in flashback, so we kept being transported forward in time to Theo Van Gogh's parlour, where Gauguin, whom Theo had paid to keep an eye on his brother, was telling him the whole sorry story (Vincent killed himself 18 months after Gauguin scarpered). This put the brakes on the real drama. It was also hard to take this rather earnest film seriously: there were too many fake paintings lying around as props, too many artistic clichés (clogs, pipes, smocks, prostitutes).

It's not the impressionists' fault that they are now so cloyingly popular that lots of people - myself included - can barely tolerate them. But still, when Gauguin discovered one of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings and began whispering the word "remarkable" over and over, I felt, and strongly, as though I wanted to punch him. I will say this, though: in a clunky and ultimately pointless production, John Simm stood out a mile. He brought a lovely, unselfconscious determination to his role. He went at his blue trees and his yellow sky like his life depended on it - which is how it must have been for poor, mad Vincent, too.

Pick of the week

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The therapist Pamela Stephenson dissects celebrity psyches.

Timewatch: Remember the Galahad
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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 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom