Arena, on the painter Stanley Spencer’s daughters, is a rarity among modern BBC documentaries

Shirin and Unity Spencer are shown as tiny, bent-over women with a deeper understanding of a flawed man.

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In extreme old age, the painter Stanley Spencer’s daughters, Shirin and Unity, appeared miraculously before us in a film about their lives (4 February, 10pm) made by Francis Hanly, a director I’ve long admired for his artful collaborations with Jonathan Meades. At first I watched it as a critic, thinking how rarely the BBC now commissions work like this: its dogged refusal to work itself up into some pointless and entirely unwarranted state of moral excitement linked it invisibly to a time when documentaries were blissfully free of jabbering presenters, and when silence was permitted to take the place of music and travel and fuss. But at some point I stopped taking notes; it was simply too difficult to cry and to write at the same time.

I wept for them, and for us all. I could see the agonies these tiny, bent-over women had suffered; I wished their lives could have been easier. But I also sensed that they understood things we as a society are increasingly unable, or unwilling, to reckon with. They knew exactly what their father had been; they could weigh to the ounce the suffering he had caused. Yet they were not about to reach for their gavels, to pull on the dreaded black cap. Here was love and still-unspooling understanding for a flawed man, and for his enduringly beautiful and mysterious work. Was it this that lent them, against all evidence to the contrary, the appearance of strength? I suppose it must have been, for whenever they fell silent it was clear that they were in fact as delicate and as weightless as a couple of potato crisps.

Do you know about Stanley and his women? He married the painter Hilda Carline in 1925; Shirin was born in the same year, and Unity in 1930. But then, trouble. In Cookham, Berkshire, where Spencer had grown up, and to which he had returned with his family, he developed an obsession with a neighbour, Patricia Preece, a lesbian who lived with her lover, the artist Dorothy Hepworth (whose paintings, incidentally, Preece always passed off as her own). Carline fled to Hampstead, where she was eventually prevailed upon by Stanley to agree to a divorce, and in 1937 he married Preece.

The marriage was never consummated – Preece took Hepworth on their honeymoon – and for Spencer and Carline it brought nothing but unhappiness. “You deserve to be cursed, and there is no doubt that you will be,” Carline wrote in a letter to him that Shirin read aloud in the film. “It is not possible that such infinite cruelty could fail to surround your own life…” Somehow, Preece convinced Spencer to sign over his house to her; impoverished, he was reduced to a bedsit in Swiss Cottage, north London. Carline fell into depression. Worst of all, the sisters were separated. There being “no room” at Carline’s mother’s house in Hampstead, six-year-old Shirin was sent to live with a relative, Mrs Harter, aka Minnehaha, in Epsom. The sisters would not live together again until 2016, when Unity moved to the Vale of Glamorgan, where both women were cared for by her son John (Unity died last October, shortly after Hanly’s camera ceased rolling).

It would be wrong to describe this as a story of forgiveness. Neither sister felt their father needed to be forgiven – his folly was so much a part of him – and besides, they continued to loathe Preece. (“I think she’s the only person in my life I’ve hated,” said Shirin, whose hands fluttered like tiny birds.) Its real subject was childhood damage, and the ways in which such hurt is both a permanent scar, and utterly (if not easily) surmountable. Unity’s voice was still edged with rage when she spoke of Shirin’s jealousy of her; Shirin still sounded fearful as she denied ever having felt any such thing. Somehow, though, they had been able to overcome the calcified layers of misunderstanding, perhaps by accepting that some things, contrary to what the therapists say, are better left unsaid.

It is amazing what may be put right, even after decades. It is never too late: for the separated, a year, or a minute, is better than nothing. That Hanly was there to capture the sisters’ last year together fills me with admiration: for both him and for Arena’s long-serving editor, Anthony Wall. 

Arena: Stanley and his Daughters
BBC Four

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 appears in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry