BBC documentaries on John Minton and Sylvia Plath reveal the people behind the works

Between BBC Two’s portrait of Sylvia Plath and Mark Gatiss’s film about the artist John Minton, there was no competition.

 

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Not to make this the BBC version of Alien vs Predator, but if you watched its documentary about Sylvia Plath (subtitled Inside the Bell Jar, after the 1963 novel upon which it is somewhat obsessively centred), and Mark Gatiss’s film about the artist John Minton, which one did you think won the fight? Agreed. There was no competition. It was Minton who rose before us, brought back to life in glorious Technicolor. Meanwhile, there on the floor lay poor old Plath, inert as a rolled carpet. Praised reverentially for an hour by a series of largely grim-faced American scholars – honestly, loves, you could just occasionally crack a smile – afterwards I could think of her only in black and white: the colours of a PhD thesis, or a dry academic paper.

Gatiss has loved Minton since as a teenager he saw his self-portrait, all cheekbones, teeth and melancholy. His film (9pm, 13 August) was threaded with tenderness and fellow-feeling, and resolutely determined not to fixate on the painter’s suicide in 1957 at the age of 39. It was also punctuated with star cameos – Minton’s students Peter Blake, Bridget Riley and David Tindle all appeared – and with genuine moments of surprise.

The artist Louise Behn recalled how, one day in 1957, she’d met Minton in the street. After she refused the rolls of cash he offered her – “I won’t need them any more,” he said – he finally gave her a painting. When she handed this canvas, wrapped in newspaper, to Gatiss it might as well have been wired to give him an electric shock. Here was his idol, naked on a bed, the unmistakable figure of Death looming over him. Shortly after this ghastly signpost came into her possession, Minton’s body was found in his Chelsea studio, a bottle of sleeping pills at his side.

Minton is perhaps best known now as the illustrator of Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food, a fact, however marvellous, that gives no sense of the depth and range of his talents (“there ain’t no pedestal big enough,” as one former student put it). Gatiss feels that at some point his popularity as an illustrator took its effect on his reputation as a serious artist: in Britain, one simply can’t be both. I was struck, though, by his courage, the way that it waxed and waned. It didn’t fail him when he came to write a letter to the Listener attacking the hateful views of Marie Stopes in the matter of gay men (homosexuality was then still illegal). However, when his students went a bundle for Rothko and Pollock, turning their back on his singular form of English Romanticism, it was for him the beginning of the end. His loneliness in the months before he died had to do with unrequited love; the straight men he wanted never wanted him back. But it was also connected to his art, the disorientating feeling of finding himself adrift from the flow of ideas. Lucian Freud’s famous 1952 portrait of Minton captures precisely this premature tiredness. While the whites of his eyes may well suggest that too much Château Hysteria (Minton’s name for champagne) had been taken, it’s the grey in his hair that tugs at my heart.

Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar (9pm, 11 August, directed by Teresa Griffiths) also promised revelation: people would talk, we were told, on camera for the first time, most notably her daughter, Frieda Hughes. But while it was poignant to see Plath’s school and university friends, old now where she is forever young, nothing any of them said I hadn’t heard before. Maggie Gyllenhaal read – and read – from The Bell Jar, but so sombrely you’d hardly know how funny and savage a book it is. Like the scholars, with their fluttering hands and concerned brows, her solemnity gave no sense that much of its power lies in the gap between tone and subject. To sum up: here was the usual hagiography. It was left, rather oddly, to Frieda Hughes to be bracing. The Bell Jar, in which a young woman tries to kill herself and is subsequently treated in a psychiatric hospital, was something her mother shed “like a skin” she said. What she meant, I think, was that when we cling to it as if to a memoir, we do her brilliant, soaring, ceaselessly inventive mother no favours at all. 

John Minton: The Lost Man of British Art (BBC Four)
Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar (BBC Two)

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 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad