Classic TV

Nostalgia Corner: Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Making art history programming interesting, accessible and memorable is a tricky thing. Doing two of those isn’t necessarily hard, but all three is tricky. 

For example, I watched all of Simon Schama’s Power of Art, but while I found it very interesting and accessible, I can’t tell you much about what our Simon said except that Caravaggio was very realistic and good with lighting. For me, it failed in actually educating me about art.

Dramatisation, which was one of Simon’s tactics, can certainly help with making art history interesting and accessible, but there are few arts programmes that have gone as far as Omnibus did in using dramatisation to make it memorable, too. In 1979, the BBC arts programme included an hour-long drama about 17th-century Dutch painter Godfried Schalcken. What was even more novel about it and helped it to be memorable was that rather being a simple biopic, it was also a ghost story.

In common with Jonathan Miller’s original adaptation for Omnibus of Whistle and I’ll Come To You, Schalcken The Painter is not officially part of the BBC’s long-running series A Ghost Story for Christmas. Yet not only did the episode air in the series’ traditional slot of 23 December, vacated when the series was cancelled in 1978, it also fit in tonally, while still being an arts programme dedicated to exploring Schalcken’s life and art.

Based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story Strange Event in the Life of Schalken The Painter (sic) and narrated by Charles Gray as’Lefanu’, the episode follows Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde)’s career from his early days as a pupil of Gerard Dou (Maurice Denham), one of Rembrandt’s most famous pupils. 

There he falls in love with Dou’s niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), but before they can be betrothed, a pale man called Vanderhausen (John Justin) comes to the door, offering a huge sum of money in exchange for her hand in marriage. Rose begs Schalcken to take her away before the marriage goes ahead. Does he? Well, you’ll have to watch to find out.

Schalcken's ghost

Schalcken the Painter was directed by Leslie Megahey, the producer in charge of Omnibus, who had actually only accepted the job on condition that she could adapt Le Fanu’s short story for the programme. Inspired by Walerian Borowczyk’s Blanche, she shot the film in the style of a docudrama, using the absolute bare minimum of dialogue.

To meet the Omnibus remit, many scenes depict Schalcken recruiting models and posing them for his most powerful works, with Gray exploring the merits of each composition and how it might have derived from Schalcken’s life and mental state.

The most important of these, ironically, is a fake – an adaptation by the production team of ‘Young Girl With A Candle’ in the style of Schalcken that starts and finishes the episode and purports to be the inspiration for Gray’s narration.

Girl with a candle

(Fake) Schalcken picture

But Schalcken is not the only artist to feature. As well as Dou, Rembrandt (Charles Stewart) himself turns up to commission Schalcken. And the production team used the paintings of Vermeer, de Hooch and Dou to learn what interiors of 17th century Dutch domestic dwellings were like, as well to compose scenes.

Schalcken Interior

For the more frightening qualities of the story, they also took inspiration from both Schalcken’s and Rembrandt’s work and their mastery of darkness.

Darkness in Schalcken

Girl posing in 'Shalcken The Painter'

As a piece of art history, the fictional nature of the story obviously means Schalcken The Painter is flawed, particularly since its most enduring image isn’t actually by Schalcken. But it’s now probably more famous than Schalcken himself and certainly more people will have heard of him because of it than would otherwise have done. Certainly, I did.

Here’s the first few minutes, but if you like it, as always, buy it (iTunes if you prefer)!

Welsh TV

Do the people of Aberystwyth really want to stare at Y Gwyll (Hinterland) all day?

Okay, so there aren’t a lot of TV shows set in Aber and the show’s probably done a lot for tourism to the twon, but do people really want to stare at Richard Harrington looking a bit broody in Y Gwyll (Hinterland) for the next two years? I wouldn’t have thought so, but S4C disagrees – it wants to stick a great big mural on the side of an art shop in the town. Planning applications are in, so let’s so wait and see what happens next… 

US TV

Here’s the sets of Friends recreated in East London for #FriendsFest

Another TV-related art exhibition opening this week is FriendsFest, which is being organised by Comedy Central UK to celebrate – oh kill me now – the 21st anniversary of the first episode of Friends airing. It sold out within 13 minutes of tickets going on sale and it’s closing on Sunday, so there’s no point my telling you how to get there, etc, but I’ll just let you know what you’re missing out on.

They’ve recreated the sets. They even built a fully moving, life-like Gunther.

In the kitchen of Monica's apartment

Central Perk

Gunther in Central Perk

Gunther looking quizzical

[via]

UK TV

The TV Times photo exhibition is now open. Literally

Bear with me children and foreigners as we take a quick journey into the weird British past.

Back in the day, we only had three TV channels – four once Channel 4 and S4C arrived in the early 80s. You’d have thought that would make it easy to know what was going to be on television, but it wasn’t. Television was analogue and not digital so there were no EPGs. We had phones, but they weren’t mobile and they certainly didn’t have Internet connections. And while we did still read newspapers in those days, that only had that day’s listings. Next week? No chance.

So when we wanted to know what was on television some point in the near future, we had to buy a listings magazine. You can still find those in newsagents if you look hard. The unusual thing was there was only two: Radio Times and TV Times. Despite the titles, both did TV listings. However, the Radio Times did radio, BBC1 and BBC2, and TV Times did ITV and Channel 4. If you wanted to know what was on all four channels, you had to buy both magazines.

Odd, hey.

Still, with a captive market of tens of millions of viewers and not much television to actually list, both Radio Times and TV Times could not only include halfway decent, intelligent editorial, they also could get the important and famous to appear in their pages – and could pay top photographers to capture their likenesses.

All of this preamble is because TV Times is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and if you’re in London and happen to be around the Blue Fin building near Blackfriars, from today you’ll be privy to an unusual open air celebration – 60 of the best photographs to have appeared over the years in TV Times are on display around the building. Here’s a few I captured this morning, but you can get a complete listing and audio guide over on the What’s On TV website.

The exhibition is going to be running until 18th October, so you’ve still got plenty of time to catch it.

TV Times @ 60 - The Avengers

TV Times @ 60 - Morecambe and Wise

TV Times @ 60 - Quentin Crisp and Oliver Reed

TV reviews

Preview: Grayson Perry: Who Are You? 1×1 (UK: Channel 4)


In the UK: Wednesdays, 9pm, Channel 4. Starts tonight

Grayson Perry is an artist well known for playing with the theme of identity and is going to have an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, entitled ‘Who Are You?’, that ties into the question of what identity is. Channel 4’s Grayson Perry: Who Are You? is effectively both a ‘Making of’ and a hybrid long-form chat show in which Grayson Perry follows the subjects he’s chosen for this exhibition for days and weeks at a time, trying to get to know them and understand them, so that he can create a definitive portrait that captures who they are.

Perry has chosen a disparate group of people for his exhibition, some famous, some not. So in this first of three episodes, we have Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat MP who ended up going to prison in 2012, Rylan Clark from The X-Factor and Celebrity Big Brother, a young white Muslim woman and a black transgender man.

To the show’s credit, Perry does a much better job of finding out about his subjects than the average chat show does – although given he has months to do this, that’s not a huge surprise. But he does ask quite brave, challenging questions to get to the bottom of his subjects, and he’s also insightful – he compares his Muslim subject and her pared down attitude to life with the consumerism at the nearby Ashford shopping mall which he says looks like a ‘bedouin tent’. For his Rylan Clark portrait, he also makes the comparison between the phones that we all carry with us for selfies and the miniatures Elizabethans carried around of celebrities.

The subjects are also quite brave. The transgender man goes back to his old school to talk about gender identity and the kids at the school are very perceptive, talking about what is acceptable for boys and what’s acceptable for girls and what those boundaries are. Jazz, the transgender man, in turn points out that things that people do to try to find evidence of his ‘true femininity’, such as how he cuts bread: “How do you cut bread like a woman?” The Muslim woman’s family thoughtfully argue with her about not just Islam but all religion and its restrictions on freedom. She argues that religion helps to keep a marriage together and her relative asks in return: “Do you watch EastEnders?”

The show is also about Perry and about his concept of his own identity. This often feels more constructed than anyone else’s identity, with Perry claiming to be as a portrait painter “part-psychiatrist, part-detective”, and frequently talking about how chippy and working class he is and how he’s challenging the National Portrait Gallery by including people who aren’t old dead white males in power – even though the gallery invited him to put on the exhibition and has had similarly challenging exhibitions before. Chris Huhne is supposed to represent that tradition, and perhaps because he does (or did) have power, he’s the only one who really challenges Perry’s power as interviewer and points out that while Perry might be chippy and working class, he also has an OBE.

All in all, a good, thought-provoking, insightful documentary that’s very enjoyable.